Sir Richard Knight’s reclining statue had been in the back of the church for 300 years, so great-aunt Jane Austen would have known him as well as I did. I lived at Chawton House until I was 18 and every year on Christmas Eve I took the short walk half way down the front drive to Chawton Church to see Sir Richard and check he had his holly. This family tradition was lost when my family left Chawton but, thanks to the wonderful Janeite community, has now been revived.
I liked the stillness of the quiet church when I was a girl, and I loved to read the inscriptions and plaques dedicated to the Knights and the Austens—records of the centuries of our ancestors in Chawton.
At the very back of the church, on the right wall of the chancel, Sir Richard Knight reclined in marble. He had been installed three centuries earlier on what appeared to be the mantelpiece of a grand fireplace. He wore battle dress and a wig like the judge. The marble behind Sir Richard was carved in relief with suits of armour, swords and helmets. The monument was finished at the top with the Knight coat of arms, crest and motto. The date ‘1679’ marked his death and was all I could make out from the Latin inscription below the mantel. The Knight arms were featured in the stained-glass window next to Sir Richard on the back wall of the chancel.
With too many ‘greats’ for me to calculate—about ten, I thought—I had decided to consider myself Sir Richard’s great-granddaughter. A more accurate description of the relationship between us, with the house having passed to numerous different branches of the family, seemed difficult to determine and unnecessary. He was a Knight from Chawton, Edward Austen had become a Knight from Chawton and so was I; therefore, we were family and all of the previous Squires were my great-grandfathers—simple.
Sir Richard had a serious face, and I tried to imagine what sort of man he had been. The faces of our many ancestors were depicted in oil paintings throughout the house, but this was the only three-dimensional statue. It was as if he were frozen in time, lost in the eyes of Medusa, his white marble skin smooth and flawless. He looked well fed and healthy.
When he left provisions in his will for the monument to be constructed, did he think that three hundred years later, his descendants would still be living in Chawton House? Sir Richard could not possibly have imagined that this estate would one day boast a world-renowned writer as one of its own. And especially not a woman! Jane would have known Sir Richard just as I did; much of the old wooden church had been destroyed by fire and rebuilt in 1872, but the chancel and family vault underneath had remained intact, and Sir Richard had not been disturbed.
In 1644, when Sir Richard was five, Oliver Cromwell enforced an Act of Parliament which banned Christmas celebrations in England, as Christmas was considered a wasteful festival that threatened core Christian beliefs. The ban was not lifted until Sir Richard was twenty-one, although many people had continued to celebrate Christmas in secret. I hated the thought of Sir Richard missing Christmas as a child and hoped his family had marked the occasion, even if behind closed doors.
It was a family tradition to place a sprig of holly in the hand of his statue in December every year—to ensure Sir Richard didn’t miss out on any more Christmases. We were forced to give up Chawton House as our family home at the end of the 1980s and, during this very difficult time in my family’s history, our traditions were forgotten – including Sir Richard.
That was until 16th December 2015 when Rita L Watts (the woman behind the popular Facebook page All Things Jane Austen) visited Chawton with author Cassandra Grafton for Jane Austen’s birthday. I awoke the next morning (in Melbourne where I now live) to photographs of Sir Richard with holly in his hand! My heart sang and I jumped for joy – it meant so much to me that Sir Richard didn’t miss Christmas.
Every year since, a Janeite has volunteered to visit Sir Richard for me and this tradition has been reinstated. This year I was contacted by Zoe Wheddon from the Basingstoke area, who had a trip to Chawton planned. Zoe had read the story of Sir Richard and his Christmas holly in my book and wanted to make sure he had his holly this year.
Helped by the wonderful garden manager at Chawton House, Andrew, Zoe cut some holly from the woods, just as we would have done, and put it in Sir Richard's hand.
Thank you Zoe - I can truly enjoy Christmas now, knowing that Sir Richard is enjoying it too!
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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