“A building she admired so much…” Jane Austen at Winchester Cathedral

Winchester Cathedral

Winchester Cathedral

In 1817 Cassandra Austen was writing of her departed sister Jane: “Her dear remains are to be deposited in the cathedral – it is a satisfaction to me to think they are to lie in a building she admired so much.”

Yesterday I visited the Cathedral, Jane’s tomb and the exhibition dedicated to her. I expected to spend an hour or two there, before heading for the Hampshire Archives to delve into the Austen fund. How wrong I was! I spent the whole day at the Cathedral, with a short interruption for tea in the afternoon.

Where to start? Maybe with my first surprise. As I walked to the current Cathedral, I passed a sign indicating the location of the Old Minster of Saint Swithun, or Swithin, and began to read about the ancient pilgrimage around the tomb of this 9th century Bishop of Winchester. And lo and behold, I learned that it had been the burial place of many Saxons Kings and Queens, including Emma of Normandy!

Emma of Normandy British Library

Emma of Normandy British Library manuscript

I have long been fascinated by Emma, an extraordinary character in an era that saw so many women of power. The daughter of Richard Sans Peur, the Fearless, Duc of Normandy, and his concubine Gunnar, she married two successive Kings of England, was the mother of two more. Also it is through her that her grand-nephew William of Normandy would, a few years after her death, claim and conquer at the battle of Hastings the English crown. She was at the epicenter of international politics between Normandy, England and Flanders in the first half of the 11th century

In my mind Emma of Normandy had long been associated with the more modest queen of Highbury, Emma Woodhouse. How fitting that the latter’s creator be buried in the same place at the great medieval Queen. But, as we Janeites know, there are no coincidences in Austen’s world.

Then I entered the Cathedral itself, built at the beginning of William’s reign in the Normand style and later adorned with lavish wood and stone carvings in the 14th century. The Cathedral is, simply put, a jewel of medieval art and architecture and a testament to English history.

Back to Jane Austen. Next to her sober black tombstone, the exhibition itself consists in one case, and a few watercolour displays briefly evoking the stages of Jane’s life: Steventon, Bath, Chawton Cottage. Those reflect the generally accepted rural, idyllic version of Jane’s life. They are pleasant, but will not bring new information to anyone familiar with Jane’s biography. The contents of the case, however, were of the utmost interest. It contains highly personal items: the  manuscript of the poem she wrote  on her 33rd birthday, which was also the fourth anniversary of the untimely death of her dearest Mrs. Lefroy:

The day returns again, my natal day;
What mix’d emotions in my mind arise!
Beloved Friend; four years have passed away
Since thou wert snatched for ever from our eyes.

The day commemorative of my birth,
Bestowing life, and light, and hope to me,
Brings back the hour which was thy last on earth.
O! bitter pang of torturing memory!

Fain would I feel an union with thy fate:
Fain would I seek to draw an omen fair
From this connection in our earthly date.
Indulge the harmless weakness.  Reason, spare.

On the other side of the display and in a completely different mood, rests a charade, also written by Jane, and unfortunately placed in such a way as to be illegible to the visitor. This too is reminiscent of Emma, and of the lively, stimulating atmosphere at Steventon Rectory. Also a manuscript of a poem by her eldest brother James composed upon her death, and the original draft by her other brother Henry for her ledger stone.

Jane Austen tomb

Jane Austen’s tomb and ledger stone at Winchester Cathedral

Why didn’t Henry, who also acted as Jane’s literary agent, mention any of her novels? She was already a published author, and had garnered some succès d’estime, and the recognition of the Prince Regent himself, though tragically not the widespread acclaim she knew she had earned. Oh what a Henry! she had once written wryly.

Speaking of books, I admired first editions of Emma (yes, always Emma) and of Sense and Sensibility and Northanger Abbey, the latter a posthumous edition in blue sugar paper binding, the cheapest then available, the equivalent of our modern mass-market paperbacks.

Jane Austen silhouette Winchester Cathedral

Jane Austen’s silhouette Winchester Cathedral

Also displayed is a silhouette of “Jane Austin [sic] done by herself in 1815” according to the inscription on the back, and presented to the Dean and Chapter of the Cathedral in 1956 by Miss Jessie Lefroy, a descendant of James Austen. The exhibition notice indicates that its authenticity is in dispute because “stylistically” it seems to date from the end of the 19th century. On what grounds? I would have loved to know, but that remained unanswered. This silhouette reminded me of the discussion we had lately on the identification of the portraits in The History of England. If it were authentic, the resemblance between the profiles of a middle-aged Jane and her mother would be quite interesting.

