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  • Writer's pictureRomina Rosso

Knole House

Updated: Apr 10, 2021

Knole House- Panoramic Eric Miller
Knole House

Knole is a country house situated in Sevenoaks with a wooden parkland that forms the last remaining medieval deer park in Kent.

Impressive are the dimensions of the house, it is one of the largest country houses in England, occupying a total of four acres.

The house is an accretion of architectural layers, built upon and around the remains of the medieval building at its core. It is constructed from grey Kentish ragstone and it is arranged around seven courtyards, asymmetric and sprawling.

Knole house-Bourchier's Tower
Knole house-Bourchier's Tower

Knole has always adapted to the changing demands and interests of its residents.

The immense house stood here since at least 15th century: an archbishop’s palace, a royal residence, a Renaissance show house, a statement of wealth and taste, a family legacy, the romantic embodiment of a bygone age, and a comfortable country retreat.

It was close enough to London to allow easy access for owners who were involved with affairs of state.

The House was inhabited for the past 400 years by 13 generations of the same family Sackville, family emblazoned with the symbol of a leopard.

In 1456 Thomas Bourchier bought the medieval house and further farmlands. He was Lord Chancellor and Archbishop of Canterbury. The house had to reflect his wealth and status as archbishop.

The entrance to the palace was Bourchier’s Tower, a gatehouse leading to the Stone Court. Two-storey timber galleries on either side of court connected the gatehouse to the Great Hall opposite.

The Hall, the largest space in the palace, was the major entertainment area with long wood tables.

Knole house- The Great Hall
Knole house- The Great Hall

In 1480 he granted Knole to the Church for use of his successors as archbishop. Archbishop Warham undertook a large-scale building renovation between 1508-1525 (remodelling of the 1st floor adding a new second gallery), at his time Knole was largely completed. Due to the significance of the archiepiscopal office, entertaining grand guests as king Henry VII or Henry VIII, would also have been an important function of the house.

After Warham’s death and before the accession of Thomas Cranmer, Henry VIII deposited his daughter Maria during the time of the protracted divorce from her mother, Catherine of Aragon. In 1538 Cranmer was forced to hand Knole to Henry VIII with the nearby manor of Otford. The estate remained in royal ownership following Henry’s death but none of his children showed a great deal of interest on it and the property changed hands many times. In 1605 Thomas Sackville purchased Knole, he was Lord Treasurer to Elizabeth I and James I. He remodelled Knole from a medieval archbishop’s palace into a sumptuous Renaissance-style Jacobean country house.

Thomas Sackville needed a place where he could entertain the court, but which would also serve as a quiet country retreat. In 1604 he had been made Earl of Dorset. Refurnished the house was his bold dynastic and political statement. Sackville aimed to bring a sense of order and elegance to the massive medieval palace whilst increasing its level of comfort and convenience. Ornate interiors were inspired by Renaissance ideas and continental trends with grotesque carvings and strapwork design.

Thomas Sackville’s position as Lord Treasurer enabled him to employ the finest craftsmen from the Department of the King’s Works to produce Knole’s stunning Jacobean interiors. The master craftsmen, who produced the ceiling, panelling and fireplaces still surviving in Knole’s first-floor apartments, are those who worked at the royal palaces.

If the structure and interiors of the house are the result of Thomas Sackville’s remodelling in the first years of 17th century, the collections on display within the showrooms are essentially those one collected by Charles Sackville, 6th Earl of Dorset, in the early 18th century. He was Groom of the bedchamber of Charles II in 1668, and Ambassador to France 1669-70. He was a poet and patron who became Charles II's Lord Chamberlain and 'unofficial minister of the arts', with the 'poets' parlour' in Knole becoming a venue for literary society to converse.

The objects on display are the amalgamation of several collections. He inherited through his mother, Frances Cranfield, the collection of his grandfather Lionel Cranfield, 1st Earl of Middlesex, Lord Treasurer and Master of the Great Wardrobe to James I. Lionel Cranfield amassed an outstanding collection of furniture, paintings and tapestries at his mansion, Copt Hall in Essex.

Under William III and Queen Mary, Charles was appointed Lord Chamberlain, the role was to manage the domestic affairs of the royal family. His office allowed him to take from the royal palaces any furniture which was deemed out of date or unsuitable. He acquired beds, tapestries, chairs and stools from Whitehall, Hampton Court and Kensington Palace.

All the objects fill the first-floor State Rooms.

The Brown Gallery is lined with early English furniture from royal palaces, including X-framed chairs indicated royal status and two carved walnut armchairs with WH for Whitehall Palace

The Spangle bedroom is hung with tapestries woven in Brussels in the workshop of Hendrik Reydams taken from the royal apartments of Queen Mary after her death.

The Leicester Gallery is lined with royal furniture and a X-framed chair from Hampton Court.

The Venetian bedroom houses a bed, two armchair and six tools made from James II.

The Cartoon Gallery is hung with copies of Raphael’s cartoons, designed for the Sistine Chapel tapestries, brought to Knole from Copt Hall.

The lavish bed in the King’s room, embroidered with gold and silver thread, was probably made for James II when he was Duke of York.

One of the most historically important pieces of furniture in Britain is the Knole sofa, a silk velvet sofa.

Its design has been copied around the world, and has inspired the sofas we are all familiar with today.

The Knole Sofa was not designed as a comfortable seat, but as a state couch. Placed beneath a canopy, it functioned like a double throne, so that kings and queens sit next to each other.

Made in England possibly based on a French or Italian design about 1635-1640.

Knole house- Knole Sofa

The art collection increased with John Frederick Sackville, the 3rd Duke of Dorset, who bought sculptures and portraits by Van Dyck, Gainsborough, Sir Peter Lely, Sir Godfrey Kneller and Sir Joshua Reynolds. He was a friend of Sir Joshua Reynolds and today there is a Reynold Room in Knole with many paintings of the artist but the most interesting is the one of Huang Ya Dong. Huang was a trader in Canton, China and travelled to England in 1774. Huang was introduced to the 3rd Duke of Dorset and spent some time in Knole joining the service of the Duke as a page. Reynold’s portrait of Huang was designed to highlight his eastern origins.

Joshua Reynolds, Huang Ya Dong, 1775, Knole house

On the Great stairs is possible to see a sculpture by John Baptist Locatelli of Giovanna Zanerini know as “La Baccelli”, an Italian ballerina who was the mistress of the 3rd Duke of Dorset. She was living at Knole and she had a son John Frederick Sackville, named after his father.

To continue the male inheritance the Sackville name was combine with the West creating the Sackville-West.

The house became famous with Victoria Sackville-West known as Vita, a novelist, poet, and

Vita Sackville-West

journalist, a prolific letter writer, diarist and a garden designer. Her Knole and the Sackvilles, published 1922, is regarded as a classic in the literature of English country houses. Its rather romantic style is sometimes of dubious historical accuracy but it is based upon full access to the manuscripts and books at that time in the House's collection. It was soon after this book's publication, in December 1922, that Vita first met Virginia Woolf who, became a friend and, for a while in the later 1920s, her lover. Woolf wrote Orlando over the winter of 1927–28, an experimental, though accessible, novel which drew on the history of the house and Sackville-West's ancestors, particularly as presented in Vita's book.

As early as 1935 Charles Sackville-West recognised the impossibility of maintaining Knole as a private house and opened negotiations with the National Trust regarding its future. An agreement was reached 1946, Knole house was gifted to the National Trust to be opened to the public. The private apartments were leased back to the Sackville-West family, who retained ownership of the majority of the parkland and the contents of the house. In 1990 was officially transferred the ownership of the furniture to the National Trust.

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