Photo from www.astoft.co.uk/austen of Jane Austen’s gravestone in the floor of Winchester Cathedral, which reads:
In Memory of
The benevolence of her heart,
Their grief is in proportion to their affection
they know their loss to be irreparable,
Jane Austen Society of Australia
Jane Austen and Winchester Cathedral
Why was Jane Austen, a comparatively unknown novelist at the time of her death, buried among saints, kings and bishops in Winchester Cathedral?
Those fortunate members who attended this year’s JASA conference at Maitland will remember that, at our closing session, the reason for Jane’s burial in Winchester was discussed, with no satisfactory conclusion, at some length. Even our erudite guest speakers were unable to enlighten us.
The argument advanced by some (and supported in more than one biography) was that members of ‘clergy’ family were accorded this privilege; but it was pointed out that the Cathedral, capacious though it be, could not have accommodated all the clergy and clergy families who might have claimed a gravesite under its roof.
My own explanation, that it was the right of anyone who died within the Cathedral Close to be buried in the Cathedral, seemed equally unlikely considering the number of deaths that must have occurred within the precinct during the previous 800 or so years. For my impertinence, I was given the task of gathering information. Here is a summary of the few facts and opinions I have so far unearthed:
Claire Tomalin (leading biographer): ‘It was Henry surely who 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. But Henry knew the Bishop from his recent examination for ordination. Mrs Heathcote was also well known to the Dean, Thomas Rennell, through her late husband; and Rennell was a friend of the Chutes and through them James Austen, so there was no difficulty.’ (Jane Austen: A Life, Penguin 1998, p 271)
Mary Corringham (author of I, Jane Austen): ‘It was then the custom for everyone who died in the Close to be buried in Winchester Cathedral, so there she was laid to rest.’ (Jane Austen Revisited, unpublished ms c1970, p198). [This was my authority for my over-confident assertion, though I could not remember, at the time, where I had read it.]
John Hardacre (Curator, Winchester Cathedral) [2 Aug 2002, in response to our request for information]: ‘The current thinking is that her case was put by Mrs Heathcote, the widow of a Canon of the Cathedral (and, as Miss Bigg, a personal friend of Jane Austen) who was living at what is now No 11 The Close, renting it from the Revd Philip Williams who himself lived at Compton Rectory. Jane Austen however did not die in the Close but at No 8 College Street.
Professor Michael Wheeler (formerly Director of the Chawton project and now visiting Professor at Southampton University) has recently written a small booklet about Jane in Winchester, which will be published shortly. He takes this line, too.
Park Honan (biographer): ‘Elizabeth Heathcote with Alethea paid a call each day…’ and ‘Dean Rennell, it seems, had known Mr Austen, and Prebendary Nott … had been up at [Oxford] in 1788 when James Austen [was] a Fellow at St Johns … If [James] spoke of his sister’s merits to Rennell and Nott, both men listened with sympathy.’ (Jane Austen – Her Life, p 397).
Austen-Leigh & Le Faye: ‘James and Henry were constantly in attendance at College Street.’ and ‘As well as making the funeral arrangements, Henry…’ (A Family Record, pp 226 and 232)
. . .
Elizabeth Heathcote, widow of the Revd William Heathcote, was the former Elizabeth Bigg of Manydown Park. She and her sisters, Catherine and Alethea, had been intimates of Jane and Cassandra Austen from childhood. When she was widowed, Elizabeth moved back, with her baby son, to Manydown until, on the death of their father in 1813, she and Alethea moved to Winchester, living in the Close. It was Elizabeth who found lodgings for Jane and Cassandra in nearby College Street.
While there is compelling evidence that Mrs Heathcote’s representations may have been decisive, it is by no means conclusive. The decision to authorise a Cathedral burial would have rested entirely with the Dean, who was well known to James and Henry Austen as well as to Mrs Heathcote; so perhaps it was their combined advocacy that assured Jane a final resting-place in keeping with the pre-eminence she has only posthumously – and rightly – gained.
Can any JASA member provide further information?
22 February 2003