Holy Hierarch Swithin, Bishop of Winchester and Wonderworker

Commemorated: July 2/15 (repose) and July 15/28 (translation of relics)

St. Swithin's icon by Sergey Fyodorov at Winchester Cathedral, Hants (photo by Irina Lapa) St. Swithin's icon by Sergey Fyodorov at Winchester Cathedral, Hants (photo by Irina Lapa)     

St. Swithin (the original form: Swithun, meaning a strong bear-cup) is one of the greatest wonderworkers of England and most beloved and popular saints, who has always been venerated by pious English people on a par with St. Cuthbert of Lindisfarne. He is one of the meekest saints who ever trod the English soil. He was so humble that before his death he asked to be buried in a simple grave outside the Cathedral, under the feet of the passers-by and the rain from the eaves. Even now the exact location of his relics at Winchester Cathedral is unknown—though his holy body survived the Reformation, since it lies hidden under the floor. Few facts of the life of this holy bishop are known; no one bothered to write down his Life soon after his death, and it was only 100 years later that the whole country rediscovered this saint, when his numerous miracles began to occur. Since then St. Swithin has been known as a great wonderworker and healing saint; and there are many more accounts related to his posthumous miracles than to his life on earth. Let us recall his story.

Though there were accounts of St. Swithin’s life written by Monk Lantfred of Fleury (in prose) and Wulfstan the Cantor (in verse) in the late tenth century, along with the Life probably composed by Monk Goscelin of St. Bertin in the late eleventh century, these sources are not very reliable. Trustworthy are the old traditions, passed down from generation to generation, and The Miracles of St. Swithin, written by the monk, scholar and grammarian Aelfric of Eynsham (c. 955—c. 1020) in about 1000, soon after St. Swithin had been recognized as a saint.

The future saint was born to a noble family of the early English kingdom of Wessex in about 800. His birthplace was the city of Winchester, now the county town of Hampshire in southern England, which from 519 had been the capital of what became known as Wessex. Winchester was founded by the Romans who called it Venta Belgarum, and its Saxon name was Wentanceaster. Under King Alfred the Great, in the 870s, it effectively became the capital of all England and remained so till the late eleventh century, when it “surrendered” the title under the Normans to London.

Nothing is known of Swithin’s childhood. Later he served as a deacon and then as a chaplain at the royal court of Wessex under King Egbert (ruled 802–839), after which he was an adviser of King Ethelwulf (ruled 839--858) in State and Church matters. Ethelwulf, the father of St. Alfred the Great, was a good king who allied with the kingdom of Mercia and resisted the Danish invasion. Under St. Swithin’s influence Ethelwulf began to give one tenth of his lands to the Church. Some say that the saint was instrumental in introducing tithes in the country.

In 852, Swithin was consecrated Bishop of Winchester. His large diocese stretched from the Isle of Wight to the south bank of the River Thames and was at the heart of the English resistance to the pagan Danes. St. Swithin prayed much for the salvation of his beloved Church, nation and country from the ferocious heathens, having himself seen the sacking of Southampton in the 850s and Winchester in 860.

Frescoes depicting St. Swithin's miracles at Corhampton church, Hants (kindly provided by rector of Corhampton church) Frescoes depicting St. Swithin's miracles at Corhampton church, Hants (kindly provided by rector of Corhampton church)     

The saint was noted for his meekness, wisdom, generosity to the poor and kindness to all people. He often travelled around his diocese, building new churches and restoring old ones. He founded one of his churches in Southwark in what is now south London on the bank of the Thames—now the medieval Southwark Cathedral stands on the site. Many churches founded by him were later rebuilt and are still active today. The holy bishop never rode on horseback on his journeys but always travelled on foot. Solitude, prayer and a simple life were dear to his heart. He was a practical man—for example, he built the first bridge over the small River Itchen in Winchester with his own hands[1]. There is the story of the only miracle he performed during his lifetime, which took place on this very bridge. An old woman was crossing the bridge with a basket of eggs in her hand. Suddenly she stumbled and fell. Swithin made the sign of the cross over the eggs and they became whole again. This miracle is depicted in art.

St. Swithin’s signature appears in a number of charters of that time. Some claim that the saint was tutor to Alfred the Great when he was a young prince and even accompanied little Alfred on two of his visits to Rome. St. Swithin was a spiritual writer too.

The saint reposed on July 2, 862 (some contemporary historians suggest 863). Being a humble man, he willed to be buried outside the Cathedral door in a simple grave, “under the feet of passers-by and the rain from the eaves.” His grave was later covered with a tomb structure and situated just outside the west door of the Old Minster[2].

