How many rooms are there at Knole, the sprawling mansion near Sevenoaks in Kent described by novelist Virginia Woolf as “more like a town than a house”? Legend says there are 365, one for each day of the year. “I don’t think anyone has actually ever counted,” laughs Gerry Warner, of the National Trust, which has managed Knole since the 1940s. What is indisputable is that Knole is one of the largest, most beautiful and most fascinating of Britain’s myriad historical homes – and a home, moreover, still inhabited by the 13th generation of the Sackville-Wests, the same family that has lived at the house since acquiring it in 1603.
Knole was originally a church manor, largely built by archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Bourchier in the late 1400s. Like Hampton Court, the Thameside palace built by Cardinal Wolsey, Knole took the fancy of Henry VIII, who visited to hunt deer. In 1538, Henry made Thomas Cranmer, Knole’s owner, an offer that Cranmer, also archbishop of Canterbury, could not refuse. “He basically demanded that Cranmer hand the house over to the crown,” says Warner. “As a loyal courtier, he had to comply.”
Knole was bought back from the crown by Thomas Sackville, 1st Earl of Dorset, a few decades later. In the Civil War, the family briefly lost out when they backed the royalists, and Knole was raided by Roundheads, but the family’s considerable fortunes were restored under Charles II. Over the next few centuries, successive Sackvilles stuffed the house’s rooms and galleries with paintings, furniture and tapestries from across Europe. Today, this makes Knole a veritable treasure chest of culture and craftsmanship for the public to enjoy, and for the National Trust to conserve.
Although primogeniture traditionally meant that male Sackvilles owned Knole, women have always played a big part in its story, from Lady Anne Clifford and Frances Cranfield, the heiresses whose huge dowries funded the early estate, to Giovanna Zanerini, an Italian ballerina known as ‘La Baccelli’, beloved mistress of the 18th-century culture-vulture John Sackville, 3rd Duke of Dorset. An erotic nude statue modelled on La Baccelli still adorns the house, although the dancer herself had to leave Knole when the duke later wed a respectable heiress.
The Sackvilles often helped maintain their fortune by marriage. Lady Arabella Cope, for example, who ran Knole in the early 19th century, married in to the family. But the woman who really put Knole on the map was the writer Vita Sackville-West. Although as a woman she could never inherit, Vita passionately loved the house where she grew up, and made it a central ‘character’ in several books. Her lover, Virginia Woolf, a fellow member of the Bloomsbury group, memorably portrayed Knole in her novel Orlando, a transgender fantasy transcending the centuries.
By the end of the Second World War, the British aristocracy was falling on hard times, and the Sackvilles turned the vast house and 100 acres of the 1,000-acre estate surrounding it over to the National Trust. In exchange, the family are permitted to go on living in their ancestral home. So it is that the hundreds of thousands of people who visit Knole annually can today share the enjoyment of a house and deer park that were once the preserve of a privileged few.
Nigel Jones is a journalist and biographer
For more information, visit the National Trust website
This article was first published in the Christmas 2019 edition of BBC History Magazine