Chawton Great House, as Jane Austen called her brother's home, was built around 1585 by John Knight, and has passed down from one generation to the next ever since – the freehold has never been sold. The heraldic stained glass-windows in the picture gallery serve as a wonderful record of centuries of continuous Knight family ownership, but hide an extraordinary family history.
Chawton House Library posted a wonderful picture of Edward Austen's heraldic window this week, and it reminded me when I was about 12 and, for the first time, I learned the names of every squire that had come before my grandfather Edward Knight III, the fifteenth squire.
It was 1982, and my father and I stood at the heraldic windows on the landing outside my grandparents’ bedroom chambers on the first floor of Chawton House. We lived in the north wing, but moved around the house freely (except for a couple of apartments that were rented out). Dad explained the significance of the two sets of windows which overlooked the inner courtyard - each depicted six shields in stained glass that recorded each member of our family who had owned Chawton House, in succession. Under each vibrantly coloured shield were the names of the squires with their arms and the date of their inheritance of the house.
Multiple squires were listed underneath a few of the shields in the stained-glass windows, but most shields listed only one squire. Although each shield was a different combination of arms—evidence of families joining through marriage, inheritance and adoption—every shield included gold lozenges set diagonally on a green background (the Knight arms). Some of the squires were of particular note and familiar to me, but other names I knew little about. From the first to the last, each was named Knight.
Long before I first saw the stained-glass windows, I had seen in my grandparents’ quarters an iron fireback marked ‘JK 1588’—the name and date under the first glass shield was ‘John 1583’. John Knight was the principal builder of the house. I was about seven when I first calculated that my family had owned Chawton for nearly four centuries—it was such a long time, it might as well have been forever. I later discovered that the Knights had been in Chawton for over six and a half centuries and had held land in the parish since at least 1307.
I had long assumed I was a direct descendant of John Knight, but was soon to learn that it wasn’t quite that simple.
The stained-glass windows made it easy for me to establish just how many squires there had been. ‘John 1583’, ‘Stephen 1620’, ‘John 1627’, ‘Richard 1636’ and ‘Sir Richard 1641’ completed the names under the first three shields. Sir Richard left no children and chose another Richard—Richard Martin, his aunt’s grandson, as his successor on the condition that he took the name of Knight. (The name ‘Richard’ was obviously of some amusement to Jane. At the beginning of Northanger Abbey, Jane tells us that Catherine Morland’s father was ‘a very respectable man, though his name was Richard.’)
‘Richard 1679’ and ‘Christopher 1687’ were under the next shield, which included a quarter of arms with three birds (at least that’s what they looked like to me). Both Martin brothers were also childless, making three childless squires in succession. ‘Who decides who the next squire will be?’ I asked, and my father explained that it was the duty of each squire to name their heir, usually their eldest son. If the squire had no children, then a suitable relation had to be found to continue the family legacy and be prepared for the responsibilities he would inherit. In an unusual move for the time, Christopher left the estates to his sister, Elizabeth, who ran the estates well. I was thrilled to hear a woman had run the estates but was confused as I had always believed only men could inherit - you can read more about that in my book Jane & Me: My Austen Heritage, and what Jane might of thought of the extraordinary terms of Elizabeth's will that changed the course of history, led to legal challenges of Edward Austen's ownership of the estates and caused uncertainty for Jane and her Chawton home.
The second set of windows started with Thomas Knight, second cousin to George Austen who appointed George the Rector of Steventon, a parish also owned by the Knights. Like all previous shields, Thomas’s shield included the Knight arms of gold lozenges set diagonally on a green background but with the addition of a small flower towards the bottom left.
Like her brothers, Elizabeth had no children and chose as her successor her second cousin Thomas from the Brodnax branch of her family. Thomas was also heir to Godmersham Park, and his succession brought the estates together under the same squire. Thomas had already received his inheritance from the May family and, as a condition, had changed his name to Thomas May by an Act of Parliament, as was required. When he sought another Act of Parliament to change his name once more—to Knight, to inherit Chawton House—it was flippantly suggested in the House of Commons that a law be passed to allow Thomas to call himself whatever he liked. ‘Or whatever he May,’ my father quipped. The arms were altered to signify the distance of the blood relationship between Elizabeth and Thomas. ‘Thomas 1737’ and ‘Thomas 1781’ were the names under the next two shields.
Thomas left the estates to his son, Thomas II, who was childless and who, at the end of the eighteenth century, chose Jane’s older brother, Edward Austen, my fourth great-grandfather, as his heir. He was commonly referred to as Edward Austen Knight, despite never having carried both surnames, and Edward’s heraldry included both the Knight and Austen arms. The Austen arms, a red chevron with three black bear paws, came from the John Austen Esq. of Broadford in Kent, a picturesque Elizabethan residence. Over the fireplace in the entrance hall at Broadford are the Austen arms, with the date ’1587’— the Austens had equally as long a history as the Knights.
The windows were installed by Montagu, the thirteenth squire. Montagu and Florence had not had children, and for the eighth time in our history, the squire did not have an heir. Montagu chose his brother’s first-born son, Lionel, my great grandfather (and Edward Austen’s great grandson), to succeed him.
My mind burst with all the twists and turns of the inheritance of the house over the centuries. The Chawton estate passing from father to eldest son was said to be tradition, but our history showed this not to be the case for the majority of the squires. Since John Knight—the first squire in the stained-glass windows—the house had been passed from father to eldest son on only five occasions, the last being from Lionel to Edward (my grandfather), the fifteenth squire, in 1932.
My grandfather died in 1987 and Chawton was inherited by my his eldest son (my uncle), Richard Knight. I was seventeen and Chawton House could no longer be kept as our family home. Although Chawton House is now on a long lease to a charity, Richard has retained the freehold to be passed down to his descendants, and I would like to think that one day the heraldic windows will be updated with the next generation of owners, each carrying the name of Knight.
Caroline Jane Knight is Jane Austen's fifth great-niece and the last Austen to grow up at Chawton House on the ancestral estate where Jane herself lived and wrote. You can read more about Caroline's extraordinary childhood in JANE & ME: MY AUSTEN HERITAGE, available in PAPERBACK, HARDBACK, E-BOOK and AUDIOBOOK at all good online retailers. 15% of any profits made are donated to the Jane Austen Literacy Foundation
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