Austen and the Cathedral: Was Interment a Signal Honor?

Austen and the Cathedral: Was Interment a Signal Honor?

July 18, 2017, marks the 200th anniversary of the death of Jane Austen. At that date, the official commemoration begins. Tributes will flow through any number of activities, readings, evensongs, and events, leading to July 24, the date of her funeral. In the UK, public benches are being dedicated to Austen, and the “Rain Jane” program will have Austen’s words appear in public places throughout Hampshire whenever there is precipitation. These are just a few of the many events scheduled throughout the year.

Winchester Cathedral, where she is interred, will be the focus of many of the activities. One of these will be the unveiling of the £10 note graced with her face (above, by headline). As she is also on the £2 coin, Austen will be the first person other than a monarch to appear on more than one form of British currency at the same time. Cathedral bells will toll 41 times to mark each of her years on this earth.

Her burial raises an interesting question: Why, when this comparatively obscure spinster died in 1817, was she buried in a cathedral which houses the bones of Saxon kings and saints? This, in fact, is the subject of a talk scheduled by Professor Michael Wheeler at the cathedral on July 21.

King Cnut (Canute) is one of the ancient kings and bishops interred at Winchester Cathedral, along with Jane Austen.

It seems highly unusual for an ordinary citizen to be buried in a place normally reserved for secular and religious leaders. According to Jo Bartholomew, curator and librarian at the cathedral, the mortuary chests hold such dignitaries as: Cynigils and Cenwalh, two Christian kings from the seventh century; Kings Egbert and Ethelwulf (grandfather and father of King Alfred); King Cnut (Canute) and his Queen Emma; two bishops, Alwyn and Stigand; and king William Rufus. Most had been originally buried in Old Minster, the predecessor to Winchester Cathedral, which was just to the north and partially beneath it.

Was it common for an ordinary citizen to be buried there in 1817, or was this an extraordinary honor? In those days, not so extraordinary after all. Indeed, Jane was the third and last person buried there that year. Cost, rather than rank, may have been the limiting factor for a cathedral interment. Jane’s funeral expenses came to £92, a significant amount for someone of her means. Clearly, she or her family was determined to make a statement—after all, none of her brothers, including Frank, who died the highest-ranking naval officer in England, received such a burial.

Elizabeth Proudman, vice chairman of the Jane Austen Society and an expert on Jane Austen, said in a letter that the location was likely Austen’s choice: “I believe that she is buried there, because she wanted to be. It was up to the Dean in those days to decide who could and who could not be buried in the Cathedral. Usually it was enough to be respectable and ‘gentry.’ This, of course, she was as her late father and two of her brothers were in the church.”

Jane’s father, George, had been the rector at Steventon, fourteen miles away, until he retired in 1801. He was succeeded by James, his oldest son, who still held that position in 1817. Henry, who had taken up the cloth after his bank collapsed in the recession of 1816, also had a clerical position nearby. It probably did not hurt that Jane’s brother Edward was the wealthy inheritor of the Knight estate, with extensive holdings in Steventon and Chawton, which was sixteen miles away. From his recent ordination, Henry knew the Bishop, according to Claire Tomalin; and the Dean, Thomas Rennell, was a friend of the important Chute family who were relatives of the Austens.

Having lived at Chawton for nine years, where she wrote or significantly revised her oeuvre, Jane was taken to Winchester for unsuccessful medical treatment. “She had been ill in Winchester for about two months, and I think her burial must have been discussed,” Proudman says. “I like to think that her family would have talked about it with her, and that they followed her wishes. … It may be that she had no particular attachment to the village [of Chawton]. We know that she admired Winchester Cathedral, and she knew several of the clergy. When she died she had some money from her writing, and her funeral expenses were paid from her estate. It was a tiny funeral, only 3 brothers and a nephew attended, and it had to be over before the daily business of the Cathedral began at 10.00 am.”

In fact, most funerals were relatively small in those days, and women did not attend. Cassandra, with their friend Martha Lloyd (James’ sister-in-law), “watched the little mournful procession the length of the street & when it turned from my sight I had lost her for ever.” In a letter to their niece Fanny in the days after Jane’s death, Cass added: “I have lost a treasure, such a Sister, such a friend as can never be surpassed,—She was the sun of my life, the gilder of every pleasure, the soother of every sorrow, I had not a thought concealed from her, & it is as if I have lost a part of myself. … Never was [a] human being more sincerely mourned … than was this dear creature.”

