Page 10, 16th July 1982

16th July 1982
Page 10
Page 10, 16th July 1982 — Climate of opinion the dry facts about St Swithun

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Locations: London, Lyon, Winchester


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Climate of opinion the dry facts about St Swithun

IT IS always a pleasure to be able to introduce the more obscure English saints into Charterhouse, and I do so today with the query: How many readers, especially gardeners among them, marked their calendars and started counting yesterday? July 15, I will remind you, is the feast of St Swithun, of which it used to be said: "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 mair."

St Swithun, I discover — do forgive me if you knew already was a Bishop of Winchester and the trusted counsellor in ecclesiastical matters of Egbert, King of the West Saxons, who died in 839. It seems that the Bishop asked on his own deathbed 23 years afterwards that he should be buried outside the north wall of his cathedral where passersby would walk over his grave and rain-drops from the eaves fall upon it. This was done, but rather more than a century later, the body was transferred to a shrine within a newly-built cathedral, where miraculous cures are said to have occurred.

He was declared a saint by popular acclamation. He is believed to have been a Benedictine monk and even Prior of Winchester, but there is no evidence for this. However, my information about him is from a Benedictine source, the writings of Raymund Webster, O.S.B., once of Downside Abbey. He notes the popular supersitition about the forty days of rain or shine, but says no attempt to explain its origin has "proved generally satisfactory," and that a similar belief is attached in France to June 8, the feast of Sts Gervasius and Protasius.

inform myself and you on these holy martyrs (who were not English, or even French, but Milanese, as well as the patron saints of haymakers, and also invoked for the discovery of thieves, which may be useful knowledge for any innocent reader "helping the police with their enquiries") I am delighted to find that Science once put its mind to a solemn examination of the St Swithun's day belief. A Fellow of the Royal Society, no less, the great Luke Howard, a Quaker, who, as every schoolboy — or, at any rate, The Dictionary of National Biography—knows, was "one of the founders of the science of meteorology", went into the whole matter very thoroughly in his Climate of London, which began publication in 1818, and made his reputation. His conclusion seems to have been that the belief probably resulted from common observation of a general tendency, which would have been apparent in the old calendar from about July 15, which is, however, July 26 nowadays. So, if you agree with Mr Howard, start counting again in ten days.

Eggs in one basket

I HOPE no-one, no Winchester reader, for instance, will take offence at my suggesting that Swithun is an obscure saint. I do so because, according to Raymund Webster, very little is known of his life, he is hardly mentioned in contemporary documents, and his biographers wrote long after his death.

The notion he implies is presumably that much that has been written about St Swithun is apochryphal, which is sad, because I suppose I am compelled now to suspect the authenticity of a story about him in some 17th Century verses, in which he encountered a poor woman who had stumbled and broken her eggs. The Saint performed the job that was beyond the powers of all the King's horses and all the King's men. A nice, homely miracle that. I can symathise with an ha 'o ra her who mi ht have felt it simply had to go in.

The thin blue line

I HAVE been following with admiration the display of English modesty on the Times letter page which followed publication of an assertion that the British monarchy is the oldest in the world. This jarred the sense of fair play of Mr Charles Mosley, editor of Debrett's Handbook, who said it wasn't even the oldest in Europe.

It took a Scotsman, Mr Sandy S. Waugh, of Banchory, in Kinkardineshire, to administer what Pravda would call "a firm rebuff" to this Sassenach shilly-shallying. He explained that, if you take account of the Queen's Scottish ancestry, the dynasty goes back to about 500 AD, which would make it unquestionably the world's oldest in continuity. Her Majesty, as Queen of Scotland, can claim descent through James VI of Scotland (James I of England) in the enormously-long Scottish royal line.

So long is it, indeed, that people used to be rendered glassy-eyed at the ceremonies installing a new Scottish monarch, because the entire pedigree had to be recited in Gaelic from the beginning. Eventually, am murmurs, no •ou , o we born approval, the Lords Lyon decided mercifully that only the reigning monarch and the six predecessors need be named.

