The melancholy chronicles of Lady Anne Clifford

A close-up of Lady Anne Clifford's portrait - a pale face with brown eyes, dark brown hair wearing a golden ruff round her neck

The laws of primogeniture have always ensured that the list of Sackville Dukes and Earls dominate their female counterparts in Knole’s history, but the women weave a fascinating and rich thread throughout its tale. Often wealthy and powerful in their own right, they left their mark on the house and its land as much as their male relatives. One of the most well recorded female contributions was that of Lady Anne Clifford (1590-1676), who wrote a series of diaries during the period she lived at Knole.

Shortly before his death, Thomas Sackville, 1st Earl of Dorset, began to arrange the marriage of his grandson Richard Sackville to Lady Anne Clifford (1590–1676), heir of one of the wealthiest families in the north of England. He hoped to ensure the continued wealth and success of his family dynasty.

On Thomas’s death, his son Robert succeeded him as 2nd Earl of Dorset, but died only a year later, leaving Richard to inherit Knole and the title of 3rd Earl of Dorset. In the same year, 1609, Richard’s marriage to Lady Anne went ahead. Bride and groom were both 19 years old, and Anne’s dowry of £15,000 went to Richard.

An unusual marriage

Marriage to an heiress was an accepted way of acquiring and maintaining wealth in the 17th century, when marriages were made to secure money, position and a legitimate male heir. A woman’s position was defined by the social standing of her husband and male relatives. Two things were unusual about the Sackvilles’ marriage. The first was Anne’s absolute refusal to accept her husband’s judgement on the issue of her own inheritance rights. The second is that her diary, in which she records her life at Knole and her matrimonial struggles, still survives today. Anne was the only surviving child of George Clifford, 3rd Earl of Cumberland and his wife Margaret. When Clifford died in 1605, he left the family estates in Westmorland and Yorkshire not to Anne but to his brother Francis. Anne felt she was the rightful heir to her father and contested the matter through the courts.

A lavish spender

Richard Sackville, a close friend of the Prince of Wales, was a man with expensive tastes and a social standing to maintain. He spent lavishly on clothes, mistresses and gambling. Richard put a huge amount of pressure on his wife to give up her rights to her family lands in return for a cash payoff. Anne steadfastly refused, even when Richard prevented her from seeing their daughter Margaret. 

A melancholy chronicle

Anne’s diary entries for the period she lived at Knole were intended partly as a record of developments relevant to her legal dispute. They are also a melancholy chronicle of her struggles and her deteriorating relationship with her husband. A fascinating description of her life at Knole, they are a testament to her redoubtable character. Anne’s legal battle came to a head in 1617 on the death of her mother, when the matter was settled by James I to the advantage of the Clifford family. Richard was to receive £20,000 from the Cliffords in compensation. Anne left Knole when Richard Sackville died in 1624 aged 34, leaving huge debts, having spent the majority of the Sackville fortune, and sold most of his estates. He had even sold Knole itself, which he rented back from a London businessman for £100 a year. Anne, however, went on to inherit the Clifford lands and estates in her own right in 1643, when Francis Clifford’s son Henry died without male heirs. When she herself died in 1676, she was one of the wealthiest women in the country.