Sackville leopards on the loose

A grand staircase richly decorated with painted walls displaying the Five Senses, Seven Virtues & Four Ages of Man, with a large carved wooden leopard sitting on top of a stairpost

Back in 2016 the two striking carved leopards gracing Knole's Great Staircase were removed for safe keeping during the conservation project Inspired by Knole

The leopards are part of the 17th century decoration of the Great Staircase and are some of the most detailed and beautiful depictions of the Sackville family’s coat of arms.

The two leopards that frequently appear at Knole, on either side of the Sackville crest, are known as supporters and only knights and aristocrats were entitled to use them on their personal heraldry. Exactly why the leopard was chosen is not known but, like lions, they symbolise rank, status and power.

Thomas Sackville, 1st Earl of Dorset, became Lord Buckhurst in the 1560s and the use of the leopard probably dates from this time. The leopard may be connected to the Sackville family link with the Boleyns, namely Anne Boleyn, and through her to Queen Elizabeth I. The connection was a source of pride to the Sackvilles, who went on to include the leopard in as many visual details as possible; you can spot them slinking around walls and windows, springing from the gables, clinging to the ceilings and even climbing up drainpipes.

The Great Staircase was entirely remodelled by Thomas Sackville between 1605 and 1608. It formed a key stage in the formal procession of the family and their guests from the Great Hall to the state rooms on the first floor. The architecture and decoration was heavily influenced by the Renaissance revival of the classical orders and the carved leopards, holding heraldic shields in their paws, are a symbol of the family’s power and prestige.

The carved leopards, the Sackville family’s coat of arms, were removed from the Great Staircase at Knole
Two large wooden painted leopards lie on their sides waiting to be conserved
The carved leopards, the Sackville family’s coat of arms, were removed from the Great Staircase at Knole

During extensive conservation work this winter, the Great Staircase will be the main route for removing objects in order to prepare rooms for the building works. The carved leopards have now been safely removed and stored to protect them from damage during this work and will be reinstated at the end of the project in 2018.

However, you can still see leopards carved, engraved and painted throughout your visit to Knole. Stone leopards sit proudly on the gables of the roof, look down on visitors from the large screen in the Great Hall and watch from the stained glass windows of the Great Staircase.