Perdita woman: Katherine Austen


Katherine Austen, née Katherine Wilson, was born in the parish of St Mary Colechurch, London, in 1629, the daughter of Robert Wilson, a draper, and his wife Katherine (Book M, fol. 48r). After her father's death in 1639, her mother remarried John Highlord, an Alderman of the City of London and a Committee member of the East India Company, who lived in the parish of St Olave's, Hart Street, a fashionable and expensive area near the Customs House in East London. Her mother's second marriage thus raised the family's social status: Katherine Austen writes in the course of her manuscript, 'Blessed Alderman (Highlord), how do I revere thy memory, who wast the foundation in a great part of my second and later fortune (my own father's being the happy instrument to raise me to my marriage without other assistance)' (fol. 79v).

Katherine married on 10 July 1645 Thomas Austen, who was educated at Lincoln College, Oxford, and admitted to Lincoln's Inn in June 1646. According to The Victoria County History of Middlesex, Austen was the son of a cheesemonger (p. 56), but his father had also acquired, by 1632, the manor of Newington Barrow or Highbury in Middlesex. Highbury and several other manors and Crown lands were conveyed in 1629 to Sir Allen Apsley, Lieutenant of the Tower of London (and father to Lucy Hutchinson), to offset a debt owed to Apsley through his victualling of the Navy. Apsley died in 1630, and Katherine Austen's father-in-law Thomas appears to have been one of his trustees: Highbury made its way into the Austen family's possession, but the estate's ownership was contested throughout the seventeenth century, first by Apsley's creditors and later by his son.

Katherine Austen's husband, Thomas, died at the age of 36 on 31 October 1658 (Book M, fol. 1r), leaving Austen a 29-year-old widow with three young children: Thomas, Robert and Anne. Both in her manuscript and in historical documents, Austen's widowhood is defined by her management of the Austen family's legacy and ambitions, her husband's will having named her 'Executrix and Guardian during her Widowhood'(PRO, PROB 11/285). Apsley's son, Sir Allen, tried to recover Highbury from Katherine's son, Thomas, in 1662, and because Thomas was underage, Katherine acted on his behalf. Apsley's creditors petitioned the House of Commons in February 1664/5, and Katherine continued to be active in defending her son's interests, as her manuscript documents (see her poem 'Upon courtiers at the Committee of Parliament striving for Highbury', fols. 59v-60r, and others). In addition, Katherine Austen's guardianship saw her concerned about the expiry of a lease period that the Crown had imposed on Highbury in its initial conveyance to Apsley (see fols. 48r-49r, 83v, 103v). A petition to Whitehall on 10 April 1666 also calls for the lands to be recovered by the Crown, and it is most likely in response to this that Austen composes the meditation on fols. 112v-113r, dated September 1666.

Austen's widowhood also saw her worry about the cost of building she was undertaking at 'The Swan' (near Covent Garden) and defending other lawsuits challenging her family's possession of an inn called the Red Lion, on Fleet Street (see Todd, 'A Young Widow', p. 211, for the identification of these properties). Book M documents the lawsuits of 'Sister Austen' and 'another troublesome man' for the Red Lion, 'Sister Austen' being the wife of John, the brother named in Thomas Austen's will, who himself died in 1659. Katherine Austen writes of her sister-in-law, 'Tis not sufficient to enjoy 350 pounds for life' (fol. 108r), a reference to 'the sum of three hundred or three hundred and fifty pounds which he hath of mine in his hands' left by Thomas to his brother.

Katherine Austen's widowhood was thus occupied with defending her son's 'patrimony', and she resolves not to remarry in order to retain agency (as feme sole) for defending her children's financial and social status. Throughout Book M she documents the difficulties she has encountered since her husband's death, focusing on a period of six years of hardship and an expectation of deliverance in the seventh; in doing so, she is referring to Job 5.19, 'He shall deliver thee in six troubles: yea, in seven there shall no evil touch thee'. Her keen sense of hardship notwithstanding, she maintains her resolve not to remarry, despite the temptations of a suitor (see fols. 40r-40v, 90v-91r, 94v-98r). Barbara Todd has identified this suitor as a Scottish physician named Alexander Callendar ('A Young Widow of London', p. 210). As an example of a widow who chose not to remarry for financial reasons, Austen has been discussed by Todd ('The Remarrying Widow') and Houlbrooke.

Katherine Austen successfully defended her son's possession of Highbury, and challenges to other family estates: Highbury passed to Thomas's son John after 1683, and he sold it in 1725. She remained a widow, resident in Hoxton, Middlesex, until her death in 1683.

British Library: Add. MS 4454
The religious meditations, verse and autobiographical writings of Katherine Austen (1664-83)
Katherine Austen (Author)