Edward Austen Knight’s fairy tale life began after Thomas Knight II* and his wife, Catherine Knatchbull of Chilham in Kent, adopted him. “Neddy,” as Edward was affectionately called, was the son of George and Cassandra Austen and born on 7 October 1768. He was their third son and described as a sweet, lovable, easy-going blond-headed boy. He had always been favored by relatives who visited the Austen’s rectory so it was likely no surprise when Thomas and Catherine stopped by on their honeymoon and found themselves delighted by the 11-year-old’s antics. In fact, Neddy so impressed them they asked that he be allowed to accompany them on the remainder of their honeymoon.
After the honeymoon trip ended, Neddy settled back into life at the rectory but the Knights could not forget him. The next summer they asked Mr. Austen that he be allowed to spend the holidays with them. Supposedly his father didn’t want him to go because he worried that his son might fall behind in his studies, but Mrs. Austen was insistent that he be allowed, and so it was not long before Neddy was off once again with the well-to-do Knights.
If anyone was jealous of the partiality that Neddy received from the wealthy Knights it was his younger precocious brother Henry. There was about three and half year’s age difference between the two boys and Henry could not understand why Neddy was the lucky one who got to vacation like a noble and visit the Knights at Godmersham Park, a palatial estate with summerhouses and a Hermitage that Thomas would inherit from his father in 1781. Henry must have realized the Steventon parsonage could not compare. A description of Godmersham in the late 1800s states:
“Godmersham Park is situated in one of the most beautiful parts of Kent, namely, in the Valley of the Stour, which lies between Ashford and Canterbury. Soon after you pass the Wye Station of the railway … you see Godmersham Church on your left, and just beyond it comes into view the wall which shuts off the shrubberies and pleasure grounds of the great house from the road; close to the church nestles the home farm, and beyond it the rectory, with lawn sloping down to the River Stour, which, for a distance of nearly a mile, runs through the east end of the park. A little beyond the church you see the mansion … Godmersham Parks, beyond the house, is upon the chalk downs, and its further side is bounded by King’s Wood, a large tract of woodland containing many hundred acres and possessed by several different owners. It is a healthy as well as a lovely situation, with Chilham Park to the north and Eastwell Park to the south.”
Despite Thomas’ wealth, he and Catherine remained childless, which was also why they continued to maintain a deep interest in Neddy. Eventually they asked they be allowed to adopt him. which happened in 1783, the same year that he became their legal heir. To commemorate the hand-over, a silhouette by London artist William Wellings was commissioned showing the 16-year-old welcoming his new parents with open arms. However, despite the adoption, Edward Austen Knight continued to live at Steventon with his parents, where he remained a pupil of his fathers.
In 1784, the Knights set off from England on a Continental tour and the adopted Neddy and his Austen brother Henry went with them as far as Calais. From there the boys returned to Dover in a French packet boat and the Knights traveled to Rheims, Châlons-sur-Marne, Dijon, Mâcon, and Lyons before taking a leisurely boat trip down the Rhône and reaching Avignon on 28 October. On 9 November they rented a house in Nice and sent a letter to George Austen’s sister, Philadelphia, and her daughter, Eliza de Feuillide. They suggested they might visit them. However, in April 1785 when the Knights arrived at Agen, they were still forty miles away from their relatives and could not visit.
When Neddy, now calling himself Edward, was eighteen he was lucky enough to take the Grand Tour. He had traveled little throughout England prior to the trip and the Knights probably decided he needed some cosmopolitan sophistication, which is likely why the Knights decided a Grand Tour was necessary. Over the next four years Edward traveled to Switzerland, Dresden, Italy, and Rome.
During the Grand Tour, he began a journal with his first entries penned in Switzerland where he lodged with 30-year-old Monsieur Meuron, a Swiss Protestant clergyman. Switzerland was followed in the summer of 1788 by Dresden where he attended the university for a year and was received by the Saxony court where he met the Prince Maximilian of Saxony (a German member of the House of Wettin). Years later, two sons of Edward Austen Knight would visit Dresden and meet the Prince. He would mentioned his fondness for Edward, who would send him a small dressing-case to familiarize himself with British workmanship.
The next stop on Edward’s Grand Tour was Italy. He had been forewarned of the danger of falling under the influence of Roman Catholicism and was on alert. As Jon Spence explains, “Edward’s skeptical remarks in his journals about Catholic practices show he was well-armed against the influence of that religion.”