A remarkable event happened three years before the translation of his relics to the minster, during the episcopate of St. Ethelwold, at the height of the revival of the English Church and piety after the century of the Danish raids. As wrote Aelfric of Eynsham, then, during the reign of the righteous King Edgar, the Lord deigned to reveal St. Swithin to the English nation (over 100 years after his repose) to show what great glory he had in heaven. St. Swithin appeared to a pious blacksmith as a bishop in a vision and asked him: “Do you know Priest Edsige, whom Bishop Ethelwold banished from the Old Minster for misconduct?” The smith replied: “O lord bishop, I knew him years ago, but I have no idea where he resides now after leaving Winchester.” St. Swithin proceeded: “He lives in Winchcombe. Go to him and say that Bishop Swithin tells him to go to Bishop Ethelwold and ask him to dig out my body and translate it into the church, for it is the will of God.” “But how will Edsige believe me, o lord bishop?” the man argued. Swithin replied: “Tell him to come to my grave and try to lift an iron ring from it. If it comes easy, it will indicate that I sent you to him. Also tell him to repent of his sins, reform, live according to the commandments and prepare for eternity. Tell the people that when they open my grave they will discover a most precious treasure, in comparison with which gold is nothing.” But the smith didn’t hurry to go to Edsige. Then the bishop appeared to him for the second and third time, rebuking him for his failure to comply with his request. Then the man went to St. Swithin’s grave himself and cried to God: “Lord, help me lift this iron ring, if he who appeared to me thrice is truly St. Swithin.” And in an instant he easily lifted the heavy ring from the stone coffin lid. On the same day he met a servant of Edsige in the market and told him everything. The servant conveyed the saint’s order to Edsige, but the latter didn’t return to Winchester until two years later.

Meanwhile, there lived a poor man who had a huge hump on his back. He suffered very much. But one night in a dream he was told that if he went to St. Swithin’s grave he would be healed. Waking up, he walked to Winchester on his crutches. Having found the grave, he prayed hard for his healing—and instantly his hump completely disappeared, so nobody could even determine the spot where it had been. At that time the monks of Winchester didn’t know about St. Swithin’s holiness and thought that the humpback had been healed by some other saint[3], but he witnessed that it was Swithin. There lived another man who was seized by such a grave illness that all he could do was open his eyes and speak with difficulty. Someone advised his friends to carry him to the Old Minster to St. Swithin’s grave, which was done. All of them prayed all night long at the saint’s grave, and the sick man fell asleep at dawn. While he was sleeping, his friends felt as if the grave onto which he was laid was trembling. When he woke up, he felt absolutely healthy. Soon eight more sick people were healed by God through St. Swithin’s intercessions by his grave.

After all those miracles, King Edgar ordered that St. Swithin’s relics to be uncovered and solemnly moved into the church. St. Ethelwold together with numerous abbots and monks dug out his relics and to the singing of hymns translated them into the Old Minster (then dedicated to St. Peter). It was July 15, 971. According to tradition, it was raining very hard on that day. Perhaps this event gave rise to the saying with which St. Swithin is associated for every Englishman: “St. Swithin’s day if it do rain, for forty days it will remain.” Other popular sayings are: “When it rains on St. Swithin's day, the Saint is christening his apples” and “Till St. Swithin’s day be past, apples be not fit to taste.” The Old Minster was enlarged after this event, and a new translation took place in 974: then two shrines with two sets of St. Swithin’s relics were installed, one by the High Altar and the other one in the sacristy. The saint’s head relics were taken by the future Hieromartyr Alphege to Canterbury in about 1006. And after the Norman Conquest, in 1093, the main shrine with the saint’s remains was translated to the present cathedral in Winchester, which was built between 1079 and 1093. But let us return to his miracles.

The 971 translation ceremony was accompanied by many cures. As Aelfric wrote, within three days after it four people received healing, and over the following fifteen months from three to eighteen sick people were restored daily. On one occasion no fewer than 200 afflicted were healed in ten days, and no one could count the number of those cured over twelve months. So many cripples and infirm people would crowd in the cemetery next to the church that it was nearly impossible to get into it.

At that time there lived three women on the Isle of Wight: one of them was blind from birth, and the others lost their sight during their lives. After much effort they found a person who was able to accompany them to Winchester—it was a mute boy. All four of them reached St. Swithin’s shrine, spent a whole night in prayer, and were healed. The boy confessed to the sacristan that he had never spoken before and asked for a thanksgiving service to be performed.

A female servant was condemned to beating for a minor misdeed. While lying and waiting for a severe punishment the next morning, she wept and prayed to St. Swithin, imploring him to protect her. As soon as the matins began in the morning, the shackles with which her feet were bound suddenly broke by themselves. The woman rushed to St. Swithin’s relics at the church. Her master came after her and declared that he would pardon her because Swithin interceded for her.

One wealthy lord was suddenly paralyzed. He lay bedridden for many years. One day he decided to visit Winchester and ask St. Swithin to heal him. But when he was speaking to his servants, wishing to arrange for himself to be transported there on a cart, he was healed by the saint! The man reached Winchester unassisted and warmly thanked St. Swithin for a long time.

Once twenty-five people, afflicted by various infirmities, came to Winchester. Some were blind, others lame, and others deaf and dumb. All of them recovered in one day and returned home absolutely healthy.

One rich man who had numerous estates went blind. He moved to Rome and stayed there for four years in the hope of being cured at the tombs of the apostles, but in vain. Meanwhile, the news reached him that over his absence St. Swithin in Winchester had performed countless miracles. At once he came back to England, venerated St. Swithin’s relics, and returned home with fully restored eyesight. Another man was blind for seven years. He had an assistant who accompanied him everywhere. One day when he was away from home, his assistant suddenly ran away. The blind man cried to God: “O lord the Almighty, have mercy on me, a poor blind man, and restore my sight! And you, o gentle Bishop Swithin, who has performed so many miracles, pray to the Savior for my sake, I am sure He will heed your prayers.” And he recovered his sight immediately by his faith, returning home alone with great joy in his heart.

