The attics at Knole

A long, narrow attic room stretches ahead, with wooden floorboards, a window at the far end, patched walls and trunks and chairs lined up against one side wall

The attics at Knole are very different from the rooms you see in the house. Hidden above the grandeur of the showrooms, they give a glimpse into the evolution of grand houses like Knole, reflecting how they were first and foremost family homes as well as show houses. What's been left behind can tell us as much about the lives of the inhabitants and people who passed through the house, as the furniture and portraits displayed downstairs.

Just like any house, Knole has its hidden away attic spaces, although the scale at Knole might be slightly larger than average and the contents a little older than most. Divided into three large areas, Knole’s often-forgotten domestic attics – sometimes lived in but more often used as storage areas – have evolved over the centuries with each generation adapting them to their needs.

The Retainer's Gallery

With its curiously sloped floor and graffiti littering the walls, the Retainer's Gallery was once one of Knole’s prized long galleries but had fallen out of favour by 1720. Despite its elaborately decorated ceiling and impressive fireplaces, the gallery was never designed to be on show and over the years became more of a vault for spare furniture and objects.

The Retainer's Gallery in Knole's attics
Knole's Attic Retainer Gallery
The Retainer's Gallery in Knole's attics

Installed by Thomas Sackville, the 1st Earl of Dorset, he added a ceiling to the Great Hall below to create this high-status space. Though we don't know exactly why he installed it, we believe it was intended to be used by important people, maybe high-ranking servants (often gentry themselves) accompanying an important visitor. Maybe, like other long galleries, it was used to exercise in inclement weather.

Like other ceilings throughout Knole, this is considered to be the work of the master plasterer at court, Richard Dungan. Dungan was the leading “ceiling man” during the late Elizabethan, early Jacobean period and you can see the Sackville leopard is included in the design.

The present pannelling and decoration in Knole's Ballroom were introduced by the 1st Earl Sackville between 1603-1608
Elaborate grey pannelled walls and a huge detailed marble fireplace line the walls alongside portraits of the Sackville family. In the middle of the room are piece of gilded furniture
The present pannelling and decoration in Knole's Ballroom were introduced by the 1st Earl Sackville between 1603-1608


Why The Retainer's Gallery?

As for the name, we don't know for certain. At one point it was thought it was named because “retainers”, or servants used it and maybe even slept up here. Another explanation is it stored ‘retained’ furniture. A photograph found in another attic area showed lots of old chairs and 'Old Retainers' written underneath. This could also be a clue to the name of this gallery.

The South Barracks

The South Barracks is one of Knole's main attic areas included in regular attic tours
A long, narrow attic room stretches ahead, with wooden floorboards, a window at the far end, patched walls and trunks and chairs lined up against one side wall
The South Barracks is one of Knole's main attic areas included in regular attic tours

In contrast to the Retainer's Gallery, the South Barracks reveal the bare bones of the house, with exposed walls that show the extent of the underlying work and craftsmanship, plus the conservation work that took place during the Inspired by Knole project. One of the major discoveries during the project took place during an excavation under the floorboards. Volunteers along with the project's archaeologist, were sifting through the debris when some old papers were discovered. These were later revealed to be 17th century letters, including one dated October 1633 describing domestic jobs and tasks.

We do know that at one time the South Barracks was used to store much of the excess furniture which came over from Copt Hall when it was sold in 1701. Copt Hall was a house in Essex that came to the Sackville Family when Frances Cranfield, the Earl of Middlesex’s daughter, married the 5th Earl of Dorset. Many pieces of furniture and portraits from this collection are displayed throughout Knole's showrooms.

Knole's rare, ebony Kussenkast was discovered in pieces in the attics
An elaborately carved, dark ebony wooden, double fronted wardrobe stands on wooden floorboards against a tapestry
Knole's rare, ebony Kussenkast was discovered in pieces in the attics

A surprise discovery

Whilst the work was taking place here, various pieces of wood were discovered that initially were thought to be rather dull and unimportant, but actually proved to be quite the opposite. On further examination and with the help of a freelance conservator, it was discovered to be a dutch cupboard called a Kussenkast. The name means pillow cupboard, not named because it stores pillows but because of the pillow-shaped protuberances on the panels. After considerable research and conservation work, we have managed to reassemble the Kussenkast and it's back on display in the Spangle Bedroom. Historical inventory records tell us this is where it originally lived.

The Upper Kings Room

This room remains a slight mystery to us as to its purpose. It could have been a bedroom for a high status servant as it sits above the sumptuous Kings Room, created for a visit from James I which never happened in the end. No staircase exists between the two although speculation continues as to whether there was access at one point in time. What we do know is that by 1837, this room was being used as a store and continued to be so until recent times.

Knole's Upper Kings Room attic space, where witch marks were revealed below the floorboards during conservation work
Knole's Upper Kings Room Attic space
Knole's Upper Kings Room attic space, where witch marks were revealed below the floorboards during conservation work

The room conceals a secret under the floorboards that was discovered during the Inspired by Knole project. Carved into the joists in the early 1600s are a series of marks that have been identified as ritual protection marks, including scorch marks.

The scorch marks are very deliberately placed, not accidental burns. A taper would have been held against the wood for 15mins to achieve these marks, whilst periodically the soot might be wiped away to allow the “scorch” depth. This had to have been done prior to the beams being laid as the angle simply could not be achieved once the beam was horizontal.

Tour the attics at Knole

As soon as it's safe to do so, we will reinstate the behind the scenes attic tours at Knole. Viistors will be able to join our knowledgeable volunteer guides on a 45 minute tour of the attic spaces to see these fascinating rooms and hear more stories of the people and objects that have been here.

In the meantime, our virtual tour will take you up into these hidden spaces for a glimpse of life behind the sumptuous facade of Knole.

Video

Take a look at the attics at Knole

This inside space at Knole might be closed at the moment, but you can still explore them virtually. Join us for a virtual tour of the attics and discover the hidden spaces that have remained untouched for many years yet tell us so much about life at Knole over the centuries.