After Edward’s return to England, he met Elizabeth Bridges. She was born 23 May 1773 and was the daughter of Sir Brook William Bridges, 3rd Baronet and his wife, Fanny Fowler. Edward Auste Knight courted Elizabeth and then proposed. Of this proposal, Elizabeth’s mother wrote to a friend stating:
“I cannot leave to my Daurs the pleasure of informing you of an Event that gives us the greatest satisfaction. We had for some time observed a great attachment between Mr. Austin (Mr. Knight’s Relation) and our dear Elizth; and Mr. Knight has, in the handsomest manner, declared his entire approbation of it; but as they are both very young, he wish’d it not to take place immediately, and as it will not suit him to give up much at present, their Income will be small, and they must be contented to live in the Country, which I think will be no hardship to either party, as they have no high Ideas, and it is a greater satisfaction to us than if she was to be thrown upon the world in a higher sphere, young and inexperienced as she is. He is a very sensible, amiable young man, and I trust and hope there is every prospect of Happiness to all parties in their union.”
Twenty-three-year-old Edward married eighteen-year-old Elizabeth on 27 December 1791. His sister, Jane Austen, once described her pleasant-looking sister-in-law in a letter stating, “Elizabeth was really a pretty object with her nice clean cap put on so tidily and her dress so uniformly white and orderly.” After their marriage, Edward and Elizabeth lived at her father’s estate known as Goodnestone Park in the southern portion of Goodnestone, Dover, Kent about 7 miles from Canterbury and known for its wonderful gardens.
The first few years of their marriage, they resided in a small manor house called Rowling House, which is where his sister Jane visited them regularly. One of her visits to see the young couple lasted from August to October of 1796 and resulted in Jane writing to their sister Cassandra:
“We dined at Goodnestone & in the Evening danced two Country Dances & the Boulangeries.—I opened the Ball with Edw. Bridges; the other couples, were Lewis Cage & Harriot, Frank and Louisa, Fanny & George. Eliz: played one Country dance, Lady Bridges, the other which She made Henry dance with her; and Miss Finch played the Boulangeries—On reading over the last three or four Lines, I am aware of my having expressed myself in so doubtful a manner that if I did not tell you to the contrary, You might imagine it was Lady Bridges who made Henry dance with her, at the same that she was playing—which if not impossible must appear a very improbably Event to you.—But it was Eliz: who danced—. We supped there, & walked home at night under the shade of two Umbrellas.—To-day the Goodnestone Party begins to disperse & spread itself abroad.”
Edward and Elizabeth would eventually have a large family consisting of eleven children: Fanny Catherine, one of Jane’s favorite nieces (1793–1882); Edward (1794–1879); George Thomas (1795–1867);, Henry (1796–1843); Reverend William (1798–1873); Elizabeth (1800–1884); Marianne (1801–1896); Charles (1803–1867); Louisa (1804–1889); Cassandra Jane (1806–1842); and Brook John (1808–1878).
Thomas Knight II died in 1794 but before he did, he confirmed Edward his heir. He then left Godmersham Park and his other estates (Chawton and Winchester estates) to his wife Catherine for her life. Thomas also made clear that if Edward never had children, the estates would pass to his brothers in succession. However, because Thomas’ estate was tied up in a trust, Catherine decided it would be better to pass the estates to Edward before her death.
She did this and then moved to Canterbury residing at a house called “White Friars.” However, what at first glance seemed to be a generous act had a caveat: Edward Austen Knight was to pay an annual rental charge of £2,000 “clear of all deductions and taxes to be reserved and made passable.” This meant that that if the income fell short Edward was responsible. Thus, with the pleasure of having and enjoying Godmersham Park came the responsibilities and stewardship of managing and ensuring all expenses were paid and all worries dealt with related to the estates.
Jane didn’t seem to like the deal** and wrote to her sister giving her opinion on 8 January 1799:
“Mrs Knights giving up the Godmersham Estate to Edward was no such prodigious act of Generosity after all it seems, for she has reserved herself an income out of it still;—this ought to be known, that her conduct may not be over-rated.—I rather think Edward shews the most Magnanimity of the two, in accepting her Resignation with such Incumbrances.”
