A brief history of Knole

The Great Stairs at Knole

Knole feels almost weighed down by its own history – six centuries of it. People are impressed by all the absolutes of Knole: its enormous size, the number of rooms, its completeness. But those who live, work and visit here love its quiet dignity, its almost melancholy feel – the grandeur has passed but its old, glinting beauty remains.

Knole and the Sackvilles

What we see today is a remarkably preserved and complete early Jacobean remodelling of a medieval archiepiscopal palace. From an even older manor house, it was built and extended by the Archbishops of Canterbury after 1456. It then became a royal possession during the Tudor dynasty when Henry VIII hunted here and Elizabeth I visited.

From 1603, Thomas Sackville made it the aristocratic treasure house for the Sackville family, who were prominent and influential in court circles.

Over more than 400 years, his descendants rebuilt and then furnished Knole in two further bursts of activity. First, at the end of the 17th century, when the 6th Earl acquired Stuart furniture and textiles from royal palaces, and again at the end of the 18th century, with the 3rd Duke's art collection.

The Sackvilles gradually withdrew into the heart of the house, leaving many rooms unused and treasures covered. This helps to explain the relative lack of modernisation at Knole (central heating was never installed in the showrooms, for example) and the survival of its collections.

The long galleries and state bedrooms have been grand show spaces welcoming visitors to Knole for centuries. We know visitors have followed the same route as you do today for at least the last 200 years.

Knole in the 20th century

When the National Trust acquired the house in 1946, the majority of the rooms were leased back to the Sackville family, with us retaining some of the most important and formal spaces.

Just under 20 rooms and courtyards are open to the public. These include the magnificent Great Hall, the heart of the medieval house, and Knole's three long galleries leading to their state bedrooms and attendant dressing rooms.

Knole was the haunting, magnetic inspiration for the Virginia Woolf novel 'Orlando', written for Woolf's lover Vita Sackville-West, as a 'biography' of the house and its family.

We're embarking on a huge project to refurbish these damp, unheated and fragile showrooms. Until then a visit to Knole in spring or autumn can be chilly: please wrap up warm when you come.

Watch: Knole - Five centuries of showing off