Chawton House - so much more than a library

Chawton House Library have announced a change of name for the Knight family ancestral home, once owned by Jane Austen's brother Edward (my fourth great grandfather).

“Having previously been known as Chawton House Library due to our significant collection of early women’s writing, we are shortening our name to Chawton House. Our amazing library collection will still be at the core of what we do but we have had lots of feedback to say that potential visitors to the house and grounds are confused by having ‘library’ in our name, which could mean we are only open to library users, when we want everyone to be able to come and enjoy the house, the gardens, the tearoom and – of course – the treasure trove which is our library collection”

Chawton House was built around 1585 by John Knight, the first squire featured in the heraldry windows on the first-floor picture gallery, and has been passed down through sixteen generations. The freehold of my childhood home has never been sold, and is now owned by my uncle, Richard Knight. 

 
 Chawton House (picture courtesy chawtonhouse.org)

Chawton House (picture courtesy chawtonhouse.org)

 

Great aunt Jane Austen herself called her brother Edward’s house ‘Chawton Great House’, or ‘the Great House’ and I have seen postcards from the Victorian era which name the house ‘Chawton Manor House’.

In Montagu George Knight (the thirteenth squire) and William Austen Leigh’s book Chawton Manor and It’s Owners about the history of the estate, the house and the twelve generations of owners that had come before Montagu, the house is referred to as Chawton House throughout, including in text copied from old documents in the family archive.  When I was a child, we called our home Chawton House and what a delight it is to see the name of the house restored.

 
 Chawton Manor and It's Owners - A Family History, published in 1911

Chawton Manor and It's Owners - A Family History, published in 1911

 

What has never been in doubt is the beauty of the Chawton estate and the house itself.  As Montagu said:

“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 families) 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.”

The house sits at the end of the village halfway up a hill, with the garden and grounds reaching up further still behind the house. The straight gravel drive leads down from the road to Chawton Church, St Nicholas, on the right and the stables on the left, before going up the hill to the front entrance. The natural dip in the landscape around the house had once provided a moat and later a ha-ha—or dry moat—a recessed fence that provided boundaries but did not obscure the view.

The front entrance is approached from the west by five stone steps up to a large archway, above which carved stone heraldry proudly declares this the home of the Knights. The carving depicts a shield, or coat of arms, with a lozenge design running diagonally down from left to right and the motto Suivant Saint Pierre (Follow St Peter) in bold letters below. The arms are topped with a knight’s helmet and the family crest: a sixteenth-century monk named The Greyfriar. If you visit the house, see if you can find The Greyfriar hidden in the panelling on the first floor - you'll have to look carefully to find it.

 The Greyfriar hidden in the panelling at Chawton House

The Greyfriar hidden in the panelling at Chawton House

The house itself has been subject to continuous change, with additions, renovations and alterations ever since it was built—a four-storey extension to the north wing added in the Victorian era had been the last major works (since removed and with it my childhood bedroom). The result is a labyrinth of staircases, passages and rooms. The dark interior and numerous interconnecting doors only add to the confusion. The layout is complicated, and it is difficult to describe—it’s a wonderful house to explore.

Fanny Knight, Edward Austen Knight’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.

Beautiful gardens and woodlands sweep up behind the house and at the top of the lawns you will find the walled garden, which as a child felt like a ‘secret garden’ known only to the family and our closest friends.

 
 The gates to the 'secret' walled garden (photo courtesy of chawtonhouse.org)

The gates to the 'secret' walled garden (photo courtesy of chawtonhouse.org)

 

I hope you get a chance to visit Chawton House. The collection of early women’s writing is wonderful, but the house, gardens and family history are a delight for any visitor.

Caroline

For more information about Chawton House and to plan your visit, click here.

Header image courtesy of chawtonhouse.org.  

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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 profits made are donated to the Jane Austen Literacy Foundation 

 

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