The manor of Chawton is listed in the Doomsday Book of 1086 as Cheltone meaning 'the place where calves are reared' but since it would not have been taxable there is no mention of any church which may have been in the village at the time. The manor was given by William the Conqueror to a Norman follower, Hugh de Port, a man of considerable piety who ended his days as a monk, and it seems likely that he would have established some kind of place of worship whilst he occupied these lands particularly since the village was on the pilgrims route from Winchester to Canterbury.
The first real evidence of a church points to its having been built between 1225 and 1250 but the earliest known reference in official church records to a church in Chautone appears in a list of churches and chapels in the Diocese of Winchester dated 1270. It is possible that this church was dedicated to St. Mary and St. Nicholas which were the dedications on the two pre-reformation bells which the church contained. In 1289 Sir John de St. John was the first recorded patron and in that year William Wainbridge was replaced as Rector of Chawton by Thomas de St John. The names are known of all subsequent patrons and incumbents, the former including Queen Elizabeth, King Charles I (during the lunacy of the actual patron) and from 1578, when they acquired the manor, the Knight family until they passed it to the Bishop of Winchester in 1953 on the joining of Chawton and Farringdon as a benefice.
Nothing of significance is known about the church in the 14th and 15th centuries although in 1343 it was the subject of a writ from King Edward III to the Bishop of Winchester as a result of a dispute over the ownership of the advowson of Chauton. It is conjectured that at this time the stone building would have consisted of a chancel and nave of different widths separated by a break in the roof, with a total length of about 66ft and with a porch and door on the North East corner. A Chantry Certificate exists for the church from King Henry VIII dated 1546.
The Chawton parish registers started in 1596, the first entry being the baptism of one Steven Cornewell on the 3rd of June. The first recorded burial was on April 18th 1602 of John Rickrnan who 'died of aconsumption', but the first wedding noted was not until October 29th 1620 between John Spencer and Joan Houltombe, a curious gap. By 1641 the church may have been inadequate for the village because Richard Knight, the patron, willed that if his son, also Richard, died unmarried a new church should be built containing a monument to himself and his family and at the same time gave a silver flagon to the church. This, with two other Carolingian pieces of silver are on long loan to Winchester Cathedral Treasury. Sir Richard did marry however and instead of building a new church left £500 for a monument with a marble effigy of himself which can still be seen on the south side of the chancel.
On 20 December 1648 King Charles I, guarded by a strong body of troops, passed through Chawton on his way from confinement in Hurst Castle to Windsor and subsequently to Whitehall where he was beheaded on 30th January 1649. Otherwise Chawton church seems not to have been affected by the Civil war with the exception that in 1651 the Churchwardens paid 5 shillings '...to him who strooke out the king's arms..' and 1 shilling '...to the ringers for ringing when the King came by ...'. (Charles II was restored in 1660.)
From its representation in an 18th century painting the church now had a square belfry towards the west end with boarded sides and topped by a shingle covered spire. This was surmounted by a large cross with a weathercock on top of it. There had been mention of a repair to '. ..ye shingols .’ of the steeple in 1694.
In the 1680's the churchyard rails and walls were repaired. In 1733 the church was altered internally including being '..New Pewed and Repaired...' There was by now a gallery at the west end and Mrs Knight, the wife of the patron of the time decreed " I would Place to every House one seate for ye man, & one for ye woman. Where they have increased their Tenements, If ye Pews will not hold them, they must sit in the gallery." Detailed accounts exist for the rebuilding of the steeple in 1748. There was a serious dispute at about the same time as to whether the cost of strengthening and repairing the lower part of the edifice, the tower, be met by selling two out of the three bells. In the event all were re-hung in the belfry which was to survive another ninety years.