St. Ethelwold ordered all the brethren of Winchester to gather at their monastery church after every reported miracle and sing thanksgiving hymns, praising St. Swithin and glorifying God for granting them such a wondrous saint. At first the monks obeyed his command eagerly, but since the miracles were so frequent they had to get up three or four times a night to hold services of thanksgiving, they got easily tired, became discontent, and ceased singing any hymns. They hoped that St. Ethelwold was too busy to control them. But St. Swithin appeared to one pious person in a vision, surrounded by a supernatural light, and said: “Go to Winchester and tell the monks that the Lord is displeased with their murmuring and laziness, for they see marvelous miracles every day and don’t give praise to God for them. If they don’t sing the hymns as before, the miracles will stop immediately. But if they celebrate thanksgiving services after every single healing, there will be so many miracles no one will ever be able to count them.” The man woke up and was saddened by his inability to behold that radiance anymore. He informed St. Ethelwold about his vision and the latter strictly ordered the brethren to carry out this obedience, otherwise the penance of seven-days’ fast would await them. Thenceforth they upheld this custom diligently for many years.

It happened that one man had his eyes gouged out and his ears cut off, which caused a hemorrhage, and he lost his hearing. The poor man, after seven months of agony, got to St. Swithin’s monastery. He invoked St. Swithin and entreated him to restore his hearing, for he no longer hoped to recover his sight. And, contrary to the laws of nature, the man who had neither eyes nor ears could see and hear perfectly well!

One day, when a group of people were praying by the body of a deceased person, a man came up to them and began to tell indecent jokes. He then proceeded to pose as St. Swithin, saying, “You must know that I am the Swithin who performs miracles! You must light candles, go up to me and bow down in front of me, and I will fulfil your desires.” But suddenly he lost consciousness and collapsed. The people carried him home and laid him on bed. After some while his family carried him to St. Swithin’s relics, where the man came to his senses, sincerely repented of his sins, and was healed.

Once 120 individuals who suffered from different diseases came to St. Swithin’s shrine. Within three weeks all of them were healed and returned home very happy.

St. Swithin's symbolic shrine at Winchester Cathedral, Hants (photo by Irina Lapa) St. Swithin's symbolic shrine at Winchester Cathedral, Hants (photo by Irina Lapa)     

A servant of one wealthy man fell from a horse, breaking an arm and a leg. Everybody thought that the poor servant was going to die. His master was a kind-hearted man; taking pity on his servant, he invoked God and St. Swithin, imploring them to restore his beloved servant and prolong his life, promising to be faithful to God to the end of his life. And the servant rose absolutely safe and sound.

One rich old man from the Isle of Wight fell badly ill and remained bedridden for nine years. One night he saw two men in shining garments in a dream. They said to him: “Follow us, and then you will receive healing.” The celestial dwellers took him and carried him by air. They brought him to a green field with beautiful flowers growing in it, with a splendid church of gold and jewels standing nearby. There stood a saint in shining, resplendent robes in front of the altar, who addressed the man: “From now on you, brother, mustn’t hurt or harm anyone, curse anyone, treat others badly, have any malicious intents or do wicked deeds. Take care to help the poor and needy with all your strength, and you will be healthy. Imitate our Lord, Who taught His followers to pray for their enemies.” Astonished, the man wondered: “Who are you, lord, for the desires of people’s hearts are revealed to you?” The saint replied: “I am he who has newly come. When you arrive in Winchester, you will know about me.” The man woke up and told his dream to his wife, who recognized St. Swithin in that saint who had instructed him in the Holy Scriptures. His family delivered him to the nearest church on the Isle of Wight. He prayed there, and was healed by God’s power through St. Swithin’s intercession. Soon the man who recovered from paralysis travelled to Winchester on his own and recounted his story to St. Ethelwold.

One master got angry with his servant for his negligence and put him into irons. After much torment, the poor servant managed to escape right with his shackles, and, leaning on a stick and limping, he got to Winchester. After he had prayed by St. Swithin’s shrine, the bolt that connected the irons fell off and the servant became free in a miraculous way. Aelfric stressed that it was impossible to write or tell in words about all the miracles that Holy Swithin wrought by the power of Christ and that “St. Swithin shines through his miracles.” The Old Minster was hung around with crutches, stools of cripples (on both walls from one end to the other) who had been healed there, and even so, they couldn’t hang the half of them up. A similar sight could be observed at Winchester Cathedral not only in the time of Aelfric, but throughout the middle ages.

The nationwide veneration of St. Swithin continued after the Norman Conquest. He was revered as a heavenly intercessor with extraordinary gifts, who was quick to hear all the sufferings and all who needed help. Both common folk and the royalties loved Swithin. He even interceded for Queen Emma in 1043 when she was unjustly accused of adultery. Emma, King Canute’s widow, demanded the trial by ordeal. Before the trial she spent a night in prayer at St. Swithin’s shrine. Next morning in the presence of a huge crowd of people, she was led barefoot over the burning iron. And, lo and behold, Emma’s feet were in no way harmed, and she did not feel any pain![4]

Wolvesey Castle ruins in Winchester, Hants (photo by Irina Lapa) Wolvesey Castle ruins in Winchester, Hants (photo by Irina Lapa)     

Stavanger Cathedral of St. Swithin in Norway Stavanger Cathedral of St. Swithin in Norway     

