Sir Thomas More and Jane Austen

Sir Thomas More needs little introduction. As King Henry VIII’s Lord High Chancellor, from October 1529 to 16 May 1532, he played a central role in what some historians consider to have been the second most significant event in England’s history (after the Battle of Hastings), the break from the authority the Roman papacy, to facilitate Henry’s divorce from Catharine of Aragon. He lost his head for his principled opposition, for which he was canonised by Pope Pius XI on 17 May 1935.

Sir Thomas’s memory has been kept alive by Robert Bolt’s stage play and 1966 film, A Man For All Seasons, and by Hilary Mantel’s more recent Wolf Hall. Neither the historical record nor the dramatisations record his descendant lines to any extent, but Sir Thomas and his wife Jane Colt established a fertile line of progeny. A genealogist and descendant, the late Martin Wood, in his book The Family and Descendants of St Thomas More (1), thought that the tally so far could number one hundred thousand.

What has certainly never been on the public record is a direct family connection between Sir Thomas and Jane Austen. The link was in the maternal line of Mrs. Austen, Cassandra Leigh, through her great-grandmother Anne Dawtrey.

The only personal detail recorded for Anne in Austen biographies, confirmed in the licence allegation for her marriage to James Perrott (dated 23 November, 1667) (2), stated that she was ‘of Petworth’ in Sussex. The Dawtreys revealed themselves to have been a long-established Petworth family, with additional estates in Essex and Suffolk.

They left Wills that are preserved at The National Archives (3); and bore Arms (heraldic Arms), so their pedigree is recorded in the Sussex County Visitations (4). Working through the Wills and Visitations, I was able to establish and verify Anne’s lineage back to her great-great grandfather William Dawtrey, who had been elected MP for Sussex in 1563 and died in 1591, and whose wife was Margaret.

Margaret’s surname was recorded as Rogers in the Visitations of Sussex for 1530 and 1633/34 (4). William’s biography on the website of The History of Parliament (5) corrected the name to Roper – she was the daughter of William Roper of Eltham, Kent. William Roper had married Margaret More, Sir Thomas’s daughter. He was one of Sir Thomas’s early biographers. Margaret More, his devoted daughter, supported him through his trial and retrieved his head from the executioner. It is now interred in the Roper vault under the Chapel of St. Nicholas in St. Dunstan’s church, Canterbury.

Sir Thomas More’s parents, Sir John More (a Judge of the Common Pleas and of the King’s Bench) and Alice Graunger, had four surviving children, of whom he was the second eldest. His youngest sibling, Elizabeth, married John Rastell, and they too established a successful line of descendants. One of their great-grandsons was amongst the worthiest of Jane Austen’s distant cousins, the great English poet John Donne.

Sir Thomas and John Donne were in the maternal line of Cassandra Leigh. Donne was advised and ordained by another of Jane Austen’s ancestors, this time from George Austen’s hitherto unexplored maternal line – John King, the bishop of London between 1611 and 1621. I will write about Bishop King and his family in the future.

Cassandra Leigh’s mother Jane (née Walker) lived with the Austens at Steventon for the first four years of their marriage, coinciding with the final four of her life. Of the Austens’ parents it was she who she was best known to them, and it seems safe to assume that she’d have talked about her forbears. However the record of Cassandra’s maternal family that has passed down to us extends back only to her great-grandmother, and it’s likely that she knew nothing of more distant generations. Anne Dawtrey was a 4th-great-granddaughter of Sir Thomas; and Jane Austen was an 8th-great-granddaughter. The chance that she knew this is negligible. If these details have any bearing on Jane Austen herself, they illustrate that her descent was through some of the most interesting people in British history.

Refs:
(1) The Family and Descendants of St Thomas More. Martin Wood. Gracewing, Leominster, 2008. ISBN 978 0 85244 681 2
(2) Marriage Allegations in the Registry of the Vicar-General of the Archbishop of Canterbury. Harleian Society Vol. XXIII, 1886. p.142
(3) Probate Records:
William Dawtrey (d.1591) PROB 11/78/329
Sir Henry Dawtrey (d. 1646) PROB 11/196/139

William Dawtrey (d.ca 1679) PROB 11/361/238
(4) Visitations of Sussex for 1530 and 1633-4; Harleian Society, London, Vol.LIII, 1905; p.32
(5) History of Parliament Online: http://www.historyofparliamentonline.org/volume/1558-1603/member/dawtrey-william-1591

Copyright 2022 Ronald Dunning