A church has stood on the site of the present St. Nicholas since at least 1270 when it was mentioned in a diocesan document, but there is reason to believe that a place of worship existed there well before that date. The building was enlarged and improved inside and out over the years and much of it was re-built in the early Victorian period. However a disastrous fire in 1871 effectively destroyed the whole building except for the chancel so that the present nave, north aisle, vestry and tower date only from 1872/3 although many of the early memorials were saved and are still on the walls.
The village of Chawton is nowadays invariably linked to the early 19thC novelist Jane Austen. Her brother Edward inherited the Chawton estate, taking the name Knight, and in July 1809 Jane with her mother and sister were offered a home in what is now a museum dedicated to her. Here she revised, or wrote all her novels and during that time worshipped regularly in St. Nicholas and often wrote of the church although because of the fire the only part she would recognise today would be the chancel. Jane lodged in Winchester for the last three months of her life for medical attention and was buried in the Cathedral in July 1817. Her mother and sister are buried together near the south wall of this church.
On the south wall of the nave is a Roll of the incumbents of the church since 1289. The Church Registers go back to 1596.
The church and surrounding churchyard are effectively an island in the grounds of Chawton House, the large Tudor house at the top of the drive past the church. This is now Chawton House Library, a charitable foundation established as a centre for the study of the works of early English women writers (1600 -1830). Together with the old stables of the house, probably built on the site of the original manor house and now a private residence, these three buildings are set in charming surroundings some half a mile from the village.
The churchyard is entered through a Iychgate off the drive to the house and a path leading to a porch at the west entrance. This is immediately under the 80ft tower which is topped with four pinnacles. Just below the battlements are shields in relief, two on each side. Four of these bear the arms of Knight and of Hardy, both major contributors to the re-building. On the other four are a ship, a pelican, the Agnus Dei and a pastoral staff with the initials SW for the then Bishop of Winchester.
The large expanse of the tiled north roof of the nave is broken by three gables and the north walls have a total of six windows. There are large stained glass windows in the east and west ends and a further four in the south walls.
The churchyard is surrounded on the north side by park railings under high yew trees and on the west by a pillared brick wall on top of an 8ft flint retaining wall built in 1872 and listed Grade 2. Immediately below this is the course of the Lavant bourne which used to run every winter at some depth but now rarely fills. A similar wall, built in 1932, encloses the south boundary.
To the north, the border with Chawton House grounds is variously a brick wall and some modem palings with in the centre a second lychgate, identical with the main one, (both are listed Grade 2) leading to the house lawns. Close to this are a number of Knight family graves, theirs being the only family still having the right to be buried in the churchyard. The yard itself contains several very ancient graves (two are currently listed Grade 2) but many of the headstones have been removed and propped against the east wall, presumably as they have toppled. There are a number of large yew trees, the largest being immediately outside the porch and having a girth of just over 10ft.
The interior consists of a nave, chancel and sanctuary, and a north aisle with the vestry at the west end. The organ occupies an arch between the chancel and the vestry, and the organ screen by G.F.Bodley was erected in 1896. Over the altar is a Reredos of the Crucifixion and saints, presented by Mr and Mrs Montague Knight in 1898 as being by Agostino Caracci (1557 -1602) although Pevesner only attributes it to "a Nederlander, probably c1600." The rood screen was also designed by Bodley who incidentally was the architect for Washington Cathedral. In 1838 during Victorian 'improvements' to the interior the then screen was removed and the Rector of the day recorded; "In taking the plaster off the screen the wall was found covered all over with paintings, apparently figures of persons, but it was impossible to make anything out accurately. The Wall was evidently very old, and made of the worst materials, some sort of moist sandy dirt, enough to make any place damp". The paintings -generally known as Doom Paintings - were probably whitewashed over at the time of the Civil War in 1642. The communion rail is 18th C, must have survived the fire, and Jane Austen will have knelt at it many times.