As a result of this veneration no fewer than fifty-eight ancient churches all over England were dedicated to him (and there are some modern churches which bear his name, too), and his veneration even went beyond the English border, reaching Scandinavia, where Stavanger Cathedral in Norway (which from the early twelfth century housed one of his arms) is dedicated to him. The saint’s skull by the fourteenth century ended up in the cathedral of Evreux in Normandy, where it is most probably kept to this day. As writes the Very Revd. Michael Tavinor in Shrines of the Saints in England and Wales, later in the twelfth century his other arm was acquired by Peterborough Cathedral and St. Albans Priory claimed part of his relics. In the late Saxon period the Wolvesey Castle, also known as the Old Bishops’ Palace, was built in Winchester at some distance from the Cathedral, and it became the Bishops of Winchester’s residence for many centuries. The first palace was built by St. Ethelwold in 972 and now ruins of the twelfth-century palace by Bishop Henry are visited.

Winchester Cathedral, Hants (photo by Irina Lapa) Winchester Cathedral, Hants (photo by Irina Lapa)     

Let us now talk about the veneration of St. Swithin at Winchester Cathedral and the Cathedral itself. Dedicated to the Holy Trinity and Sts. Peter, Paul and Swithin, Winchester Cathedral is the longest English Cathedral and reputedly the longest surviving medieval church in the world. Its length is about 560 feet or 170 meters. Its building was supervised by Walkelin, the first Norman Bishop of Winchester. On the day of its consecration in 1093, the Old Minster was demolished, and the reliquary with St. Swithin’s relics was moved to the new edifice and placed by the High Altar, where it was preserved till the fifteenth century. In 1126, the new altar in the Norman Cathedral was dedicated to St. Swithin. Interestingly, although the Old Minster was pulled down, the original St. Swithin’s grave and a chapel that grew above it remained a focus of veneration; though, of course, the main magnet for pilgrims was the saint’s bodily relics inside the Cathedral. A piece of the earliest “tomb-shrine” survives in the Cathedral triforium that houses a mini-museum and collection of treasures.

In the mid-twelfth century, Henry de Blois, brother of King Stephen, especially promoted St. Swithin’s veneration. Henry, a knight and politician, became Bishop of Winchester and remained in that office for forty-two years till 1271. He organized for the saint’s shrine to be raised on to a special shrine-altar, elevated on a platform within the apse. And a three-meter (ten-foot) tunnel was made beneath the platform so that pilgrims could squeeze and crawl below the shrine-altar, with St. Swithin’s relics just above their heads. This feature was called the “Holy Hole” and it was used right up till the Reformation. It was so popular and unique that it was decided to retain it after the closure of the monastery. Bishop Henry was obviously inspired by the crypt of St. Peter’s Church in Rome and decided to adopt a similar feature at home. A smaller reliquary was later placed on the side of St. Swithin’s platform to house smaller relics of other local saints.

Winchester Cathedral's crypt, Hants (photo by Irina Lapa) Winchester Cathedral's crypt, Hants (photo by Irina Lapa)     

Henry de Blois also saved the remains of some early English bishops and kings who originally rested in the Cathedral’s spacious vaulted crypt. For all its history the crypt has been prone to floods (it is frequently flooded even nowadays), so he arranged for them to be taken out of the crypt and placed inside leaden coffers near the High Altar. Though more than half of these were destroyed during the Reformation, some survived and were replaced in the seventeenth century by new ones, so the remains of the early kings, queens and Bishops of Wessex are still inside the so-called six “mortuary chests”, displayed in the presbytery (Kings Cynegils, Egbert, Ethelwulf, Canute and others rest there).

In the fourteenth century, the Cathedral’s east end was remodeled resulting in the large area called “the retrochoir” (the term means: “space behind the High Altar in large churches”). It was designed to contain St. Swithin’s relics, however they remained in their original place for a long time and were translated to the retrochoir in a solemn procession as late as 1476.

Another active Bishop of Winchester (from 1404 till 1447) was Cardinal Beaufort, a very ambitious and rich statesman and Church figure. Like some other later bishops of Winchester, he was for many years constructing an extremely rich and splendid chantry chapel near St. Swithin’s shrine for himself, so that his body could rest there after his death and masses could be served daily for his repose. It was also at his orders that the construction of a new impressive silver-gilded reliquary with a base of Purbeck marble for St. Swithin’s relics began. It was about thirty years after Beaufort’s death, in 1476, that it was completed and installed at the retrochoir under Bishop William Waynflete (Bishop of Winchester 1447—1486, a foremost educator of his age and founder of Magdalen College in Oxford). Curiously enough, until relatively recently no one knew what this shrine looked like. But from the 1990s on over twenty pieces of the marble structure were discovered in different locations and it became possible to recreate a three-dimensional computer model of the shrine. It was very high (the marble base with the gilded reliquary on it) and had four niches in each of the longer sides so that pilgrims could place their heads or sore limbs into them.

Alas, this shrine was short-lived and it stood in its position for only sixty-two years. In 1538 St. Swithin’s Priory at Winchester (it was one of many distinctive English “monastery-cathedrals”) was dissolved, and St. Swithin’s shrine smashed to pieces. However, there is a strong tradition that the patron-saint’s relics were secretly buried under the Cathedral floor. According to one version, they were buried near where the shrine had been located—the atmosphere on that spot is still very inviting. After the dissolution of the monastery in Winchester its Cathedral continued to serve as such, though it became Anglican. One joyous event took place in the Cathedral soon after Henry VIII, though: it was the wedding of Queen Mary and King Philip of Spain conducted here in 1554.

