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Austen in Shakespeare’s Time

In the summer of 1809, Jane Austen, along with her mother and sister, moved to Chawton. Jane's brother had acquired the property as a part of his inheritance from when he was adopted by the Knight family. Chawton House still stands today and is maintained as a museum, as well as a literary center celebrating women authors - but did you know the history of that house extends back, well past Jane Austen’s time, all the way to Shakespeare’s time, and before?

Photo of Chawton House by Charles D P Miller, courtesy of Wikicommons

The building visitors know today was modified and renovated by the various stewards (and even stewardesses) over the years as it seldom passed from father to son but often sibling to sibling, or some other familial relation. Edward Knight was not the first owner who had to change his name to Knight in order to gain the inheritance. Still, the basic layout largely remained the same and is attributed to a John Knight in 1580, when Shakespeare was about 16. Before that, evidence of a medieval structure suggests an even older house stood on the property.

So who owned the property and that earlier house before the Knight family took custody of it in 1551? Well, according to this virtual tour of Chawton House, the previous owners had an epic drama of their own! In 1224, the St. John family built the structure in Hampshire, hoping to entice the King for a visit. Court records indicate that indeed Henry III did stop by to hunt there at least 22 times!

The St. John property was later divided up between three daughters (presumably with a better end than King Lear) and as such Chawton came into the possession of John Bonville, nephew to the likely inspiration behind the character Ned Stark, of Game of Thrones. Then, a Thomas West owned what became Chawton but without an heir of his own, he named his nephew, William West, to be the heir. William West returned the favor by trying to poison him!

After surviving the attempt on his life, Thomas West had William locked away in the Tower of London and sold off the property to the Knight family.


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