An unconventional couple: Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson

Harold Nicolson and Vita Sackville-West

We're marking 50 years since the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality by exploring the LGBTQ heritage at many of our places. Sissinghurst Castle Garden, in Kent, was home to Vita-Sackville West and Harold Nicolson, whose marriage allowed them to both pursue same-sex affairs in private.

An historic home

The writer Vita Sackville-West always felt she belonged at her lavish ancestral home: Knole, in Kent. She was distraught that as a woman, she couldn't inherit it.

Knole's imposing west front
Knole's imposing west front

When she married the diplomat Harold Nicolson, though, they found another historic place in the weald of Kent: Sissinghurst Castle, a magnificent collection of Tudor buildings and a sprawling farm, all of which had long been neglected. Vita and Harold bought it in 1930 and dedicated the following years to making it their home.

The pink brick of the tower glows brightly in the autumn at Sissinghurst Castle Garden
The pink brick of the tower glows brightly in the autumn at Sissinghurst Castle Garden

A mutual understanding 

Vita and Harold formed a genuinely loving partnership and a marriage that lasted until Vita's death in 1962. Yet their letters and biographies reveal that both Vita and Harold had numerous same-sex relationships during their life together. On Vita’s part this included some very serious relationships – most famously, those with Violet Trefusis and Virginia Woolf. 

Victoria (Vita) Mary Sackville-West, Lady Nicolson (1892-1962) by Philip Alexius de László de Lombos
Oil painting on canvas, Victoria (Vita) Mary Sackville-West, Lady Nicolson (1892-1962) by Philip Alexius de László de Lombos

Their marriage was the foundation of their life together, offering both constancy and freedom for them both to pursue their same-sex desires. 

A labour of love

Vita and Harold transformed the grounds at Sissinghurst into the spectacular gardens which now attract thousands of visitors every year.

The White Garden at Sissinghurst Castle
The White Garden in summer at Sissinghurst Castle

It was a labour of love, which Vita and Harold planned together down to the finest detail. The legacy of their work surrounds you when you visit, from the meticulous planting and unfolding garden 'rooms' to the heady, romantic rose garden.

Prejudice and Pride

This is just one of the stories we’re exploring as part of a programme called Prejudice and Pride. Throughout the year you can discover more with events, exhibitions and installations which tell the stories of the men and women who challenged conventional notions of gender and sexuality and who shaped the properties in which they lived. We’ll also be taking part in community celebrations including Pride festivals around the country and Heritage Open Days to build an understanding of LGBTQ histories in local communities. 

This article is adapted from our new guidebook, ‘Prejudice and Price: Celebrating LGBTQ Heritage’ by Alison Oram & Matt Cook. It is available now at National Trust shops and our online store.