In 1962, the 1100th anniversary of St. Swithin’s repose, under Dean Gibbs-Smith, a symbolic decorated metal shrine in the form of a catafalque was erected in memory of the saint close to the site of his late medieval shrine (its roof resembles the medieval shrine canopies). Candles are lit on this modest monument by pilgrims visiting this Cathedral—Orthodox, Catholic and Anglican believers.

The 'Holy Hole' at Winchester Cathedral, Hants (photo by Irina Lapa) The 'Holy Hole' at Winchester Cathedral, Hants (photo by Irina Lapa)      

Wallpaintings inside the Holy Sepulcher Chapel of Winchester Cathedral, Hants (photo by Irina Lapa) Wallpaintings inside the Holy Sepulcher Chapel of Winchester Cathedral, Hants (photo by Irina Lapa)   

The Winchester Cathedral interior takes visitors’ breath away with its spaciousness that reminds them of the glory of God, antiquity and an atmosphere of holiness. It seems as if it extends to eternity. No wonder it is used to accommodate pilgrims to St. Swithin’s shrine. Apart from St. Swithin’s symbolic shrine, the “Holy Hole” and the mortuary chests mentioned above, there are many more places in this huge church where Orthodox pilgrims linger. First of all, there is a row of icons painted in 1990 by the Russian painter Sergey Fyodorov. Installed above the “Holy Hole”, they resemble an Orthodox iconostasis. The icons represent from left to right: St. Birinus, St. Peter, Archangel Michael, the Theotokos, Christ the Pantocrator, St. John the Baptist, the Archangel Gabriel, St. Paul, and St. Swithin. Pilgrims also come up to St. Birinus’ cross with a few stones from the shrine of the Apostle of Wessex. The Cathedral’s Holy Sepulcher Chapel which has some of the oldest surviving wall-paintings in the country also stands out: dating to the twelfth and thirteenth centuries and depicting the Passion of Christ, they were discovered during the 1960s restoration work.

Ceiling inside the Chapel of the Guardian Angels at Windchester Cathedral, Hants (photo by Irina Lapa) Ceiling inside the Chapel of the Guardian Angels at Windchester Cathedral, Hants (photo by Irina Lapa)     

The Chapel of the Guardian Angels has a strikingly beautiful painted ceiling; and the Epiphany Chapel has an icon of the feast of Theophany (there are other icons here and there in the Cathedral, including that of the Last Supper), along with bright windows by the Pre-Raphaelite artist Edward Burne-Jones depicting Christ and a carving of the Lamb of God. The unusual chapel dedicated to St. John the Evangelist and the Fishermen Apostles has a lovely, “rural” atmosphere. Izaak Walton (1593—1683), a fisherman and the author of a bestseller, The Compleat Angler, is buried in it.

The row of icons by S. Fyodorov and the 'Holy Hole' at Winchester Cathedral, Hants (photo by Irina Lapa) The row of icons by S. Fyodorov and the 'Holy Hole' at Winchester Cathedral, Hants (photo by Irina Lapa)     

The icon of Theophany at Winchester Cathedral, Hants (photo by Irina Lapa) The icon of Theophany at Winchester Cathedral, Hants (photo by Irina Lapa)     

The icon of the Last Supper at Winchester Cathedral, Hants (photo by Irina Lapa) The icon of the Last Supper at Winchester Cathedral, Hants (photo by Irina Lapa)     

The eleventh-century crypt is the oldest part of the Cathedral and it has a holy well within it, which was believed to be used by St. Birinus for baptisms. The lead statue in the crypt by the artist Antony Gormley is called “Sound II”, but in winter it is often up to its knees in water. The Cathedral’s High Altar has a splendid fifteenth-century great screen with medieval niches and stone figures of royalty, Church figures and saints on it (notably St. Swithin holding a bridge)—however, most of them are Victorian-era replacements as most of the originals were barbarously broken by the Puritans. The intact Cathedral choir is the oldest great medieval choir in England, with its intricately carved misericords on the stalls: figures of men, animals, and foliage, made by a Norfolk carpenter. The retrochoir has the largest surviving area of medieval floor tiles in England.

The altar and the screen at Winchester Cathedral, Hants (photo by Irina Lapa) The altar and the screen at Winchester Cathedral, Hants (photo by Irina Lapa)     

The Lady Chapel, which was vaulted about 1500, commemorates in its reredos the Hampshire novelist and children’s author Charlotte Younge (1823—1901), who was remarkable for her deep Christian faith and promoted the “Oxford Movement” Anglican tradition. This chapel is dominated by a large window of the Jesse Tree (the pedigree of Jesus Christ), and the Mother of God is depicted throughout its space. Among other Cathedral treasures are the seventeenth-century library of Bishop George Morley, comprising a large number of rare books that he bought with original carved shelves in the south transept (it also has a thirteenth-century wall-painting depicting the Saxon St. Swithin’s shrine which was used from 971 till c. 1450); the Saxon “Shaftesbury Bowl” of glass, in which according to tradition King Canute’s heart was kept; the twelfth-century “Winchester Bible”—the largest and finest surviving Bible of that era, written by a single scribe, with bright capital letters made of gold and lapis lazuli; the fifteenth-century statue of Madonna and Child; and so on.

