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The Church of England in Tenterden
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Jane Austen Connection

This new page is under construction. Need to add photo of the floor of the Lady Chapel

 

The Family of Jane Austen

and St. Mildred’s, Tenterden, Kent

 

The sharp eyes of Hugh Ward picked out a tombstone linking the Austen family to the church of St. Mildred, Tenterden. The following item by him appeared in the Parish Magazine of St. Mildred’s, in 1997.

 


Jane Austen’s Family links with St. Mildred’s Church

 

Last November a historian wrote to The Times pointing out that a huge amount of unique information of importance to family historians in the form of memorials in and outside churches is “unrecorded and crumbling into decay and illegibility”. Fortunately in St. Mildred’s measures are being taken to conserve and in some cases illuminate the most prominent memorials. Preservation is more problematical when the memorials are underfoot. An example of significance for Jane Austen devotees can be found on the floor of the Lady Chapel of St Mildred’s, not “unrecorded” but certainly in need of protection to prevent further decline into “illegibility”.

 

Here lyeth the Body of ROBERT
AUSTIN GENT: of this Parifh the
fifth Son of JOHN AUSTEN of
BROADFORD in HORSMANDEN GENT:
by ELIZABETH the Daughter of
THOMAS WELLER of Tunbridge GENT:
He Dyed of the Small Pox Janry ye 27th 1727
And in ye 25th year of His Age.
This Monument was Placed here
as a Gratefull Memorial of him
by his Five Suruiuing Brothers
& one Sifter.

 

The memorial records the premature death at Leigh Green of Robert, a younger brother of Jane Austen’s grandfather (i.e Robert was Jane’s great-uncle). Jane Austen was, of course, most closely associated with Hampshire, where she was born in 1775. However some of her relatives lived in Kent and places in the county featured prominently in her life, letters and novels. Jane’s grandfather, William, was a surgeon in Tonbridge and was possibly one of the four doctors attending his younger brother Robert during his fatal illness. William’s son George, Jane Austen’s father, was born in Tonbridge in 1731.

 

Earlier generations lived at Horsmonden. The reference on the St. Mildred’s memorial to the family home of “Broadford” is a link to Jane Austen’s branch of the family. Apart from Robert, inscribed on the memorial are the names of his father, John, who had died heavily in debt when Robert was an infant, and his mother, Elizabeth. Widowed with seven children under ten years, her indomitable character and capacity for hard work ensured a good education and professional occupations for the surviving children, who are mentioned on the Lady Chapel memorial. A former St Mildred’s Churchwarden, John Holman, who was related by marriage to the Horsmonden Austens, shared powers as an executor and his harsh decisions were in no small measure responsible for Elizabeth Austen’s financial problems. Competition over family resources and tenacity in concentrating land and property on one male heir irrespective of the consequences for the remaining children were important themes in Jane Austen’s novels and perhaps echo this event in actual Austen family history. Contrary to the inscription, the Robert Austen memorial is no longer a “gravestone”. After two centuries on the floor of the Tower or the west end of the Nave the stone was re-positioned in the Lady Chapel in 1931 and separated from the actual eighteenth century grave, now of unknown location.

 

We know that Robert was baptised on 30th September 1702 in Horsmonden, so he was probably born one or two days before that, as baptism followed rapidly after birth in those days. The inscribed date suggests Robert Austen’s death occurred exactly 270 years ago but in England January 1727 was towards the end of the calendar year, in the fourth quarter. At that time New Year’s day was Lady Day, March 25th. According to the modern calendar the memorial should read 1728. He died of smallpox.

 

Spelling was somewhat insecure at that time, with both “Austin” and “Austen” inscribed on the stone, “Tunbridge” for Tonbridge and “Horsmanden” for Horsmonden.

 

Another link with the Tenterden branch of the Austen family arises from the heraldic “achievement of arms” appropriate to the rank of “gentleman”, a person of independent means, inscribed on Robert Austen’s memorial. These particular “devices” have a history of at least 420 years and are identical to those on the brass shield of a much earlier gravestone, that of William Austen, who was Bailiff of Tenterden in 1585 and 1586. This Tudor stone of 1595 , now barely decipherable, is one of the oldest St. Mildred’s memorials, most unfortunately situated where wear and decay are unavoidable - beneath the doorway under the Tower balcony! Perhaps we should seriously consider preserving these historic memorials from further decay and illegibility.

 

Tenterden family links feature strongly in the story which unfolds in the early chapters of “Jane Austen’s Family Through Five Generations” by Maggie Lane, first published in 1984. More information about the Austens of Tenterden as far back as 1475 is to be found in the recently published and indispensable history Tenterden - The First Thousand Years by Hugh Roberts, who states “four generations of Austens left their mark on Tenterden as Bailiffs or Mayors”. Specific links between the Austen family and memorials in St. Mildred’s church and churchyard are also revealed in several local publications held by Marek Barden, whose assistance has been invaluable in tracing particular memorials.

 

Hugh Ward - May 1997

 


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