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A brief history of Knole

The Great Hall at Knole in Kent looking towards the ornately carved wooden screen across one wall and geometrically patterned white plaster ceiling of squares and octagons
The Great Hall at Knole in Kent | © National Trust Images/Andreas von Einsiedel

Knole wears its centuries of history gracefully. From modest manor house to the home of Archbishops and royalty, the grand ancestral home of the Sackville family has stories of love affairs and literary connections to tell. Delve into Knole's past and find out how this grand home came to be.

In the beginning

What you see today is a remarkably preserved early Jacobean remodelling of a medieval archbishop's palace. From an even older manor house, it was built and extended by the Archbishops of Canterbury after 1456.

During the Tudor dynasty it became a royal residence when Henry VIII hunted here and found it to be a good home 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.

Let historian Jonathan Foyle take you on a guided tour of Knole and share some of its fascinating stories in this video: Knole - five centuries of showing off

Knole and the Sackvilles

From 1603, Thomas Sackville made Knole 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 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

Frances Cranfield (Countess of Dorset) and Richard Sackville (5th Earl of Dorset) were married 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’ father would eventually come to Knole.

The wood panelled Brown Gallery at Knole in Kent, lined with rows of 16th and 17th century gold framed oil portraits and a collection of early English furniture set in a row underneath
The Brown Gallery at Knole in Kent | © National Trust Images/Andreas von Einsiedel

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 Knole of 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 today, many stamped with the letters WP for ‘Whitehall Palace’, and 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 historic art collection

Lionel’s grandson, John Frederick Sackville (3rd Duke of Dorset) was a great patron of the arts. He bought European Old Master paintings as well as those by English artists of his day, establishing 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 acquired paintings by Thomas Gainsborough and was a great friend and patron of Sir Joshua Reynolds.

A tribute to a love affair

At the bottom of the staircase is 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.

View of the Ballroom at Knole, Kent. Decorative chimneypiece and plasterwork ceiling, by Richard Dungan.
The Ballroom at Knole with its decorative chimneypiece and plasterwork ceiling | © National Trust Images/Andreas von Einsiedel

Knole has had many significant literary links through the centuries, starting with its original owner Thomas Sackville, who was a well-respected poet, playwright and linguist as well as a lawyer and courtier.

Thomas arranged the marriage between his grandson (Richard, 3rd Earl of Dorset) to Lady Anne Clifford. It was not 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) was a patron to many significant literary figures of his day such as Alexander Pope, John Dryden and Matthew Prior.


Knole’s most famous literary link is to Orlando, which was written in 1928 by Virginia Woolf about her lover, Vita Sackville-West, and Vita’s love for her childhood home of Knole. Vita's inability to inherit the property 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.

Read more about Vita-Sackville West and Knole.

An interior photograph of the Cartoon Gallery at Knole in Kent with two white alabaster statues sitting on either side of a dark wood table topped with two porcelain blue glazed vases
The Cartoon Gallery at Knole in Kent | © National Trust Images/Andreas von Einsiedel

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 displayed in their showrooms as early as 1730, where they have remained ever since.

Visiting country houses became 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.

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 also kept ownership of most of the parkland, the wild deer herd and the contents of the house.

A group of people looking at exhibits inside Knole in Kent

Discover more at Knole

Find out when Knole is open, how to get here, the things to see and do and more.

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