Jane Austen Genealogy ~ The Knight Family Name ~ by Ronald Dunning

UPDATE:  new images have been added!*

Gentle Readers:  I welcome again Ron Dunning on a bit of Jane Austen ancestry – the Knight name of Chawton and Godmersham.  We know that Thomas Knight and his wife adopted Edward Austen as a child, and passed on to him the landed estates they had inherited, both Chawton and Godmersham.  The name of the family eventually became Austen-Knight, but Ron shows us here how far back this connection went – one wonders how much Jane Austen would have actually known of this…**

Knight of Chawton and Godmersham

Presentation of Edward Austen to Thomas and Catherine Knight - wikipedia

Presentation of Edward Austen to Thomas and Catherine Knight – wikipedia

We all know the story of how, in 1779, the 12-year-old Edward Austen charmed Thomas Knight [our Thomas henceforth] of Godmersham, and his newly-married wife Catherine [Knatchbull], when they stopped at Steventon on their bridal tour – so much so that they asked his parents to allow them to take him with them for the rest of the trip. The Knights grew increasingly fond of him, with his sunny and uncomplicated nature, and followed on by inviting him to visit them in Godmersham. When, after a few years, it became apparent that they were unlikely to have any children of their own to inherit their property and fortune, they arranged with the Austens to adopt him, and to give him their surname. There was a family connection – our Thomas Knight and Edward’s father George Austen were second cousins, both descended from John Austen and Jane Atkins.

Thomas Knight, the younger, by Francis Cote – CHL  ~  Catherine Knatchbull Knight, print of portrait by George Romney

Godmersham 1779 - wikipedia

Godmersham 1779 – wikipedia

Transfers of property, fortunes, and surnames were already well established in the Knight Family and make it all very difficult to follow. So I have created the chart below to make it easier for me, and I hope that it helps others too.

So, looking at the chart [see below]:

Chawton House

Chawton House

Beginning on the left, the Knight family had been in possession of the manor of Chawton for some generations. It was inherited  by Dorothy Knight when the male line failed. According to the law of the time, her property, including the title to the estate, became the possession of her husband, Richard Martin. When they produced no children, it passed to Richard’s brother Christopher; when he too died, having remained unmarried, it was inherited by their sister Elizabeth and her two successive husbands. [Note that this line had all changed their name from Martin to Knight, before reaching our Thomas.]

Elizabeth left no children, and the property passed to a second cousin, Thomas Brodnax of Godmersham. In 1727, this Thomas changed his name by Act of Parliament to May, when he inherited property at Rawmere in Sussex from his mother’s childless cousin, Sir Thomas May. Then in 1736, on inheriting the Chawton estate, he changed his name again, to Knight.

Thomas Knight (a.k.a.Brodnax, May) – by Michael Dahl – CHL  ~  Jane Monk, by Michael Dahl

This Thomas Knight and his wife Jane Monk, who was an Austen descendant, produced at least ten children, of whom five were

Edward Austen Knight - austenonly

Edward Austen Knight – austenonly

boys. Only one, our Thomas (the second son of that name), survived childhood. Thomas enjoyed a long life of sixty years, and married Catherine Knatchbull [see portraits above]. When it became clear that they too would remain childless, they chose to adopt the young and affable Edward Austen, whose family were collateral descendants of Thomas’s great-great-grandparents, John and Jane [Atkins] Austen. On his death in 1794, Thomas Knight bequeathed Godmersham to Catherine, and all other properties to Edward; Catherine later moved to Canterbury and gave Edward the Godmersham estate at that time.

Confused? I too struggle to keep it all straight, so hopefully this chart helps.  There is one detail missing, which will necessitate some further research; that is the family connection between the Martin and the Brodnax families, who were said to be second cousins. Once the research is done I’ll amend the chart, but it won’t make any difference to the sequence of surnames and ownership as they are illustrated here.

It’s some time since I last added anything to the Jane Austen’s Family website. It struck me as a good idea to include a pedigree section; this is now the first chart:



It can be found at this link: http://www.janeaustensfamily.co.uk/pedigrees/knight/knight.index.html


Thank you Ron! – if anyone has any questions [are you all sitting out there scratching your heads??], please ask Ron – he would be happy to answer anything you might put to him…!

Without all these family dynamics and the extensive trading of names and the adoption of Edward Austen, Jane Austen might never have had the chance to live and write at Chawton Cottage  [now the Jane Austen House and Museum]– and where would we all be without those six novels??

Chawton Cottage - astoft.co. uk

Chawton Cottage – astoft.co. uk

* The portraits of the Thomas Knights, Jane Monk, and Catherine Knight are all from Ancestry.com, with thanks to Ron for accessing these. You can read about the portrait artist Michael Dahl here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Michael_Dahl

** Ron has answered my question about whether Jane Austen knew about all these family connections:

Everyone – the Knights, Mr and Mrs Austen, Edward – knew incontrovertibly about the peregrinations at least back to the common descent from John and Jane Austen and, no doubt about the Mays too.  It’s inconceivable that they wouldn’t have discussed it all in front of Jane.

Do you have any questions for Ron?

c2014, Jane Austen in Vermont

4 thoughts on “Jane Austen Genealogy ~ The Knight Family Name ~ by Ronald Dunning

  1. I totally enjoy reading Jane’s family history, but what always intrigues me is whether anyone has an understanding of what the actual dynamics were between the individual family members? Were Jane and other family members “tight” with the most fortunate adopted brother, or was their relationship made a bit distant by his elevation? Were they provided with the cottage out of obligation, or was he loving and generous with his poorer relations? Those are the questions to which answers would fuel my imagination in those aspects of Jane’s life.


  2. Yes, Fran, this is always a question! – one tries to find hints in the letters, esp. about Edward – it appears the his wife and Jane were not close; and like today, money issues can create wedges between people – I think Edward was as generous as he was allowed to be – did not offer Chawton until Elizabeth died, which I always found interesting. But we risk making judgments based on scanty facts, and the reason for the various fictional accounts of what really went on in the drawing room – we can never really know, can we?


  3. I just discovered we are also related! We are the “northern” branch of Knight
    related through Sir Ralph Knight of Langold and Firbeck. Would love to know more…Barbara


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