Fortunately, Edward Austen Knight was a responsible and model property owner. He did much to improve his estates. This did not go unnoticed by Jane who wrote to their brother Francis (Frank):
“Chawton is not thrown away upon him.—He talks of making a new Garden; the present is a bad one & ill situated, near Mr. Papillon’s;—he means to have the new, at the top of the Lawn behind his own house.—We like to have him proving & strengthening his attachment to the place by making it better.”
As Edward Austen Knight was taking care of his estates, Napoleon Bonaparte was plotting. By the end of 1803, he had an army of 130,000 and a flotilla of 2,000, which caused great fear as it was thought he might cross the English Channel. The threat seemed to greatly increase in May of 1804 when news broke that the French senate had conferred upon him the title, Emperor Napoleon I and that his coronation was slated for 2 December 1804.
The dark days of 1803 and 1804 made the British feel as if Napoleon might strike at any moment. Fear and concern were strong everywhere, including in homey places like Godmersham Park. To ensure England’s safety, the British relied on volunteers to take turns guarding the ports and towns, and among these volunteers were the Godmersham and Molash Company formed under the East Kent Volunteers.
Edward had raised, organized, and drilled this company composed of local villagers from Godmersham and Molash. He also served as their Captain. No one could have been prouder than his 11-year-old daughter Fanny Catherine. When she saw her father in his uniform, she wrote a letter to a Miss Chapman stating:
“Today the men are to appear in there cloaths for the 1st time. Captain Austen looks very nice in his red coat, blue Breeches, & red Sash, he is now setting opposite to me & I can hardly write my letter for looking at him. The hat is a plain round common one with an oak bough & a Crescent in the middle.”
In mid-February 1804, Henry and Francis (who had enrolled in the Royal Naval Academy at Portsmouth at the age of twelve and then spent the remainder of his life in the navy) came to visit Edward and his family. Five days later Francis needed to go to Ramsgate, so Edward drove him as far as Canterbury. While Edward was gone, Henry and Elizabeth took a stroll in Chilham Park and during their walk, a Buck attacked them. Elizabeth escaped unharmed, but Henry’s finger was broken.
Still life seemed good for Edward and Elizabeth until she suddenly died on 10 October 1808 at the age of 35. Her unexpected death became a period of great mourning for Edward. Jane wrote their sister Cassandra two letters in October, one on the 13th and the other on the 15th. Both letters noted Edward’s distress and spoke of the funeral:
“I have received your Letter, & with most melancholy anxiety was it expected; for the sad new reached us last night without any particulars … We have felt, we do feel for you all—as you will not need to be told—for you, for Fanny, for Henry, for Lady Bridges, & for dearest Edward, whose loss & whose sufferings seem to make those of every other person nothing. … Edward’s loss is terrible, & must be felt as such, & these are too early days indeed to think of Moderation in grief … I suppose you see the Corpse,—how does it appear?—… Your parcel shall set off on Monday, & I hope the Shoes will fit; … I shall send you such of your Mourning as I think most likely to be useful, reserving for myself your Stockings & half the velvet—in which selfish arrangement I know I am doing what you wish.—… Tomorrow will be a dreadful day for you all!—Mr. Whitfield’s will be a severe duty!-Glad shall I be to hear that it is over.—That you are for ever in our Thoughts, you will not doubt.—I see your mournful party in my mind’s eye under every varying circumstance of the day;—& in the Eveng especially, figure to myself its’ sad gloom—the efforts to talk—the frequent summons to melancholy orders & care—& poor Edward restless in Misery going from one room to the other—& perhaps not seldom upstairs to see all that remains of his Elizabeth.”
Catherine Knight died four years after Elizabeth’s death passing away on 14 October 1812 at the age of 59. There was a long standing proviso related to Edward’s inheritance that any heir who came into possession of the Knight estates had to change their surname to Knight, making Edward now Edward Austen Knight. Of this situation, author David Nokes states:
“The most obvious consequence of her death was that Edward was now obliged, by the terms of old Mr. Knight’s will, to give up the name of Austen and become a Knight himself. ‘We have reason to suppose the change of name has taken place,’ Jane wrote in her letter to Martha, ‘as we have to forward a letter to Edward Knight Esqre from the lawyer who has the management of the business.’ Fanny [Edward’s daughter] seemed quite distraught at the change. ‘We are therefore all Knights instead of dear old Austens,’ she wrote. ‘How I hate it!!!!!!’”
