Monday, July 13, 2009

Jane Austen: Sleeping with the Saints

July 15th is St. Swithin’s day, the patron saint of Winchester Cathedral. He was bishop there at the time of his death in 862 A.D. Swithin was dedicated to the building of churches and bridges and spent much of his time on construction sites, visiting with the workers and local residents. On his deathbed, he requested burial in the churchyard rather than a cathedral crypt so that his body “might be subject to the feet of passers-by and to the raindrops pouring from on high.”

St. Swithin earned his reputation as a weather saint when his body was moved to a shrine inside the Cathedral on July 15, 971 A.D. This “translation” is said to have been delayed by rain which continued for forty days, giving rise to the saying:

St. Swithin’s day if thou does rain
For forty days it will remain
St. Swithin’s day if thou be fair
For forty days will rain no more

Swithin is also the patron saint of apple growers. Rain on St. Swithin’s Day is said to be a blessing on the crop. Tradition states no apples should be picked or eaten before July 15th.
Winchester Cathedral
Many early Saxon kings and clergymen are buried in Winchester Cathedral. The Viking conqueror Canute and his wife Emma are there, along with William I, son of William the Conqueror. Izaak Walton lies in the Fishermen’s Chapel. But by far the most well-known is Jane Austen.

In May,1817, Ms. Austen was so ill she took up residence at No. 8 College Street in the city of Winchester so she could be near her doctor. She died in her sister Cassandra’s arms in the early hours of July 18, 1817. Her body was interred in the Cathedral’s north aisle just before prayers on July 24th. Austen’s stone reads:
In Memory of
youngest daughter of the late
formerly Rector of Steventon in this County
She departed this Life on the 18th of July1817,
aged 41, after a long illness supported with
the patience and hopes of a Christian.

The benevolence of her heart,
the sweetness of her temper, and
the extraordinary endowments of her mind
obtained the regard of all who knew her and
the warmest love of her intimate connections.
Their grief is in proportion to their affection
they know their loss to be irreparable,
but in their deepest affliction they are consoled
by a firm though humble hope that her charity,
devotion, faith and purity have rendered
her soul acceptable in the
sight of her

Adjacent to her grave is a brass memorial plaque erected by her nephew, James Edward Austen-Leigh, from the proceeds of his Memoir of Jane Austen. The Jane Austen Society sees to it fresh flowers are place there every week.
-->Jane Austen
known to many by her
writings, endeared to
her family by the
varied charms of her
Character, and ennobled
by Christian Faith
and Piety, was born
at Steventon in the
county of Hants, Dec.
xvi mdcclxxv and buried
in this Cathedral
July xxiv mdcccxvii
“She openth her
mouth with wisdom
and in her tongue is
the law of kindness.”
Prob xxxi xxvi

There is much speculation about why Ms. Austen wasn’t buried in Steventon or her beloved Chawton, but in Winchester Cathedral--an honor afforded only the most important personages. Clearly, from the wording of her headstone, she'd not yet achieved notoriety as the great author we know her to be today. In a February 22, 2003 article for the Jane Austen Society of Australia (Jane Austen and Winchester Cathedral), Paul Henningham postulates she was interred there because anyone who died within the Cathedral Close had a right to be. (The “close” is the buildings attached or appended to a church. In this case, the Winchester Cathedral precinct wall ran along the north side of College Street.) Ms. Austen’s brother Henry had recently undergone his ordination exam and likely petitioned the Bishop. In addition, Jane’s friend Elizabeth Heathcote, (widow of the Rev. William Heathcote, a Cathedral Canon) also lobbied to have her buried there.
Perhaps the reason they wanted Jane buried there was because her parents were married at "old" St. Swithin's in Bath in 1764, and her father was buried at "new" St. Swithin's in 1805. It must have seemed like Providence when she passed away under the auspices of St. Swithin in Winchester.
Ms. Austen was the last person interred in the Cathedral because of a rising water table.