On this, the last Sunday in Advent and the week before Christmas, I thought it might be appropriate to begin a small series of posts about the church which has so many associations with Jane Austen, St Nicholas’s Parish Church, Steventon.
The Rectory where Jane Austen was born in Steventon in 1775, was demolished circa 1823-4, by her brother, Edward Knight. He built a new Rectory for his son, William Knight, who was to be the new Rector, taking over from his uncle, Henry Austen. This was sited away from the position of the old rectory, on the other side of the valley in order to avoid the frequent floods that so badly afflicted the old building. In November of this year a serious archaeological study of the remains of the old rectory took place, and there will be an exhibition of its findings next year in Basingstoke. Here is a link to a BBC report( only 3 minutes long) about the dig and what it hopes to resolve( i.e. exactly what the rectory looked like, given the differing version of the existing drawings of it- more on this later!). I will, hopefully, keep an eye on all developments on this story for you…but , of course, with the demolition of the Rectory, the parish church where her father and two brothers were rectors is now the only remaining building in the village that has very close associations with Jane Austen.
This, above, is the view along the lane from the site of the old Rectory to the Church, which Jane Austen and her family must have traversed countless times, going to and from services. The village is still small, and was small when Jane Austen lived there, from 1775-1801. The houses and farms are all straggled along the winding lanes of this part of Hampshire. Here is a section from my copy of John Cary’s map of Hampshire, dating from 1797, which shows the positions of the villages where George Austen held livings: Steventon, Deane and Ashe:
George Austen, Jane’s father, became rector of this church in 1761, thought he didn’t “do the duty ” at the church until he took up residence at Dene another of his parishes, which you can see is not far from Steventon, until 1764. He became rector of this church through the good graces of his cousin by marriage, Thomas Knight of Godmersham.
The church is dedicated to St Nicholas, from whom the Santa Clause legend has derived. St Nicolas was reputed to have been Nikolaos, Bishop of Myra , now known as Demre, which is to be found in modern-day Turkey. He was known for giving secret gifts to deserving people, and many miracles were associated with him. His relics were moved from Myra to Bari, in Italy, in 1087. His fame spread through the Christian world when Crusaders learned of his story during their return form the First Crusade, circa 1096-99.
The church was built probably around 1200 by the Lords of the Manor of Steventon. At the time George Austen became Rector it was in a very dilapidated state, a condition it shared with the Rectory. The spire was in such a bad condition that it was blown down in a gale in 1764. George Austen didn’t replace it, so the church that Jane Austen did not include the spire that we see today.
He did however, repair the roof and in 1765 wrote to the Bishop of Winchester to assure him that:
The church and chancel are in good repair and everything necessary for the celebrations of divine service and the administration of holy sacrament are provided.
The church is approached through a simple iron gate,
and the entrance to the church is through a door in the West wall, at the base of the tower:
Either side of the door are two medieval heads, one of a man, on the left
and a woman , on the right:
You can see some marks radiating from a central hole in the stone , just beneath the woman’s head in the picture above. This is a form of sundial known as a scratch dial or “Mass Clock”
The doorway dates from the 13th century, when the original door in the south wall of the nave of the church was blocked up. Next in this series we shall go inside the church to look at its rather simple but beautiful interior. But before we do you might like to see the church notice board:
which is adorned with this small carving of Jane Austen at her writing-table:
to alert anyone who is ignorant of the fact that this church has many, many strong associations with Jane and her family. We shall learn more of them in our next post.