Jane Austen's grave at Winchester Cathedral, Hants (photo by Irina Lapa) Jane Austen's grave at Winchester Cathedral, Hants (photo by Irina Lapa)     

Admirers of the novelist Jane Austen (1775—1817) come to the north aisle of the nave of this Cathedral to visit her grave every day. The great novelist, author of such books as Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice, spent the last six weeks of her life in Winchester where she came to seek medical help (the house where she spent the last few days of her life stands close by). She was buried in the Cathedral because her father was a priest in Hampshire. Austen’s work is notable for skillful characterization, penetrating social observation and acute and witty insights into the human heart. The plaque on the wall characterizes her genius, qualities, and Christian faith: “She openeth her mouth with wisdom and in her tongue is the law of kindness” (cf. Prov. 31:26). However, Austen referred to her work modestly: “The little bit (two inches wide) of ivory on which I work with so fine a brush, as produces little effect after much labor.”

Bust of William Walker at Winchester Cathedral, Hants (photo by Irina Lapa) Bust of William Walker at Winchester Cathedral, Hants (photo by Irina Lapa)     

The retrochoir has a bronze sculpture of William Walker (1868—1917), a true local hero and famous diver, who shortly before a heavy flood that he had predicted substantially strengthened the Cathedral foundations with his own hands and literally saved this huge ancient church from destruction. To make the Cathedral foundations firmer (its east end could have collapsed as it was built on marshy ground) he used 25,000 bags of cement, 115,000 concrete blocks, and 900,000 bricks! Walker worked nonstop for six years (1906—1911) at a depth of six meters (about twenty feet) in murky, dark water, digging out the rotting timber and laying firm material, laboring practically alone, which cost him his health. It is simply beyond our imagination how, thanks to one man, the Cathedral did not collapse in the twentieth century.

Bishop Wykeham's Chantry Chapel at Winchester Cathedral, Hants (photo by Irina Lapa) Bishop Wykeham's Chantry Chapel at Winchester Cathedral, Hants (photo by Irina Lapa)     

Another local celebrity is Bishop William Wykeham of Winchester (1324—1404), to whom a beautiful chapel is dedicated. In 1382 he founded Winchester College in this city—one of the oldest public schools in England. Wykeham was a royal clerk, the king’s right-hand man, a hierarch for thirty-eight years, the Chancellor of England, and even the founder of another college—the New College in Oxford. It was during his tenure that the Cathedral’s massive nave was entirely remodeled. Thus the present spacious nave, as is the west front, is Perpendicular Gothic, unlike the earlier north and south transepts and the crypt, which are Romanesque.

The font at Winchester Cathedral, Hants (photo by Irina Lapa) The font at Winchester Cathedral, Hants (photo by Irina Lapa)     

Another attraction is its twelfth-century polished black font of Tournai (Belgium) marble with carvings of scenes from the Life of St. Nicholas the Wonderworker on it. It stands close to Jane Austen’s tomb. The Cathedral’s elegant early West Window was smashed by Parliamentarians during the Civil War but restored in 1660 from the pieces of glass that were found. The Parliamentarians burst into the Cathedral on horseback and created havoc inside, desecrating the High Altar, throwing away ancient manuscripts and destroying relics. The Cathedral’s massive solid tower is of the twelfth century. The first Norman tower stood only several years and collapsed in 1107: it was believed that it happened because King William II (Rufus), notorious for his impiety, had been buried underneath it in 1100. The Cathedral has a host of modern-era monuments too, one of them is the Crucifix of 1990, made of reclaimed wood and embellished with metal.

The area surrounding Winchester Cathedral is huge. It is called the Close, and it is divided into the Outer and the Inner Close. Among objects of note there let us mention Dean Garnier’s walled Garden, the beautiful Elizabethan Cheyney Court (the former bishop’s courthouse), the medieval Pilgrims’ Hall (the priory’s former hostel), and the Chapterhouse Arcade. Before the Reformation the monastic dormitory, refectory, cloisters, stables, and infirmary were situated here as well. Today pilgrims can also visit the little St. Swithin’s Church-upon-the-Kingsgate close, which is peaceful inside. The church was first mentioned in the thirteenth century: it is built in the Early English Gothic style and formerly had a statue of St. Swithin inside, which was destroyed during the Reformation. Entry to the church is by a narrow staircase from St. Swithin’s Street. Only two of the original medieval Winchester gateways that were integral parts of the city wall survive—namely the Kingsgate and the Westgate.

St. Swithin-upon-the-Kingsgate Church in Winchester, Hants (photo by Irina Lapa) St. Swithin-upon-the-Kingsgate Church in Winchester, Hants (photo by Irina Lapa)     

From the tenth century up till now Winchester, this picturesque city amidst Hampshire’s chalk downs in the valley of the Itchen, has been famous for its sacred music and choral traditions. Many outstanding English musicians, composers, and organists were associated with Winchester, its Cathedral and College. Winchester Cathedral Choir is acclaimed, and England is one of the few countries where great choirs of all Cathedrals sing every day at services. Among the prominent composers that are connected with Winchester let us mention Thomas Weelkes (1576—1623), Samuel Sebastian Wesley (1810—1876), George Garrett (1834-1897), and George Dyson (1883—1964).