But there still a more fascinating document: the burial register of the Cathedral. Since Jane was interred within it, it is normal to find her name there. But oddly enough, the burial date is noted as 16 July 1817, two days before her death, and eight days before her actual burial, on 24 July 1817. Odd… Still stranger is the fact that the register is signed by one J. Watkins, who signed other burial records. But wait! The Watkins signature on Jane’s entry is not the same as the other Watkins signatures in the same register. Who then signed this erroneous record, the last official recording of Jane’s career on earth? Another Austen mystery to add to your list. Why was Jane granted the privilege of burial in the Cathedral? It seems that this came through the intervention of Elizabeth Heathcote, née Bigg-Wither, a close friend of Jane and a great help during the last months of her life at Winchester. Jane had once accepted her brother Harris Bigg-Wither’s offer of marriage, only to rescind her decision the next morning. Friendships can survive such trials.

One would assume Jane’s body to lie beneath her black ledger stone, but that would be far too simple. You see, central heating was installed in the Cathedral in the 1930s, and the pipes would have run straight across Jane’s tomb. A volunteer guide indicated that her coffin had been moved one yard or two to the right of the ledger stone.  So now where is she, really? I felt like whispering, “Jane, is that you?”

Winchester Cathedral great screen

Winchester Cathedral great screen

But Jane’s remains were not the only ones to be disturbed at Winchester. During the English Civil War, soldiers shot through the Cathedral’s stained glass and tossed the mortuary chests containing the bones of Emma of Normandy and the other monarchs of the Saxon dynasty out the wide open windows. The bones were later gathered again. Pieces of stained glass were also salvaged and are integrated in a spare, almost transparent design of the West window that floods the Cathedral with light. One of the recomposed mortuary chests now sitting in the Presbytery bears the name of the great Emma, though in fact her remains may be scattered through the five other chests.

These were hardly the first indignities Winchester Cathedral had suffered in the course of its history. During the Dissolution of the Monasteries, no less a luminary than Thomas Cromwell descended upon the Cathedral to destroy the shrine of St. Swithin, a place of pilgrimage for many centuries. For good measure, the statues of the stunning Great Screen were pulled down, mutilated or reused as building materials, though the structure itself was preserved. The Screen would not be restored to its former glory until the last years of the reign of Victoria. Sadly Jane never lived to see it, and we know through engravings that in her time the bare gaps where the statues had stood were partly hidden by a painting of Lazarus rising from the dead. The restored Screen, by the way, features images of both Emma of Normandy and Victoria.

Winchester Bible

Winchester Bible

Fragments of the original statues were recovered and are now on display. By some miracle, another treasure of the Cathedral, the Winchester Bible,  survived the Dissolution, the English Civil War and the Glorious Revolution. Its colours are as vibrant as the day they were applied by some long forgotten monk.

As for St. Swithin, patron of the Cathedral, it is difficult to ignore the part he played in Jane’s life. Her parents were married in the Church of St. Swithin in Bath, and her father, Reverend George Austen was buried there in the crypt. And Jane’s last work, titled Venta (the Latin name for Winchester) composed as she lied dying in July 1817 in the small house on College Street, a stone throw from the Cathedral, concerns St. Swithin:

When Winchester races first took their beginning
It is said the good people forgot their old Saint
Not applying at all for the leave of St. Swithin
And that William of Wykham’s approval was faint.

The races however were fix’d and determin’d
The company met & the weather was charming
The Lords & the Ladies were sattin’d and ermin’d
And nobody saw any future alarming.–

But when the old Saint was inform’d of these doings
He made but one spring from his shrine to the roof
Of the Palace which now lies so sadly in ruins
And then he address’d them all standing aloof.

Jane Austen memorial plaque Winchester Cathedral

Oh subjects rebellious,  Oh Venta depraved
When once we are buried you think we are dead
But behold me Immortal. –  By vice you’re enslaved
You have sinn’d & must suffer. – Then further he said

These races & revels & dissolute measures
With which you’re debasing a neighboring Plain
Let them stand–you shall meet with your curse in your pleasures
Set off for your course, I’ll pursue with my rain.

