A brief history of Knole

Knole's enormous Great Hall with checkered black and white tiled floor, red walls, wooden carved panels and moulded plaster ceiling

Knole wears its history gracefully – all six centuries of it. The size and grandeur of Knole are impressive in themselves, but those who live, work and visit here love its quiet dignity, its almost melancholy feel – the sparkling splendour has faded but its old, glinting beauty remains.

Video

Knole - Five centuries of showing off

Let historian Jonathan Foyle take you on a guided tour of Knole and share some of its fascinating stories.

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 found the place a useful residence for his daughter - later to become Mary I - during his divorce from her mother, Catherine of Aragon. Elizabeth I is also said to have visited.

From 1603, Thomas Sackville made it the aristocratic treasure house for the Sackville family, who were prominent and influential in court circles. Knole's showrooms were designed to impress visitors and to display the Sackville family’s wealth and status.

Over more than 400 years, his descendants rebuilt and then furnished Knole in three further bursts of activity.

The Sackville/Cranfield union

One of the sources of the collection came about through the marriage of Frances Cranfield (Countess of Dorset) and Richard Sackville (5th Earl of Dorset) in 1637. The union between the Sackville and Cranfield families was central to restoring the Sackville fortunes after the Civil War, when many of the paintings and furniture at Knole were sold off. It also meant that the Cranfield family collection of furniture and paintings amassed by Frances’s father would eventually come to Knole.

The perks of the Lord Chamberlain

The life and career of Richard and Frances’ son, Charles Sackville (6th Earl of Dorset) did much to shape the impression of Knole that visitors receive today. At the end of the 17th century, Charles acquired Stuart furniture and textiles from royal palaces via his role as Lord Chamberlain of the Household to William III. Most of the pieces are still on display in the showrooms today, many stamped with the letters WP representing ‘Whitehall Palace’, some dating back to the time of James I and Charles I. Despite such riches, Charles managed to virtually bankrupt Knole, a situation that was rectified by his son Lionel through a series of successful public appointments, including becoming the 1st Duke of Dorset in 1720.

Knole's Brown Gallery is home to portraits of famous royal and political figures
Knole's Brown Gallery is a long narrow room, wooden floorboards, collection of Stuart chairs lined up along one wall, royal portraits hanging above, and an oak pannelled ribbed ceiling
Knole's Brown Gallery is home to portraits of famous royal and political figures

The art collection of the 3rd Duke of Dorset

Lionel’s grandson, John Frederick Sackville (3rd Duke of Dorset) was a great patron of the arts, building up his own collection of paintings. He bought European Old Master paintings as well as those by English artists of his day, establishing at Knole a collection of national significance. Many of the works he collected hang in the showrooms today, including paintings and sculptures he bought on his Grand Tour of Europe. He was a great friend and patron of the English artist Sir Joshua Reynolds and also acquired paintings by Thomas Gainsborough – most visible to visitors today in the Reynolds Room.

At the bottom of the staircase languishes a statue of ‘La Baccelli’, the dancer who captured the 3rd Duke’s heart. The couple had a long-lasting affair in the late 18th century, which resulted in La Baccelli living at Knole and bearing the Duke a son (who later died on campaign in the West Indies). In 1790, John Frederick married wealthy heiress Arabella Cope and La Baccelli’s statue was discreetly moved to the attics.

Knole as a visitor attraction

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 and the preservation of its collections.

The significance of the collections at Knole was recognised early on, and the beds, tapestries and furniture were established in the showrooms as early as 1730, where they have remained ever since. Country-house visiting became increasingly fashionable in the 18th century and there was already a significant number of visitors to Knole at this point, creating a divide between the showrooms and the rest of the house.

Visitors to Knole's Reynolds Room taking in 400 years of history
Two men and a woman sit in the Reynolds Room at Knole, red caffoy wall hangings in the background, portraits arranged on the walls.
Visitors to Knole's Reynolds Room taking in 400 years of history

Knole’s literary links

Knole has many strong and significant literary links, starting with Thomas Sackville who bought Knole at the beginning of the 17th century (a well-respected poet, playwright and linguist as well as lawyer and courtier). Thomas arranged the marriage between his grandson (Richard, 3rd Earl of Dorset) to Lady Anne Clifford - it was not to be a happy union, and Lady Anne went on to document her deteriorating relationship with her unfaithful husband and vivid descriptions of life at Knole in her surviving diary.

Charles Sackville (6th Earl of Dorset) patronised many significant literary figures of his day such as Alexander Pope, John Dryden and Matthew Prior. The latter was to prove fertile historical fodder for Knole’s most famous literary link: Orlando (1928) was written by Virginia Woolf about her lover, Vita Sackville-West, and Vita’s love for her childhood home. Her inability to inherit Knole due to the law of primogeniture saw the house passing to her cousin, Eddy Sackville-West, whose novel ‘The Ruin’ is similarly set at a fictional house based on Knole called Vair.

Knole and the National Trust

In 1946 Knole was gifted to the National Trust to be opened to the public. The private apartments were leased back to the Sackville-West family who retained ownership of the majority of the parkland, the deer herd and the contents of the house.

Recently, the National Trust undertook and enormous conservation project, Inspired by Knole, in an effort to rescue the house and its collections, as both were falling into a seriously poor state of repair. The fabric of the building was suffering from long exposure to water, wind and weather and was actively deteriorating. The external fabric of the house was improved, structural problems were rectified, and historic plaster ceilings were carefully supported from above, and finally the showrooms were re-opened to visitors in their entirety in 2019.

The medieval barn on Knole’s northern edge which had been damaged by a major fire in 1887 was given a new roof and set up as a conservation studio, where much of the Knole collection was treated.

Be part of a 400 year visitor history

Knole has been welcoming visitors to see its splendours and curiosities for centuries. We know that visitors have followed the same route as you do today for at least the last 400 years.

There's a popular myth (heavily promoted by Vita Sackville-West) that Knole is a calendar house - with 365 rooms, 52 staircases, 12 entrances and 7 courtyards. While fascinating, the concept is a myth … the reality is the house was not designed and built in a single phase, but is the accumulation of several stages of construction. The house itself encompasses seven acres of roofs and contains around 400 rooms, 15 of which are open to visitors..

Now, visitors can experience so many different parts of Knole, from the grand showrooms to the cosy Gatehouse Tower, the tranquil Orangery to the mysterious attics above. Discover the vast estate and all it has to offer, home to a world-class collection of portraits and furniture and a state-of-the-art conservation studio. There really is something for everyone at Knole.