Chawton House was built around 1585 by John Knight and has been passed down through sixteen generations, from different branches of the Knight family (the last being the Austen branch), never being sold.
Chawton House was my childhood home – I lived there until I was eighteen. I am the granddaughter of the fifteenth squire, Edward Knight III, the third great grandson of Edward Austen Knight, Jane Austen’s brother. Jane spent the last eight years of her life living in Chawton Cottage, just 400 metres from the ‘Great House’ as she called the Elizabethan manor her brother had inherited from the Knights (wealthy cousins). I shared the details of how and why Edward became heir to the Knight estates, property and fortune in last week’s journal entry - you can read it HERE.
Now I want to tell you more about the history of Chawton House.
The Knight family had held land in the parish of Chawton since 1307. The Knights are prominent in the earliest Court Rolls which have been preserved, and by 1524 William Knight had a lease on the site of the manor (there was a previous wooden structure of which little is known) and the farm of Chawton. The lease was renewed to John Knight the younger and in 1551 he bought the land. John’s son Nicholas bought the Advowson rights in 1578 (the right to recommend a member of the Anglican clergy for a vacant benefice, or to make such an appointment) and the Knights were in full possession of Chawton. Nicholas’s son John took on the major task of building a new manor house and became the first squire of the Chawton House we know today.
Since the house was built in the mid-1580s (the major build would have taken a couple of years), it has been subject to continuous change with additions, renovations and alterations. John Knight (1563 – 1621), the original and principal builder, continued to expand the manor throughout his life.
The entrance porch tower and front of the house were heightened with a brick parapet and the main line of the building extended to the west to add a buttery, or service room, and the Oak Room above. John then added the south wing, which housed the library and a new main staircase, and a kitchen wing to the east. The new eastern and southern wings were connected with a servant’s passage at the rear of the Great Hall on the ground floor and the picture gallery behind the bedroom chambers on the first floor.
I was told by my family that the date 1655 carved on a wainscot on an internal door is evidence of considerable alterations made in the middle of the seventeenth century. The addition of a four storey extension the north wing added in the Victorian era had been the last major addition to the house (this has since been removed). Over the centuries the house had also been subject to a continuous stream of minor alterations with the changing needs and tastes of each Squire. The result was a labyrinth of staircases, passages and rooms. The dark interior and numerous interconnecting doors only added to the confusion. The layout was complicated, and it is difficult to describe—visitors frequently got lost.
Jane moved to Chawton in 1809. Fanny Knight, Edward’s eldest daughter and one of Jane’s favourite nieces, wrote to her old governess Miss Chapman in 1807 describing the Great House:
"This is a fine large old house, built long before Queen Elizabeth I believe, & here are such a number of old irregular passages &c &c that it is very entertaining to explore them, & often when I think myself miles away from one part of the house I find a passage or entrance close to it, & I don’t know when I shall be quite mistress of all the intricate, & different ways."
During the English Civil War (1642 – 1651) many other manor houses in the area, such as Basing House, were destroyed by Oliver Cromwell’s army, the ‘Roundheads’. Chawton House was saved, through an extraordinary stroke of luck (you can read more about that in my book) and, due to its age and wonderful position, was considered a particularly desirable property. Montagu Knight (1844 – 1914) was certainly very proud of Chawton, and in his book Chawton Manor and It’s Owners – A Family History (written with William Austen Leigh, published in 1911) proclaims:
"The beauty of the situation, the venerable age of the Manor House, the old-world character of the village, and its literary associations; the fact that the property (though it has been owned by members of several family [branches]) has only once since the Norman Conquest changed hands by way of sale and purchase—all these advantages give the place a peculiar title to be considered as a specimen south English manor."
Chawton House was the home of the Knight family until 1988 (I am the last member of the family to grow up there). I was seventeen when my grandfather died (Edward Knight III, great great grandson of Edward Austen), leaving a depleted estate in financial ruin and a house in need of restoration. The following year we left Chawton. My uncle Richard Knight (my grandfather’s eldest son) has retained the freehold of Chawton House to be passed down to his eldest son, honouring the century old traditions of our family. But, it is now on a long lease to a charity, has been beautifully restored and is open to the public as Chawton House Library. One day Chawton House might once again be the private home of the Knight family, but for now it is open to the public and I highly recommend a visit to my family's historic home.
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.