HOUSE AND ESTATE
The freehold has remained in the Knight family ever since the sixteenth century, though on many occasions the ownership passed laterally and sometimes by female descent, requiring several heirs to change their surnames to Knight. Sir Richard Knight, who inherited at the age of two in 1641, had no children and he left the estate to a grandson of his aunt, Richard (Martin) Knight. His brother, and then his sister, Elizabeth, inherited in their turn. During the first part of the eighteenth century, Elizabeth undertook the further development of the house and gardens. She married twice, but again no children were born, and when she died the estate passed to her cousin Thomas Brodnax May Knight, who united it with his own large fashionable property in Kent, Godmersham Park.
In 1781, Thomas Knight II inherited, but when he and his wife Catherine showed no sign of having children of their own, they adopted a son of the Reverend George Austen, who was a cousin of Thomas Knight's. The Austens had six sons and two daughters, and the Knights adopted the third eldest son, Edward. Edward Austen Knight eventually took over management of the estates at Godmersham and Chawton in 1797, living mostly at Godmersham and letting the Great House at Chawton to gentlemen tenants. In 1809 he offered a house in the village to his mother and two sisters Cassandra and Jane, and it was there that Jane Austen began the most prolific period of her writing life. Her career as a novelist took off with the publication of Sense and Sensibility in 1811, and she went on to publish a further three of her novels while at Chawton (two more followed shortly after her death). She lived in Chawton almost until her death in 1817, only moving to Winchester near the end of her life to be nearer medical care.
William Wellings' 1783 silhouette depicting the adoption of Edward Austen by the Knights