July 2, 863: Death of St Swithun, Bishop of Winchester

Swithun was the bishop of Winchester from 852 until his death on 2 July 863. Almost nothing is known of him: we have his profession of obedience to Ceolnoth, archbishop of Canterbury (833-70), and he attests charters of the kings of Wessex, though some may be later forgeries. A plausible charter from King Æthelwulf in 854 (S 307) grants Swithun and his successors an estate subject to their undertaking to entertain distinguished foreign visitors. A twelfth-century saint's life records that Swithun built a stone bridge for the citizens at the East Gate of Winchester, and built and repaired large numbers of churches.

The legend of St Swithun, which led to the cathedral at Winchester sometimes being called simply "St Swithun's", took off a hundred years or so after Swithun's death under Bishop Æthelwold of Winchester (963-84), who translated (moved the body of) St Swithun from his humble place outside the church to a prominent place within on 15 July 971. St Æthelwold was the most vehement of the leaders of the monastic reform movement, the propaganda for which contrasted the purity of the monks against the scandalous lives of the non-monastic clergy. For Æthelwold to hold up the non-monastic Swithun as a model strongly suggests that a cult of St Swithun had already become too prominent to ignore between 863 and 971. But it was doubtless by Æthelwold's influence that the early lives written at this time plead ignorance of Swithun's life to concentrate on miracles after his death. One writer does admit that there are materials at Winchester relating to Swithun's life, and these may have survived to become the source for the Swithun bridge-builder story recorded in the twelfth century.

For an excellent "fictionalization" of Æthelwold and the translation of Swithun, re-set in twentieth-century Toronto, see Charlie Iredale's machinations in Robertson Davies's The Cunning Man.