St. Swithun's Shrine
at Winchester Cathedral
Before its destruction in 1538, the Shrine of St. Swithun in Winchester Cathedral was perhaps the second most popular place of pilgrimage in Medieval England. However, despite its popularity in times gone by, no illustrations or detailed descriptions of the shrine have survived. The form, style and even site of this holy relic remain controversial even today.
The pious Swithun, Bishop of Winchester in the mid 9th century was originally buried (862) in a humble grave in the open between the tower of St. Martin and the Cathedral Church of the Old Minster in Winchester. This original grave, along with the minster itself, was excavated by Martin Biddle in the 1960s. St. Swithun, however, was long gone.
Popular legend insists that the monks tried to move Swithun inside the Old Minster, some nine years after his death. The saint, however, did not approve of his removal from exposure to the elements. There was a clap of thunder and it began to rain for forty days and forty nights!
About a hundred years later, however, Swithun appears to have changed his mind. For various visions are said to have led a subsequent bishop, (St.) Aethelwold, to successfully transfer his body inside the Old Minster, on 15th July 971. Screens were placed round the grave and St. Swithun was ceremonial exhumed: the bishop himself taking up the spade. At around the same time, Bishop Aethelwold instigated an ambicious plan to turn the Old Minster into a shrine-church centred around St. Swithun's relics. He extended the building and enclosed the saint's original grave beneath a huge crossing tower. In 974, King Edgar donated a magnificent gold and silver feretory in which to enshrine St. Swithun's body. It was studded with precious jewels and depicted scenes of Christ's Passion, Resurrection and Ascension. On 30th October, therefore, Swithun was translated once more. His head was removed to a separate head shrine kept in the sacristy upon the altar "in a space with a locked door, which could be described as a 'chamber' or vestibule, and was guarded by a watcher or sacrist". The main shrine is believed to have been placed on an altar over the original grave. Three years later, Aethelwold had this area of the Minster completely rebuilt with a massive westwork fit to recieve the many pilgrims not only visiting St. Swithun's Shrine, but those of St. Birinus and St. Birstan too.
St. Swithun's head was taken to Canterbury Cathedral by (St.) Alphege when he was elevated from Bishop of Winchester to Archbishop of Canterbury in 1006. An arm was also taken to Peterborough Abbey (now Cathedral).
With the arrival of the Normans and the building of the present Winchester Cathedral to the south of the Old Minster, St. Swithun was on the move once more. On his feast day in 1093, his feretory was carried into the, still incomplete, new building and, the very next day, Bishop Walkelin ordered the demolition of the Old Minster.
St. Swithun's feretory was probably placed behind the High Altar. In the mid-12th century, Bishop Henry (of Blois) elevated St. Swithun onto a large platform built into the eastern apse of the Norman Cathedral especially for his veneration. Much remodelled, this area is still known as the Feretory or Feretory Platform. Beneath it is the 'Holy Hole': a small (originally larger) passage which enabled pilgrims to crawl from outside the cathedral to right beneath St. Swithun's Shrine! Bishop Henry also surrounded Swithun with the bones of various Saxon Kings and Bishops in lead coffers, which he had removed from their 'lowly place' of burial. But for how long did the new shrine remain in this position? Here the controversy begins.
Today, a modern shrine stands in the usual spot reserved for a saint's relics behind the High Altar: sandwiched between the chantry chapels of Bishops Waynflete and (Cardinal) Beaufort. This was certainly the site of St. Swithun's Shrine at the time of its demolition in 1538, though it is not known when exactly the move from the feretory platform occurred.
Construction of the retrochoir, within which this area is housed, was begun by Bishop Godfrey Lucy around 1202 and completed about thrity-three years later. At the same time It has often been supposed that it was built specifically as a large open area to accommodate both a new shrine and the vast numbers of pilgrims which were by that time flocking to St. Swithun's side. The pilgrims are known to have entered through a door in the north transept and one theory has them being barred from the choir and nave which were reserved for the monks only.
Several pieces of beautifully sculptured purbeck marble stonework in the cathedral's possession (and now on display in the Triforium Gallery) were identified in 1924 as part of this retrochoir shrine. Le Couteur and Carter proposed a reconstruction of this as being of the common arcaded-niche type dating from around 1250-60 (see illustration). They further suggested that the shrine may have been rebuilt after being damaged by a weathervane which is recorded to have fallen on it from one of the cathedral turrets in 1241. However, recent re-analysis of these findings by John Crook, Winchester Cathedral's Archaeological Consultant, suggests a very different story.
In the early 14th century, the old eastern apse was finally removed and replaced by the present decorated screen below the feretory platform and facing into the retrochoir. The coffered remains of the Saxon Kings were placed along its top edge and (possibly wooden) representations of them placed in the paired niches below, along with identifying inscriptions. But what of the great St. Swithun?
The last of St. Swithun's Shrines (panels from which are displayed in the Triforium Gallery) is well recorded as having been inaugurated during much celebrating on the Saint's feast day in 1476. In the retrochoir, "a marble tomb had been constructed to the glorious saint, upon which a silver and gilt reliquary had previously been placed". This was the climax of some twenty-five years of building work at the Cathedral. Prior to the death of Bishop (Cardinal) Beaufort in 1447, he had arranged for the building of his magnificent chantry chapel. It's site, in the favoured position immediately south of St. Swithun's Shrine, indicates that it was not until this late period that the saint was moved down from his Feretory Platform. The retrochoir had welcomed Swithun's visitors, but only now did the saint himself enter within its walls. The cathedral authorities had received a large bequest from the Cardinal's estate and decided to use their new found wealth to construct the present great screen behind the High Altar. This, unfortunately, would have blocked the view of St. Swithun's Feretory, had it still been standing on the platform, thus necessitating the move envisaged by the late Bishop. The feretory is known to have been melted down, presumably for recasting, in 1451.
If this were so, Le Couteur and Carter's mid-13th century shrine, would have stood on the feretory platform out of reach of pilgrims and would have no need for niches into which they could thrust their diseased limbs. Crook identifies these probable shrine fragments as part of an apertured 'tomb-shrine' similar to that of St. Osmund still extant at Sailsbury. As at several other pilgrimage centres around the country, St. Swithun would have been venerated, not only at the shrine where his body lay, but also at a second shrine above his original grave. The apertures would allow pilgrims to get closer to the ground where the saint had lain for so long. Swithun's grave outside the cathedral, is known to have been protected by a small chapel and excavation has revealed a 'memorial court' (probably the 'lowly place' from where the Saxon Kings were exhumed) around this area which was not finally demolished until the reformation.
John Adair (1978) The Pilgrims'
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