All this seems very satisfactory. But now I must record some facts which make me fear that there may be tears to come. The first is one honourably acknowledged by the himself in Argyll. This means that our Royal Family are of worldbeating lineage only in as much as they are of native Irish stock, and also that the Scottish kingdom is simply a result of Irish colonial expansion. I can think of all sorts of people to whom these truths may be unpalatable, and I understand Mr Mosley's decision to concentrate on the Queen's descent from Egbert, who was sovereign of all England in 829.

Since both Irish and Scots are very proud of ancient lineage, an awful lot of nonsense used to be written about the antiquity of the Scottish royal lines, stretching it and the truth beyond credence. Fabulous lists of kings pushed it back to King Fergus who was said to have flourished in 330 BC. The historian who sorted the whole thing out to the satisfaction of subsequent scholars was Thomas Innes, author of a Critical Essay on the Ancient Inhabitants of Scotland, which proved that the real father of the line was the Fergus who arrived in Scotland from Ireland about the end of the 5th Century, rather more than 60 years after St Patrick's Irish mission.

This Thomas Innes was a priest from Aberdeenshire, ordained in 1691. He spent a great part of his life in continental Europe, especially at the Scots College in Rome, where his elder brother, Lewis Innes, was principal and also an historian and antiquary of European reputation. The two brothers were importantly involved with James II, Bonny Prince Charlie and all the romantic, though sometimes rather shoddy, story of the exiled Stuarts in France and Italy, as well as with the Scottish mission in their own country. It seems to me that they would provide excellent material for a biographer, or even a novelist.

a• es o recusancy

WHEN I was told that the Catholic Herald had found a new printer in Chesterfield, a train of memory was started which carried me back to a happening near the beginning of the 2nd World War, in which I myself felt for a little while as if I were part of a piece of Catholic romantic fiction — a Robert Hugh Benson ghost story, perhaps.

I was just once in Chesterfield, and recall only that its old church has a spectacularly-crooked steeple. The story told of it is that the devil once paused to rest on it, unaware that it was part of a church. A whiff of incense crept up to him, and jerked him into a spasm in which he wrenched the spire out of shape. This reminded me of another church with a twisted spire, at Cleobury Mortimer in Shropshire, a little town which I knew very well, because I was with the Army there early in 1940. My unit's headquarters was at Mawley Hall, close by, the seat of an ancient Catholic family, the Blounts.

We first arrived there late at night and saw very little. I slept on an Army trestle-table, in what had been the library. I woke early, and after looking rather glumly at rows of empty bookshelves, noticed a section which seemed full of books. It turned out to one of those doors made secret by a covering of bogus book-spines. I opened it, walked along a pitch-dark passage and through another door, and found myself on a balcony in a family chapel. Below me, completely alone, an extremely old and frail priest, looking like a ghost in the half-light, was saying Mass. When I had decided that he was real, I went down and acted as his altar-boy.

The priest turned out to be the Blount's Belgian chaplain, who had remained to say Sunday Mass for Catholics in the neighbourhood. His quarters were in rather a mess, because his housekeeper had left to go into a war factory. But the Army looked after him after that. We put him unofficially on the strength and did his chores.

Mawley Hall, built about 1730 for Sir Edward Blount, remains as the finest great house of its period in Shropshire. I went to see it again a few years ago. The Blounts were gone; so, too, was the chapel, though that had been a late addition, and its removal was one of a number of changes that brought the building closer to its original design. But I tiny way I had become part of its history.

WATCHERS of the Priestland programme will certainly remember the lively priest on the Catholic island of Eriskay. Some may also have noticed the little item Punch reprinted from the West Highland Free Press. It reported: "Fr John Archie MacMillan successfully waterski-ed for three miles up and down the sound of Eriskay last Saturday, while playing the bagpipes."

forthright Mr Waugh. This is that this ancient Scottish line started with an Irish chieftain, Fergus MacErc, who left Ireland and established

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