St. Swithin (or Swithun) is a much beloved saint in the English church. His holiday was this past Saturday. He is probably most well known for a certain legendary weather forecast not of his doing. As told by Fr. Gregory Wilcox:
Swithin died, the most beloved of Winchester’s bishops, on July 2, 862. On his deathbed, he left instructions that his body should be buried outdoors and not in the cathedral. He wanted people to walk over his grave and the rain he so much loved to fall upon it. 100 years later Swithin’s body was removed from its simple grave and interred in the cathedral on July 15, 971 (which is observed as the day of his feast). On the same day his bones were moved from the outdoors an extraordinary rainfall began. This is responsible for the legend associated with St Swithin and rain; a weather proverb, which says that if it rains on St Swithin’s Day (July 15), it will rain 40 more days:
“St Swithun’s day if thou dost rain/
For forty days it will remain/
St Swithun’s day if thou be fair/
For forty days ‘twill rain nae mare.”
But I wish to focus on something not well known about Swithin — or at least I did not know until Fr. Gregory educated me.
Swithin had a special interest in furthering education in and around Winchester where he served the Wessex royal court. He made sure that parish schools were funded. He also funded promising students to study abroad. The Wessex royal family greatly trusted him; so he was entrusted with tutoring the sons of two kings.
One of those sons was Prince Alfred. He accompanied Alfred on a trip to Rome (probably the only time Swithin travelled across the Channel). Although Swithin was appalled by the pomp and corruption in Rome, young Alfred must have been struck by the churches, schools, culture and libraries. He surely realized that Wessex had fallen far behind in learning. Both during the long trip and back home, Swithin taught Alfred well and instilled in him a love of learning.
Yes, this is that Alfred, who became Alfred the Great. After defeating the Vikings, he, deploring what the predations of the Vikings and long years of war had done to learning in Britain, led a revival in learning. And he wanted learning to be not just the property of scholars. So he himself translated a number of works from Latin into English. To assist the training of clergy, one of those translations was of Gregory the Great’s Pastoral Care. Alfred distributed copies to his bishops. He also established a court school open to those not in the nobility.
Alfred’s reputation for promoting learning became so great that later a legend arose that he founded the University of Oxford. Of course, that august university began more organically around 1100, centuries after Alfred. But that did not keep the legend from being dogma at Oxford at least into the 18th century.
Swithin did not live to see his student make such a great impact. He died before Alfred became king. But what a difference Swithin and Alfred made!
St. Swithin provides us a good example that faithfulness in education on a small scale can eventually have a great impact. So don’t be discouraged if your efforts in education are small and even remain small. If you are faithful and persist, you have no idea how God may use that even well beyond your lifetime. With the current decline in education, God knows we need more alternatives in real education, both large and small.