The nave is furnished with modem oak pews, replacing the varnished Victorian originals. A faculty has existed since 1939 for these to be given by families as memorials and the last was dedicated only in 1999. One of the 1733 pews which survived the fire is fixed to the west wall of the nave. The chandeliers in the aisle date from 1912; similar ones in the nave were stolen in 1977 and had to be replaced by modern lights.
A large majority of the memorials in the church relate to the Knight family, the forbears and descendants of Jane Austen's brother, that Edward Austen who took the name Knight, and most of whom lived in Chawton House. The Prowtings were another local family remembered in a number of memorials; they lived in the house of that name in the village, recently rebuilt on the foundations of the building they would have known. The Clements, also remembered several times, lived in the large house at the far el1d of the village, now Alphonsus House. The Bradford family, connected with Chawton House and who lived for a while at what is nowThe Dower House have a number of memorials including the most recent of the oak pews.
An unknown number of memorials were lost in the fire of 1871 but a great many were rescued and replaced in the new building. The most conspicuous is the marble semi-recumbent effigy to Sir Richard Knight dating from 1679.
Sir Richard's father had directed in his will that should his son die unmarried, a new church should be built. In the event Sir Richard did marry and instead of building a new church left £500 for this monument to himself.
There are, of course, memorials to the dead of the two world wars and a number to individual servicemen. A rather sad marble situated just inside the main entrance is to Captain Charles Knight, a younger son of Chawton House, who went straight from Sandhurst out to the Crimean War and there died of fever less than a year later and at the age of nineteen. Another interesting one on the north wall immediately opposite to the entrance is to Colonel Sir Edward Bradford. Having served in the Mutiny and elsewhere in India he returned to this country briefly to marry a daughter of the Edward Knight of the day and therefore a great niece of Jane Austen. Their first two little boys died in India within a month of each other and have a memorial in the vestry as has another son who died in Calcutta aged 23. Meanwhile Major Bradford after serving in the Indian Political Service and becoming Commissioner for Dacoity and Thugee returned to England and became Metropolitan Commissioner of Police and was created a baronet. He lived in Chawton at this time. His surviving son was killed commanding his regiment in the first month of the Great War and is commemorated on a plaque near to that of his father. Lady Bradford is also commemorated with a window which she must have well deserved having followed her husband during his adventurous life; a life of which he spent the last forty years with only one arm, his left arm having been bitten off by a man-eating tiger.
Two memorials of interest to Jane Austen readers are currently hidden in the vestry but are shortly to be moved to the nave. One is to the memory of Jane's mother, Cassandra Austen who died at Chawton in 1827 aged 87 and was erected by her children Edward Knight and Henry, Francis, Charles and Cassandra Austen. Jane had pre-deceased her and is therefore not mentioned. The second is to this sister Cassandra who died in 1845 aged 72.
There are a number of memorials to Rectors of the parish, several of whom were Knights. One remembers The Rev John Hinton who died in office in 1802 aged 82 having been Rector for the 58 years since 1744.
The four heraldic memorial plates fixed to the rood screen commemorate the deaths of four 17th century Knights, the earliest being John Knight who died in 1620.
With few exceptions, such as very long serving church workers (of which there are four examples, small brass plaques on the West wall) diocesan policy dictates that virtually the only way in which individuals can now have memorials erected to them inside the church is by dedicating a new oak pew to them.
St. Nicholas has eleven stained glass windows, a plain one in the vestry and a blind one on the north chancel wall. Examples of work by Hardman, Frampton, Bell and Kempe are featured and there is much armorial glass. The large window at the east end of the church over the altar has been replaced a number of times both before and since the fire, which it survived, the last time in 1916 when it was dedicated as a memorial. The dedication of all the windows as memorials can be seen below them. From an artistic point of view the best are those in the north wall of the aisle, being by Kempe. The window in the South wall of the chancel was damaged by thieves who broke into the church through it in 1977.