The connection of Chawton church with Jane Austen began in 1809 when she moved to Chawton with her mother and sister. The two latter are buried in the churchyard to the south of the chancel but Jane herself was buried in Winchester Cathedral, having moved to that city in May 1817 for better medical attention, dying that July. During the eight years that she lived in Chawton her six novels were all written or revised here and during this time she worshipped regularly in this church. She will have known the chancel which stands today, having been saved from the later fire, and those of the memorials, including some to her forbears, which were saved and re-erected in the new building. Her move to Chawton was occasioned by the inheritance of Chawton House by her brother Edward who then changed his name to Knight.
In 1838 Edward Knight, assisted by his son Charles Bridges Knight whom he had instituted as Rector the previous year, commenced the rebuilding of the church. The west end was pulled down and rebuilt, except for the porch, on the same foundations. A low brick tower was built at the centre of the west end, through which the only entrance to the church was made. The walls on the eastern part of the nave were left and double light, pointed windows inserted, with single light windows in the chancel. The screen which separated the chancel from the nave was removed and in doing so some of the most valuable evidence of the church's antiquity was destroyed. The Rector recorded in his journal; "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 of a moist sandy dirt, enough to make any place damp:' The church as altered was then entirely cased outside with stucco -as the chancel still is -and no doubt was looked upon at the time as greatly improved but by now the building had lost much of its interest and charm and the destruction of the chancel screen was an irreparable loss.
Over the next thirty years, until the Rev Charles Knight died various additions were made to the interior of the church. The floor of the sanctuary was laid with Minton tiles and the east window filled with coloured glass of a simple nature. In 1871 the 1733 pews were altered to the height of an ordinary bench and a new heating apparatus, which blew hot air into the nave, was installed. The paneling from the old pews had been installed as a dado around the nave and unfortunately this caught fire on the morning that the church was to be reopened after these alterations and a substantial part of the nave of the church together with the organ, the pulpit, the clock, several memorial tablets of great age, some stained glass windows and the pews were all damaged or destroyed. Fortunately the fire was brought under control by the Alton Volunteer Fire Brigade before it reached the chancel which was little damaged.
The work of rebuilding was started at once. Mr Blomfield, later Sir Arthur, was chosen as the architect and Messrs Dyer of Alton as the builders. A new nave was built with an 80ft tower at the south west corner, a north aisle and a vestry, the construction, in the early decorated style, being of rough flints interspersed with red sandstone and fitted with Bath stone coigns.
Nine of the windows are now fitted with coloured glass, some by Kempe, and represent memorials. In 1883 four new bells were erected in the belfry together with the two ancient ones also as a memorial as was the rood screen a few years later and the organ screen in 1896. Both screens were designed by G.F. Bodley, as was the Altar-piece, another memorial given in 1899. The centre panel in the triptych was described by Pevsner as '..Crucifixion, by a Netherlander, probably circa 1600..' and was presented to the church as by Agostino Caracci, but the actual artist is often debated. All these memorials remembered members or connections of the Knight family, direct descendants of Jane Austen's brother Edward.
Little of note has been added to the history of Chawton church during the 20th century. Memorials, including some to individuals, have been erected to the dead of the world wars and the Victorian pews are gradually being replaced by oak pews, also as memorials. In 1953 Chawton was joined with All Saints Farringdon as a benefice with the Rector living in the latter village. The Rectory, the white house at the start of the drive was sold for the benefit of the Diocese. The church has not been without troubles recently and for a period of nine years functioned very successfully although effectively without an incumbent. The parish has increased little in population since the 19th century and still has only about 300 adults living in it so that the, shortage of money which is the lot of most churches in tiny parishes is likely to continue in this, the 21st century.
Nevertheless the structure is in good s order with many repairs either recently completed or planned and in May 2000 the building was re-listed as grade 2*. The Rector, the Churchwardens, the FCC and the Parishioners of Chawton hope that you will enjoy being in the church as much as we always do.
This short history of St Nicholas Church was first produced in 1967. This new version is based largely on material provided by the research over many years of john Coates esq, a previous Churchwarden.
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