Edward, Francis, and Henry were the brothers who attended. Charles was too far away to come. James was ill (he died two years later), but his son, James Edward, rode from Steventon to Winchester for the service. Thomas Watkins, the Precentor (a member of a church who facilitates worship), read the service. Jane was interred in a brick-lined vault on the north side of the nave.

While Jane is interred at a grand cathedral, her mother (left) and sister are buried in the churchyard at Chawton, close to where all three women lived.

Tomalin believes it was Henry who “surely sought permission for their sister to be buried in the cathedral; splendid as it is, she might have preferred the open churchyard at Steventon or Chawton.” One suspects it was Henry who pushed for the cathedral, and Jane would have been happy to be at rest anywhere. Yet, modest as she was in many ways, she understood the worth of her writing. She may have made the decision with a view to posterity. In any event, Cassandra was pleased with the decision. “It is a satisfaction to me,” she said, that Jane’s remains were “to lie in a building she admired so much—her precious soul I presume to hope reposes in a far superior mansion.”

Henry arranged for a plaque to be installed in the cathedral to commemorate Jane’s benevolence, sweetness, and intellect—but curiously enough, not her writing. As the popularity of her novels grew over time, officials were baffled by the pilgrims coming to visit the crypt of a woman the church knew not as a brilliant novelist but only as the daughter of a rural clergyman.

12 Responses to Austen and the Cathedral: Was Interment a Signal Honor?

  1. Thank you for answering this question, Collins! It is funny, but I never gave it much thought until very recently. The Jane Austen Festival here in Louisville was this past weekend, and the theme was Jane Austen’s death. In fact, we had a funeral processional for Jane as the promenade. Anyway, as I was chatting to my husband about it, for the first time it really hit me how odd it must have been for a “regular citizen” to be buried at the Cathedral. My hubby even jokingly chastised me for not knowing why! LOL! He was right, I admit. Now, I can give him the answer! Very enlightening, and timely. 🙂

    • Sharon, after I posted the blog, I read that the cathedral may have been selling burials to raise money. In a morbidly strange way, the world has a lovely church setting for Austen’s remembrance because Henry took advantage of a sale!

  2. This is a lovely post. I was lucky enough to visit Winchester Cathedral and Jane’s grave last year on my way back from Bath to Southampton airport. I didn’t have long but it was enough for me to stand there and think about her. I also often felt that Cassandra must have been sad for the rest of her days after Jane died. To live so long afterwards must have been a sort of torture.

    • Teresa, I have no doubt Cassandra was speaking with painful precision when she said Jane’s death was “as if I have lost a part of myself.” Like Regina, I was in tears in putting this blog together. I had to leave out the part of Cass holding Jane in her arms in her last hours. …

  3. Thank you for an interesting post, Collins. Family may have been proud and embarrassed at the same time in regard to Jane’s writings. She must have been a fascinating person to know with so many facets to her personality. I do feel for Cassandra, though, in losing her best friend. She lived 31 years after Jane died, and she probably thought about her sister every day. Thanks again.

  4. When my mother and I did our “genealogy and literature” tour in England in 2007 we visited many Austen sites including Winchester Cathedral. As we walked throughout the entire Cathedral, Mom read a description she had copied from the internet of what her gravesite looked like while I looked for it. We seemed to have gone everywhere, but missed it. Finally mom got out her compass to help us find the correct spot and as she was trying to get a reading, she dropped the compass. As I bent down to pick it up for her – I read the writing on the floor – Jane Austen’s grave marker – then we saw flowers and another plaque on the wall in the nave. We jumped and giggled – as only Austenites would do. Saying to each other “We are standing on her!” That was an important moment for me – as was walking up and down Granny’s Teeth at Lime Regis and seeing Jane’s desk and necklace at Chawton… Jane would understand the giggles and the shared silliness of mom and daughter who both love her so much!

    • Mary, what a lovely story. I have been to Chawton and to Austen’s haunts in Bath but have not so far been to Winchester. All I know is that the guidebooks say she was buried in the north nave.

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