Although the patron saint of the church is St. Nicholas it is possible that the original dedication was to St. Mary and St. Nicholas because the pre-reformation bells of the church had the dedications;
Sancte Nicolai ora pro nobis
Sancta Maria ora pro nobis
By 1748 a third bell had been added and there was a row between the Rector and parishioners as to whether two of the bells should be sold to pay for some very necessary repairs to the building. They were not sold but remained in situ until 1838 when they were taken down at the time of the alterations to the church. They were next mentioned in 1884 when, as a memorial to Isabella, the wife of A. Shaw Stewart Esq, , ...Two of the ancient bells of this parish were erected in the belfry and four new bells were dedicated. ..'. The four new bells actually included one of the earlier bells which had been re-cast, and the bells now bear the inscriptions;
Sancta Maria ora pro nobis
Henry Knight made mee 1621
Her children rise up and call her blessed
Her husband also and he praises her
We praise Thee O God
O come let us worship.
The organ was built in 1893 by Wordsworth of Leeds to replace one' ...being too small for the requirements of the Parish Church of Chawton. ..' and the cost, about £300, was defrayed by public subscriptions. The screen, designed by G.EBodley, was erected in 1896 as a memorial. A faculty was granted in 1989 to mothball the organ which although playing well needed considerable refurbishment, until funds could be collected.
A substantial donation from a parishioner allowed the installation of a subsidiary electronic organ by Makins. On the Easter Sunday on which this was to be dedicated worshippers arrived to find that on the orders of the incumbent a bonfire had been made of most of the wooden parts of the Wordsworth organ, and all the rest of it not visible from the nave had been dismantled. The dismantled pipes have since been used to enlarge a two other organs.
St. Nicholas has three major items of silver which because of the cost of insurance and secure storage are currently on long loan to the Treasury of Winchester Cathedral where they can be viewed.
A Chalice and Paten cover: This is a 61/2 ins Cup with a 43/4 ins cover with a total weight of 14 ozs. Made by RS with a London hallmark for 1667.
A Paten: This has a diameter of 93/4 ins and weighs 25 ozs. Made by Benjamin Pyne with a London hallmark for 1726. Engraved with arms and the inscription "The gift of Mrs Elizabeth Knight to Chawton Church, in Hampshire, 1724."(sic)
A Flagon: This is tankard shaped with a domed cover standing 9 ins high and weighing 28 ozs. It has a London hallmark for 1641 with ES in a dotted circle for the maker. It has a coat of arms and a Latin inscription indicating that was a gift of Richard Knight for the administration of the Sacrament in Chawton.
In addition there is a 12 ins silver Alms Dish weighing 39 ozs with a Birmingham hallmark for 1883, a mark HP & Co for the makers and an inscription "To the Glory of God and in memory of George Wolfe, presented to St. Nicholas Church, Chawton, Cheshire (sic) 1883". George Wolfe was an artist who lived in the village in what is now Alphonsus House, and gave his name to Wolfe Lane. This alms dish is also in the Treasury at Winchester.
Also of note is a very fme Processional Cross of silver and enamel standing overall 7feet 8inches high mounted on a black ebony staff. It was made by Omar Ramsden with a London hallmark for 1912 and is engraved with arms and a memorial inscription to Sir Edward Bradford whose career is described above. This is held in a Bank Vault and can therefore only be used on major occasions. Other pieces of church plate and brass altar furniture, an of them inscribed as memorials, are held securely but used for an services.
There are two war graves in the cemetery. In 1961 the bodies of three German airmen whose plane crashed locally during the 1939-45 war were removed for re-interment in the Central German Cemetery.
A Brief History of St Nicholas Church, Chawton is also on sale, and this contains considerably more historical details about the church. Both these publications owe a great deal to the research of John Coates, esq, sometime churchwarden of St. Nicholas, who has privately published 'St. Nicholas Church, Chawton; A Chronicle covering Seven Centuries'. Copyright John Coates (1995).
Thie article is Copyright © Chawton Parochial Church Council (2000).
Permission has been given by the rector for its inclusion here.
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