As to what the Knight family was like, Louisa Lushington, the daughter of the British ambassador to Naples, Sir Henry Lushington, visited them at Godmersham in 1821. She was a “literary lady” like the Austen family, but Lushington found the Knights to be an outdoors people and a “hunting, fishing, and shooting kind of family.” Of her visit she wrote:
“The amusement of the next day was dragging the river & fishing, I cannot say I much enjoyed seeing the poor fish gasping for breath & struggling, tho’ Mr Charles Knight did assure me they jumped about because, poor things, they were happy to get out of the water, where they were very near being drowned. It was increasingly apparent that, despite manuscript evidence of the family at play being available, my investigation of the Knight family as a community of readers was doomed.”
Edward’s sister Jane died in 1817 and his brother James in 1819. His mother died in 1827 and was buried in the Chawton cemetery. Edward’s father George had also passed away unexpectedly in 1805. After his mother’s death, Edward became financially responsible for his disabled older brother George Jr., who was the second oldest child but had not lived with the Austen family since he was about thirteen.
Perhaps the costs associated with his brother’s care were one of the unspoken considerations related to Edward Austen Knight being adopted by the Knights, but whether or not that was the case, Edward was a good caretaker to his brother. Just like Edward had been an exemplary property owner, he made sure that his brother had enough money to sustain himself even if Edward died before him, although that would not be necessary because George died on 17 January 1838 at age of 71 from dropsy.
Edward’s younger brother Charles was next to die. He was the last and youngest of the Austen clan and had been influenced by Francis to pursue a naval career. Unfortunately, Charles caught cholera while on active duty in Burma and died on 7 October 1852. Edward followed him a little over a month later, passing away on 19 November in his sleep at the age of 85.
Edward Austen Knight had never remarried and was laid to rest next to his beloved wife Elizabeth at St Lawrence the Martyr Churchyard in Godmersham, Ashford Borough, Kent. His children mourned him deeply and in honor of him and their mother, they erected a monument:
“In the family vault beneath are deposited the remains of Edward Knight of Godmersham Park in this Parish … Mr. Knight whose paternal name was Austen, succeeded by will in 1794 to the estates of his cousin Thomas Knight esq. and on the death of his widow in 1812, assumed the name and arms of Knight. … In this same vault is buried ELIZABETH his wife, third daughter of Sir Brook Bridges of Goodnestone Park … They had issue eleven children of whom the nine surviving have caused this monument to be erected to the memory of their beloved parents.”
*George Austen had been granted his living at Steventon by Thomas Knight II’s father (Thomas Brodnax/May/Knight) in 1761 because George was second cousin to the elderly Knight’s wife.
**Jane would later change her opinion of Catherine and grow fond of her. Demonstrative of this is what Jane wrote to sister on 26 June 1808 after she stayed with Mrs. Knight at Canterbury: “You and I need not tell each other how glad we shall be to receive attention from, or pay it to anyone connected with Mrs. Knight. I cannot help regretting that now, when I feel enough her equal to relish her society, I see so little of [her].”
-  J. Austen and Lord B. Edward, Letters v. 1 (London: R. Bentley, 1884), p. 7–8.
-  J. Spence, ed., Jane Austen’s Brother Abroad: The Grand Tour Journals of Edward Austen (Paddington: JASA Press, 2005), p. 9.
-  J. Austen and Lord B. Edward, Letters of Jane Austen v. 2 (London: Bentley, 1884), p. 357.
-  D. Le Faye, Jane Austen’s Letters, 3rd (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), p. 24.
-  D. Le Faye. 1995, p. 8.
-  Barrow Simonds of Winchester papers, HRO:13M85W, HRO:13M85W/38.
-  D. Le Faye. 1995, p. 34.
-  D. Le Faye. 1995, p. 215.
-  Jane Austen Society, Report for the Year (Jane Austen Society, 2005), p. 56.
-  D. Le Faye. 1995, p. 147–49.
-  D. Nokes, Jane Austen: A Life (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997), p. 395.
-  D. Gillian, “Reading at Godmersham: Edward’s Library and Marianne’s Books,” Persuasions: The Jane Austen Journal 37 (2015): p. 156.
-  Ibid., p. 156–57.
-  W. Austen-Leigh, Jane Austen – Her Life and Letters – A Family Record (London: Smith, Edler & Company, 1913), p. 189.