Ye cannot but know my command in July
Henceforward I’ll triumph in shewing my powers
Shift your race as you will it shall never be dry
The curse upon Venta is July in showers

Jane kept her sense of humour to the last, did she not? What would she have thought of the shiny bronze plaque placed next to her tomb by her nephew and first biographer James Edward Austen-Leigh, and paid from the proceeds of A Memoir of Jane Austen? Of the memorial stained glass window paid by public subscription in 1900, marking her increasing fame? Or of the central heating system that disturbed her last rest?

What matters is that her beloved Cathedral stands, more beautiful than ever, witness and survivor of the convulsions of history, and she lies somewhere in its embrace.  If I may be forgiven for copying Cassandra’s words and thought, it is a satisfaction to me too. Before leaving I lit a candle in Jane’s memory, with the firm intention of returning very soon.

The exhibition will last until 20 September, and the Cathedral hopefully for many centuries to come.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

17 Comments to ““A building she admired so much…” Jane Austen at Winchester Cathedral”

  1. Kit says:

    Hi. I just wanted to say (months after this post was published) how interesting and thoughtful a read it is. I’d been trolling through the net for information on Jane Austen and Winchester Cathedral, and came across your site. I particularly appreciate the details–the quote by Cassandra Austen that starts the post; the fact of the re-placement of Jane Austen’s remains; her brother Henry’s omitting mention of her novels on her tombstone; the Latinate venta, which sent me scurrying to etymology sites. Thank you.

  2. What a fantastic post, Catherine! Your day sounds like the perfect way to honor Jane’s memory. I bet you had chills, being so close to her.

  3. Many thanks, Laurel Ann! I am happy to be able to take you with me along these Austenian journeys.
    Elizabeth’s husband, the Reverend Heathcote, was a dignitary of the Cathedral, and this gave her much influence at Winchester and within the church. I intend to return to Winchester in the coming months to find out more…

  4. Laurel Ann says:

    Catherine – you do get about to the loveliest places. So happy I can be an armchair traveler vis-à-vis Jane Austen. Like Diana, I was not aware that Elizabeth Bigg-Wither was responsible for Jane being buried at the Cathedral. Since Kings, Cardinals and dignitaries are given this honor, it is quite amazing that Elizabeth had this kind of influence with the church. I do not know much about her life expect the story about Jane being engaged to her brother for about a minute. One would assume she must have called in big favors or donated a small fortune to the church. Jane’s fame now more than qualifies her to reside there as their most famous literary resident. Very fitting. Thank you for this wonderful blog with so much info and personal observations. I love the cover of your new book by-the-way.

  5. Vic says:

    Agreed. You point out something that I will keep in mind – this image, believe it or not, is often attributed to be Cassandra’s. I will refrain from identifying it as such. Thank you for such an informative post.

  6. Catherine Delors says:

    The silhouette was definitely given to the Dean and Chapter of the Cathedral as being Jane’s. The note on the back of the frame specifically says Jane Austin [sic]. That said, the Cathedral itself is very cautious when it comes to its authenticity.
    I am not sure about the age of the subject. A woman much older than 41 (as we see for instance in the silhouette of Mrs Austen mere) would have likely lost her teeth, which would make the chin look more prominent. Here we have almost a straight line from the bottom of the nose to the chin, which gives the profile a rather severe look, but indicates a woman in the early years of middle-age. And the chin itself shows no sign of sagging.
    Indeed this could also be Cassandra. But then what about the “stylistic” argument, which points, according the exhibit to ca. 1895. Even Cassandra would have been dead then. The mystery of this portrait remains intact, I am afraid.

  7. Vic says:

    Question: I thought the silhouette was thought to be Cassandra’s; but you say it might be Jane’s? Do you not think that the profile is of a woman much older than 41? Usually the sinking or clenching of the jaw does not occur until later in life, and Cassandra lived to be a much older woman.

  8. Catherine Delors says:

    Oh there are enough JA mysteries to keep researchers busy for hundreds of years. Just look at the date discrepancy on the burial record at Winchester. What is this about? It could be trivial, or it could be very important.

