Sunday, January 07, 2007

Jane Austen Weekend (Saturday, January 6-Sunday, January 7)
Saturday: Winchester

Winchester was the ancient capital of the Anglo-Saxon Kingdom of Wessex. The first Anglo-Saxon overlord of Britain, or Bretwalda, was King Egbert, who reigned from 803 until his death in 839. His grandson, Alfred the Great (reigned 871-899), was the first ruler to style himself King of England. In Winchester, there is a large statue of Alfred near the bus station, but his burial place in the city is unknown (he was buried at Hyde Abbey, in ruins since the Dissolution in 1538). Winchester Cathedral, however, is the final resting place of King Egbert, as well as several other early British Kings (including Canute and William II). This cathedral was begun soon after the Conquest, replacing a seventh-century Anglo-Saxon cathedral founded by St. Swithin. In the picture above, you can see the Norman Romanesque north transept (11th-12th c.) and the long Perpendicular Gothic nave (14th c.)—the longest nave in England.

In the Reformation, the agents of Henry VIII came to Winchester and destroyed the shrine of St. Swithin, the cathedral's founder. In the Civil War, Parliamentary troops destroyed the carvings on the great screen behind the altar. They also dumped out the royal bones of the Saxon Kings, which were in mortuary chests, and used them to smash the stained glass windows. The bones were then jumbled together in their boxes—the mortuary chest inscribed with the name of King Egbert now contains four skulls.

Jane Austen's grave in Winchester Cathedral. Click to enlarge and read inscription.

Winchester Cathedral is full of treasures, including the remarkable illuminated Winchester Bible, the work of a single twelfth-century scribe. But what drew us to Winchester in the first place was the grave of Jane Austen, who died in Winchester on July 18, 1817. Her burial is the last burial recorded in the cathedral's record book. She had been ill for months before her death, and had recently moved to Winchester from Chawton, where she had lived with her mother and sister Cassandra since 1809. Winchester was closer to the doctor who was treating her illness. The house where she spent her last days stands next to Winchester College and a short walk from the cathedral.

Update (Monday, January 8): At Clara's request, here is a transcription of the epitaph on Jane Austen's gravestone in the floor of Winchester Cathedral:

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 REDEEMER.

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