The City Museum of Winchester, Hants (photo by Irina Lapa) The City Museum of Winchester, Hants (photo by Irina Lapa)     

Outside the Cathedral in Winchester the following places are worth mentioning for Orthodox visitors. The City Museum contains numerous artefacts relating to Winchester’s ancient past, including the development of Christianity in the area. Among the relics displayed there are the ninth-century empty reliquary of gilt copper in the shape of a purse, which once contained a saint’s relics—it was dug out in 1976 during excavations; and a late Saxon stone with a painting, presumably from the pre-Norman monastery. And no visit to Winchester is complete without visiting the former St. Cross Hospital with its Almshouses and Church amid the water meadows. Founded in 1136 by the above-mentioned Henry de Blois as the first charitable institution in England, this Norman complex still functions today. Now it provides a retirement home for twenty-five elderly men, “St. Cross brothers”, who are expected to be single, wear special robes, and attend church every morning. The spirit of hospitality reigns there to this day, and visitors to this ensemble are given a morsel of bread and a beaker of ale following the old tradition called “the wayfarer’s dole”. At first it provided residence, care, clothing and food for thirteen feeble men and invited up to 100 paupers for dinner on a daily basis.

It is not without reason that Anna Bramston and Aimee Leroy, the founders of St. Swithin’s nineteenth-century school said: “Nowhere in England do the stones speak more eloquently of past times than in Winchester, the city of kings and priests.”

The poet John Keats (1795—1821), who stayed in Winchester for several months, walking past the Cathedral and along the water meadows towards St. Cross, derived inspiration here for his Ode to Autumn:

...season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,

close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;

conspiring with him how to load and bless

with fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run.

Memorial to Bishop Lancelot Andrewes at Winchester Cathedral, Hants (photo from Wikipedia) Memorial to Bishop Lancelot Andrewes at Winchester Cathedral, Hants (photo from Wikipedia)     

Besides this, Winchester is associated with Lancelot Andrewes (1555–1626)—the Bishop of Winchester, a theologian, preacher, writer and translator who knew nineteen languages. He took an active part in preparing the “Authorised Version”—the translation of the Bible into English which was approved by King James I in 1611. Andrewes is commemorated by some High Anglicans as a saint. Another great personality is Mary Sumner (1828–1921) from a very pious family, the founder of the Mother’s Union, a worldwide Anglican women’s organization, who is commemorated as a saint by some in several provinces of Anglicanism. She is buried in the grounds of Winchester Cathedral, and the epitaph on her and her husband’s tomb reads: “I heard a voice from Heaven saying unto me: Write Blessed are the dead which died in the Lord from henceforth. Here, saith the Spirit, they may rest from their labors, and their works do follow them” (cf. Rev. 14:13).


The Saxon church in Corhampton, Hants (kindly provided by the rector of Corhampton church) The Saxon church in Corhampton, Hants (kindly provided by the rector of Corhampton church)     

The Saxon sundial of the church in Corhampton, Hants (kindly provided by rector of Corhampton church) The Saxon sundial of the church in Corhampton, Hants (kindly provided by rector of Corhampton church) Of a host of holy places associated with St. Swithin outside Winchester let us mention two. Firstly, there is the Saxon church in the village of Corhampton ten miles from Winchester. This charming church was originally built in about 685 by the missionary St. Wilfrid of York, and later rebuilt in the late Saxon period. The chancel walls of this holy building are adorned with a set of late Saxon frescoes, depicting scenes from the Life of St. Swithin, making this church unique in the whole of England. One of the paintings depicts the famous miracle of St. Swithin restoring an old woman’s basket of eggs. Of course, the first church here was wooden, and this replacement building is of stone. The sundial on an external church wall is believed to be the best preserved Saxon sundial in the country. There is an ancient yew tree on a manmade mount beside the church which is as old as the holy place itself.

The ancient yew tree beside the church of Corhampton, Hants (kindly provided by rector of Corhampton church) The ancient yew tree beside the church of Corhampton, Hants (kindly provided by rector of Corhampton church)     

Secondly, there is the early St. Swithin’s Church in the village of Headbourne Worthy in Hampshire. The current building is mostly of the thirteenth century, though some of its parts are late Saxon. Its main attraction is part of the early rood screen with scenes of the Crucifixion, with the figures of the Theotokos and St. John the Baptist on either side of the crucified Christ. The composition was smashed during the Reformation and it is a miracle that a part of it survived. It is presumably the largest crucifixion scene in this county (larger than life-size) and dates to c. 1000.

St. Swithin's Church at Headbourne Worthy from the west, Hants (kindly provided by priest-in-charge of the Headbourne Worthy parish) St. Swithin's Church at Headbourne Worthy from the west, Hants (kindly provided by priest-in-charge of the Headbourne Worthy parish)     

Saxon rood screen inside St. Swithin's Church in Headbourne Worthy, Hants (kindly provided by priest-in-charge of the Headbourne Worthy parish) Saxon rood screen inside St. Swithin's Church in Headbourne Worthy, Hants (kindly provided by priest-in-charge of the Headbourne Worthy parish)     

Today St. Swithin, the patron-saint of Winchester, its diocese and Cathedral, is venerated by Christians of various denominations, with a contemporary Orthodox service to him in English, and miracles continue to occur. We hope that one day this meek healing saint will be proclaimed a patron of doctors and medicine in the country. His shrine at Winchester Cathedral is a favorite destination of Russian pilgrims too.

Holy Father Swithin of Winchester, pray to God for us!

