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The women of Knole

Portrait of Lady Anne Clifford, Countess of Dorset and Countess of Pembroke and Montgomery (1590-1676) by British (English) School
Lady Anne Clifford by British (English) School | © National Trust Images

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, a legacy that remains with us today.

Lady Anne Clifford

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.

Lady Anne, heir to one of the wealthiest families in the north of England, married Richard Sackville who’d recently inherited Knole and the title of 3rd Earl of Dorset, in 1609 when they were both 19 years old.

Contesting her inheritance

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 to his brother Francis. Anne felt she was the rightful heir and contested the matter through the courts.

Richard Sackville was a man with expensive tastes and 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.

Lady Anne’s diaries

Anne’s diary entries 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.

Life after Knole

Anne left Knole when Richard died in 1624 aged 34, leaving huge debts having spent the majority of the Sackville fortune and sold most of his estates including Knole itself, which he rented back from a London businessman for £100 a year.

Anne, however, went on to finally 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.

Lady Betty Germain

Two of the showrooms at Knole are named after Lady Elizabeth Germain (Lady Betty, 1680–1769). Lady Betty was a close friend and distant relative of the 1st Duke and Duchess of Dorset, Lionel and Elizabeth Sackville and a resident at Knole in the 18th century.

A literary philanthropist

Lady Betty married Sir John Germain in 1706, a man 30 years her senior and a friend of Elizabeth’s father General Colyear. She divided her time between Knole, her husband’s estate at Drayton in Northamptonshire and their London townhouse.

Well educated and well connected, Lady Betty was engaged with contemporary writers and politics. Lady Betty developed a reputation for philanthropy, giving to charities such as the Foundling Hospital for abandoned children in London.

A passion for porcelain

Lady Betty was also engaged with the contemporary fashion for collecting porcelain. Queen Mary developed a passion for china, especially for Delftware and oriental blue and white. Lady Betty amassed a porcelain collection at Drayton and probably owned some of the pieces now on display at Knole.

Furthering the Sackville and Germain connection

Sir John and Lady Germain did not have any children together and when Sir John was dying in 1718, he proposed that one of Lionel Sackville’s younger sons should inherit Drayton, on the condition that he changed his name to Germain. In due course Lord George Sackville inherited Drayton on Lady Betty’s death and became Lord George Germain.

Life size off-white plaster sculpture of Giovanna Zanerini, 'La Baccelli' the dancer and mistress of the 3rd Duke of Dorset, reclining on drapery at Knole in Kent.
Plaster sculpture of Giovanna Zanerini, 'La Baccelli' at Knole, Kent | © National Trust Images/Jane Mucklow

La Baccelli

Giovanna Zanerini (1753–1801), better known by her stage name of ‘La Baccelli’, was a celebrated Italian ballerina. She met the 3rd Duke, John Frederick Sackville, when she made her English debut in 1774, dancing at the King’s Theatre in London’s Haymarket.

La Baccelli at Knole

The couple began a long-lasting affair and by 1779 La Baccelli was living at Knole. They had a son together, named John Frederick Sackville after his father. Brought up at Knole, he joined the army but sadly died of a fever on campaign in the West Indies in 1796.

There are many references to La Baccelli in the surviving family accounts, including laundry bills and toys, pocket money and cricket stumps for her son. She had her own personal servants at Knole, and the part of the house now known as Shelley’s Tower is thought to be named after a corruption of her name.

The 3rd Duke commissioned portraits of La Baccelli by his favourite contemporary painters, Gainsborough and Reynolds. Though, in contrast to the formal portraits of generations of Sackville women, Giovanna’s legacy is a voluptuous plaster statue of her naked reclining form by John Baptist Locatelli.

La Baccelli’s legacy

La Baccelli continued her successful dancing career and began a relationship with the Earl of Pembroke. In 1789 she left Knole, with an annuity of £400 from the Duke. Following the Earl’s death, she lived in London with James Carey before her death in 1801.

The 3rd Duke had long continued his own affairs alongside his relationship with La Baccelli, but in 1790 he married the wealthy heiress Arabella Cope. The Knole inventory of 1799 reveals that the statue of La Baccelli had been discreetly removed to the attics.

Portrait of Arabella Diana Cope, Duchess of Dorset, by Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun, in the Ballroom at Knole, Kent
Portrait of Lady Arabella Cope, by Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun, in the Ballroom at Knole | © National Trust Images/James Dobson

Lady Arabella Cope

The 19th century brought a succession of crises and legal battles for the Sackville family at Knole. A lack of male heirs meant that from 1815 to 1870 the house and the Sackville estates were owned and managed by a series of women.

Arabella Cope, daughter of Sir Charles Cope, married John Frederick Sackville the year she celebrated her 21st birthday and came into her inheritance of £140,000.

The 3rd Duke died in 1799, leaving two daughters and an heir, George Sackville, who became the 4th Duke of Dorset. Knole was left to Arabella for the duration of her lifetime.

An able businesswoman

In a period of rising land rents Arabella proved an able businesswoman. She managed the Sackville estates in Kent, Sussex, Essex, Oxfordshire, Gloucestershire, Warwickshire, Derbyshire and Staffordshire, becoming extremely wealthy.

In 1801, aged 31, she married her second husband Lord Whitworth. They did not have children together and Knole, together with the Sackville estates, was poised to pass to her son George, the 4th Duke, on Arabella’s death.

In 1815 George, in his early twenties, was killed in a riding accident in Ireland. With his death the connection between Knole and the Dorset title established by Thomas Sackville was broken. Arabella retained Knole, but the title passed to Charles Sackville-Germain (the son of Lord George Germain), who became the 5th and last Duke of Dorset.

An estate divided between daughters

On Arabella’s death in 1825 the Sackville estates were divided between her daughters Mary and Elizabeth. Knole and the Kent estates went to Mary, who was married to the Earl of Plymouth. Buckhurst and the Sussex estates went to Elizabeth, who was married to George West, 5th Earl De La Warr.

When the 5th Duke of Dorset died in 1843, the Sackville name should have died with him. However, in the same year a royal licence enabled Elizabeth and her husband to combine the Sackville name with their own name of West, creating the Sackville-West branch of the family who still live at Knole today.

A solid silver 'pier' style table at Knole in Kent which is elaborately patterned with distinctive curved 's' shaped legs set on round feet

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Explore the objects and works of art we care for at Knole on the National Trust Collections website.

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