Essential Wessex: Saint Swithun

It can be hard to separate fact from fiction in the life of St Swithun, Bishop of Winchester from 852 to 863 and patron saint of Winchester Cathedral. Much of what we know about the saint’s life comes from highly romanticised hagiographies written in the 10th and 11th centuries, and he was barely mentioned in contemporary records. His death was recorded in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, and his name appears on nine surviving charters from his time as bishop.

He lives on in legend, though. He is said to have accompanied the future King Alfred on a visit to Rome as a young man, and to have miraculously restored a basket of eggs belonging to an old woman who had dropped them, breaking them all. He also had a reputation for appearing in visions to people after his death, most famously to Queen Emma, who had been accused of adultery and forced to face trial by ordeal. He reassured her that the red-hot blades she was made to walk on would not harm her.

Today, there are churches dedicated to St Swithun in every county of Wessex, as well as elsewhere in England, in Norway and in Barbados. His relics were buried in Winchester, and are said to have survived the Reformation, though this is probably wishful thinking.

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