Guide to St Nicholas

Orignial Article created by Gerry Duton, January 2000

Steventon is recorded as a manor in Domesday Book (1086), and there was certainly a manor here in Saxon times, which may have been in existence for several hundred years. At the time of Doomsday there is no mention of a church at Steventon, although churches were recorded at the nearby villages of Ashe and Deane. It is possible that there was a Saxon church at Steventon, but we have no record of it. Alternatively, there may instead have been a Saxon cross, around which the villagers would have buried their dead and travelling priests would have held religious services for the villagers. Part of the shaft of a sandstone Saxon cross, thought to be 9th Century in date, was discovered built into a wall at Steventon manor, and this is now sited inside the church just in front of the pulpit.

Dedicated to St Nicholas, the church is a small, simple, Norman building which was originally constructed around 1200. The first recorded evidence for the existence of the church at Steventon was in 1238 when it was arranged that ‘Hugh de Wengham should present a clerk and on his death Phillip de Sanderville or his heirs should present a clerk…’
Many other local churches, including those at North Waltham, Ashe and Deane, were extensively rebuilt in the 19th century. However, Steventon church, apart from some limited 13th, 15th and 19th century alterations, has stayed remarkably the same since it was first built. The building, with walls over a metre thick in places, is in the main, constructed from local flints set in a soft lime mortar and rendered over. Much of the stone for the corners and the various door and window surrounds came from Binstead in the Isle of Wight.

On the right-hand surround to the doorway, there is a sundial, otherwise known as a scratch dial or “Mass Clock”. A sundial in this position, facing west, would not be practical. However, the sundial dates from the time when the doorway was in the south wall and it faced south. Three other such dials, one large and two small, can be seen in various places on the south facing wall.

Man’s Face
Mass Clock
Woman’s Face

On either side of the main doorway are carvings of medieval heads, to the left one with a man’s face, and to the right one with a woman’s face.

Steventon church is best known for its associations with Jane Austen. It is the single most important building left standing in Steventon, which relates to her life when she lived here. The Rectory where she lived is now gone, but the church survives, and apart from a number of largely cosmetic differences, it is little changed from when she did live here. This church was an everyday part of her life, and she would certainly have no problems in recognising it as the church in which she worshipped for the first 25 years of her life.

Her father George Austen, two of her brothers James and Henry, and her nephew William Knight (the son of her brother Edward, who was born Austen and later changed his name to Knight) were all Rectors of Steventon. Prior to the Rev. George Austen taking over the living, his cousin the Rev. Henry Austen M.A. had been the Rector. Thus, members of the Austen family were Rectors of Steventon from 1759 to 1873, a period of 114 years, more than any other family in the history of the church.

Jane was baptised here as were four of her siblings, Henry, Cassandra, Francis, and Charles. Her grandmother, her eldest brother James and both his wives, Anne and Mary, are buried here. Jane’s nephew William Knight and several members of his family are also buried here, as are a number of her friends and acquaintances. Every memorial, bar one, inside the church, has a direct connection to Jane Austen. No doubt, several of the graves in the churchyard are the graves of people she knew in the village. So please come and look around this simple village church and enjoy its tranquil peace, as no doubt Jane did.

In Victorian times restoration work was carried out on the church, the stained-glass windows and much of the roof structure was rebuilt. The pews, pulpit, organ and choir stalls were added, and the church was redecorated internally. The spire was also added, so Jane would have known the church without the spire.
In the 20th century, restoration work on the church was carried out in 1934 and again in 1975, when to mark the bicentenary of Jane Austen’s birth, the main east window, which was extensively corroded, was restored. The church roof and spire were completely renovated in 1984 and in 1988 the interior of the church was renovated and redecorated. The church bells were renovated and rehung in 1995 with the generous assistance of the Jane Austen Society of North America.

The main east window

The south side of Steventon Church

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