  9. Christy Somer says:


    ~~These JA Mysteries certainly do continue to be seemingly unveiled~~giving us those pesky(at least to some of the established vanguards anyway ;-)) peeks around the curtain~~~~~~so maybe more enchantingly wonderful~~historically accurate as possible Stories may just be borne by Your pen to the page for All to enthusiastically engage~~~~;-)


  10. Catherine Delors says:

    Thank you, Stephanie! Indeed Jane Austen and Regency England did not exist in a historical or religious vacuum. It is impossible to visit her tomb without thinking of -almost reliving- what went on at the Cathedral in the prior centuries.

  11. Stephanie says:

    Thank for a tremendous post–especially the interweaving of the histories of the Dissolution and the Civil War.

  12. Catherine Delors says:

    Thanks, Diana, for the kind words! Indeed I love to weave the present with those levels of history. Yes, the pre-death burial is intriguing, isn’t it? Apparently Elizabeth Bigg-Wither helped with all kinds of practical matters when Cassandra and Jane were at Winchester, like finding them the lodgings on College Street, and then securing Jane’s final home in the Cathedral. I find Cassandra’s letter very interesting in that it doesn’t mention it from an honorific, self-aggrandizing standpoint, as some other family members might have done, but simply a thing Jane herself would have loved because of her affection for the building. I see it as the act of a true friend, which by all standards Elizabeth proved to be. Somehow I don’t see Henry as very successful at arranging practical details. To have him as an literary agent must have been a scary thought.

    Marilyn, the house on College Street has a proper plaque, and I saw no paper sign. Maybe at the time Ellen saw it, the occupants were bothered by would-be visitors. I didn’t see any indication either that it was open to the public. It is a very ordinary brick building, painted a strange (in my opinion) salmon color, which is a bit at odds with its surroundings.

  13. Marilyn Watson says:

    Love this Cathedral…and my regret is that I did not at least have time to look at the front of the Jane Austen last residence. But although I went to Evensong I would not leave the Cathedral until I paid my respects to J.A. and the tour guide was patient with me. I take it the hand written sign was the last house? Well, if they let People in now I will certainly go on my next trip!

  14. Superb, superb post, Catherine! Brava on your Venta! I’ve traced those steps many times, most recently last summer with other attendees of the New Directions conference at Chawton House Library. But you gave time for a real consideration of the history, recent and remote, and you movingly, hauntingly convey the collection of ages that is Winchester Cathedral. I was hoping all along you’d quote her last poem. What a strange little story you’ve uncovered about her burial before death! The vampirists will doubtless make merry with that. And, as I’ve just told our mutual friend (Tiger Lily’s papa), I’ve never before read the story of Elizabeth Bigg-Wither’s intervention in arranging for Jane to lie in the Cathedral. It would and should make a wonderful article. Unsurprisingly, there’s quite a bit of misinformation about the subject on the Net; it’s explained in various ways, from being Henry’s arrangement, to the family exercising her rights as the daughter of a clergyman.

  15. Catherine Delors says:

    Thanks, Ellen! Yes, I posted that on WWTA, ECW, Janeites and Austen L (the latter only after several unsuccessful attempts…) When I was there, everyone was very keen on helping visitors, giving directions to Jane’s last house, etc. The Cathedral guides in particular were passionate about the place, and their enthusiasm is infectious. A heart-warming feeling.

  16. ellen moody says:

    This is a really fine blog. I was there with my daughter, Isabel, say in 2001 or so. We took a bus around Winchester too. On another day we visited Portsmouth. The house across the street at the time had a hand-written sign asking people to leave the inhabitants alone. I’ve read that now the inhabitants do open the house to the public (perhaps for payment?).

    I like how you weave the different aspects of Austen together at the same time as you bring in your earliest reading experience, the sense of the catherdrale, and mistakes too.

    I like the picturesque pictures, the verse, the solemn tombstone, and especially the window of St Swithin.

    I’m sure you’d pick out a better cover illustration for your next book than has been imposed on you.

    I hope you’ve told the people on Janeites and WWTTA and ECW too.

    I don’t have to wait for to get a reaction from the Austen-l software, but I do have to wait until I get a message asking me to okay the posting, and then a response to that so it does take time before a posting appears. The listowner may be following university policy in this as Austen-l comes from a university software site.


Leave a Reply