Some facts for this article were taken from the following sources:

1. Aelfric of Eynsham, Miracles of St. Swithin (translated from Old English by Archpriest Andrew Phillips, the Orthodox England magazine).

2. John Crook, FSA, St. Swithun, Patron Saint of Winchester Cathedral. Published by Friends of Winchester Cathedral, 2010.

3. Winchester City Trail, PITKIN GUIDES. Written and edited by Vivien Brett. Pitkin Publishing, 1999, latest reprint 2011.

4. Canon Roland Riem, Winchester Cathedral. Pitkin Publishing and Winchester Cathedral, 2012.

Dmitry Lapa


[1] Here is the tenth-century poem commemorating the bridge’s construction (translation from Latin by Michael Lapidge): You, wayfarer, whoever gaze upon this gate, pour forth your devout prayers to the high-throned God on behalf of Christ’s servant, Swithun, formerly the bishop. Through his infinite care and concern the delightful structure of the bridge was built to the glory of Christ and the embellishment of the town of Winchester, when the sun had duly passed through eight hundred and fifty-nine years after Christ in His mercy had become incarnate; at that time the seventh indiction was turning on its course.

[2] There were three “minsters” in Winchester. The Old Minster was founded in c. 648 for King Cenwalh of Wessex. First it was a Cathedral with married canons, but in 963 St. Ethelwold refounded it as a monastery, moving monks from Abingdon to it. It was later called St Swithin’s Priory. The Old Minster’s successor is the current Anglican Winchester Cathedral. There was also the New Minster, founded by St. Alfred the Great and completed soon after his death in 901, and in 1110 moved further from the city center and renamed Hyde Abbey. It existed till the Reformation; its splendid medieval gatehouse and barn still survive, there is a pretty garden beside it, and stones from the former abbey were used to reconstruct the nearby St. Bartholomew’s Church. The remains of Sts. Alfred the Great, his wife St. Elswith and their son Edward the Elder are believed to be buried in its grounds. Finally, there was Nunnaminster—a convent founded by St. Alfred’s widow, St. Elswith, in about 901, which later came to be known as St. Mary’s Abbey and of which nothing survives apart from ruins.

[3] St. Swithin is not the only Orthodox saint venerated in Winchester. There were other holy men and women who have been honored there since time immemorial. They are:

  • St. Birinus († c. 650; feasts: September 17 and December 3), the first bishop of Wessex and apostle of this region, who served in Dorchester-on-Thames, but a portion of his relics was later translated to Winchester Cathedral, which may still rest concealed under the floor;
  • St. Hedda of Winchester († c. 705; feast: July 7), was the first Bishop of the West Saxons to reside in Winchester (676—705) from where the see was transferred from Dorchester-on-Thames; his prudence and wisdom were praised by St. Bede; there were numerous reports of cures from his relics, and dust from his tomb was often mixed with water to heal men and animals alike; his relics, though hidden, still rest at Winchester Cathedral;
  • St. Alfred the Great(† c. 899); unofficial feast: October 26), King of Wessex and effectively of all England, who saved England from the Danish conquest, ensured the growth of the Church in the country, created the English legal system and navy, was patron of sacred learning, translated Patristic works into Old English, and was buried at the New Minster (later Hyde Abbey) in Winchester; his imposing bronze statue by Hamo Thorneycroft was erected in the city in 1901;
  • St. Grimbald (+ c. 901; feast: July 8), a French monk and scholar of St. Bertin, was invited to England by St. Alfred and served as Dean of a community of canons at the New Minster in Winchester, helping restore monastic life in the country and translating Latin writings into Old English;
  • St. Elswith (+ c. 903; feast: July 20), the wife of Alfred the Great, who after his death became a nun at the convent of Nunnaminster in Winchester that she had founded and was later buried with her husband;
  • St. Frithestan (+ c. 932; feast: September 10), a disciple of St. Grimbald, who served as bishop of Winchester between 909 and 931;
  • St. Birstan (also Beornstan; † 934; feast: November 4), served as bishop of Winchester from 931 till 934, devoted his energies to caring for the poor, praying for the departed (in one instance he even heard the reply “amen” at the cemetery), and performing private prayer; about fifty years after his repose, when his grave was neglected, he appeared to St. Ethelwold in a vision and said that he enjoyed the glory equal to that of Sts. Swithin and Birinus in heaven;
  • St. Alphege the Elder, or the “Bald” († 951; feast: March 12), served as bishop of Winchester 934—951, and encouraged his contemporaries to take up monasticism, ordaining the great Sts. Dunstan and Ethelwold to the priesthood;
  • St. Ethelwold († 984; feast: August 1), bishop of Winchester from 963, was a leading figure in the revival of monastic life in the tenth-century England, nicknamed “the father of monks”, refounding old and building new monasteries, developing the Winchester school of illumination, producing the “Winchester Proper”, advising English princes and kings;
  • St. Alphege the Younger († 1012; feast: April 19), the future Archbishop of Canterbury and martyr, served as bishop of Winchester from 984 till 1005.

[4] The sixteenth-century “God Begot House” in Winchester stands on the site of the ancient God Begot Manor that Queen Emma bequeathed for St. Swithin’s Priory. It provided sanctuary where anyone who breached the law could find shelter. Those who attempted to arrest or punish these people were excommunicated, while “God Begotters” were to pay enormous amounts of money to gain freedom.

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