Another Jolly: Knole House – once home to Vita Sackville-West and a Palace for Thomas Cranmer, and Henry VIII
In my last blog I posted about my latest ‘Jolly,’ when I spent a few days with family members and was treated to a visit to the National Trust property Sissinghurst Castle Garden, former home of the poet, author, and famous gardener,Vita Sackville-West, and her husband Howard Nicolson.
My next ‘jolly,’ with my sister and her husband, was to Knole House, which was, and still is, owned by the Sackville family. Vita Sackville-West always felt resentful about not inheriting the house, which passed to a male heir.
She loved the house with what she described as an ‘atavistic’ passion. She said, ‘Sissinghurst and St Loup are my spiritual homes.’ She later wrote. ‘and of course Knole, which is denied me for ever, through “a technical fault over which we have no control”, as they say on the radio.’ The technical fault being her gender.
Knole came to dominate the Sackville family life and led to bitter fights for control, creating a complex family tree of ownership. Through it all, the treasures remained on show in the house. The house remained in the possession of the Sackvilles until 1946 when the National Trust took over. The current generation of the Sackville family still lives in their own private apartments in the house.
The size of Knole is overwhelming. It reached its present size by the early 1500s but was always too big for its inhabitants. Each generation added to it, but its character remains the same.
It is more like a small town than a house or a palace, which it was when owned by Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury. Unfortunately for him Henry VIII liked it so much that he forced the Archbishop to give it to him in 1538.
Knole was built to impress, to make a statement about the wealth and influence of its owner, Cranmer. It was a symbol of power. In 1603 Thomas Sackville, 1st Earl of Dorset, took ownership of Knole. The Sackvilles were an aristocratic family who made the most of their royal connections and collection of royal treasures.
The rooms contain rare fabrics and furnishings, many of which came from the royal palaces. As Lord Chamberlain, Charles Sackville could take his pick from unwanted royal furnishings. It was an accepted perk of the job. Designed as sumptuous apartments in the early 1600s, the showrooms have not been lived in for 300 years. They became home of the prestigious collections and a reminder of the wealth and power held by the family.
Visitors come from everywhere today to visit the showrooms at Knole, as they have for hundreds of years, keen to peep inside this fabulous house. It was really busy when we arrived late morning, and extremely hot too. Part of the house was undergoing conservation; scaffolding was covering one large section, which was shame as it got in the way of photos I’d have liked to have taken. Conservation work is being done by the Heritage Lottery Fund – a 5 year programme to preserve Knole for future generations.
Vita spent a very happy childhood there. In ‘Knole and the Sackvilles,’ (1922), she wrote that Knole ‘has a deep inward gaiety of some very old woman who has always been beautiful, who has had many lovers, and seen many generations come and go’.
‘It is above all an English home. It has the tone of England; it melts into the green of the garden turf, into the tawnier green of the park beyond, into the blue of the pale English sky.’
As we approached the house, having driven up a long driveway to the car park, we could see deer roaming, quite tame, right up to the visitors. We decided to sit for a while with a cooling drink (cider) purchased from an on-site ‘cafe,’ as it was already scorching hot when we arrived in late morning.
A cricket match was being played on the nearby field and people sat watching and enjoying picnics in the shade of huge trees.
There are 600 deer in the herd consisting of light coloured fallow deer, which were joined, in the 19th century, by darker, shorter, stockier, Japanese Sika Deer.
Kent’s last medieval deer park is unusual because it’s enjoyed more than 5 centuries of continuous management for its deer herds. Until the early 20th century the hunting of deer was a hugely popular sport among the aristocracy. There were about 700 deer parks in England in the 16th century. Knole was the only one in Kent.
The park is also a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), best known for its insects. Apparently there are small grassy mounds, around, built by colonies of Yellow Meadow ants. A typical colony contains around 14,000 ants! Thankfully we didn’t see any.
During the 16th and 17th centuries, timber from the park was sold to Chatham (shipyards). During both World Wars areas of the park were used for military camps, but apart from the metalled roads built by the Army, and the bomb craters beside the golf-course, which commemorate Knole’s site astride ‘Bomb Alley’ between London and the Channel, there is little change.
Before looking around the house, we decided to take a walk through some of the acres of parkland, woods, and open meadows, keeping an eye out for golf balls; walkers can cross the course in various places and caution is advised.
Did I say it was hot? Understatement. The sun was relentless and thankfully we were able to get some shade from the enormous trees on the estate. I thought I’d melt.
We walked miles across parkland, through shady dark woodland, and across vast open, wasteland with grass and sandy paths which we followed up hill and down dale. We barely met a soul, even though the car park had been full when we set off.
Eventually we made out way back, in a loop, to the house, and had some lunch and a much-needed rest, sitting under the temporary scaffolding and awnings erected as a make-shift cafe. I supposed the original cafe might be where the conservation was taking place.
We entered the West Front of the house underneath a tower – the central gatehouse with 4 battlements – built by Henry VIII between 1543-1548, and into a vast courtyard with lawn on either side of the main path, called Green Court, the largest of 7 courtyards at Knole. Then we walked underneath another tower – originally the West Front – into the main courtyard (Stone Court) and then on into the Great Hall where, one year, my companions had attended a Christmas Choral event, which they tell me was magical. Looking round the vast hall I could see how atmospheric it might be with Christmas decorations and lighting.
I cannot possibly describe the whole house in any great detail; there was so much, it is so vast. Taking photos was not allowed inside, either, so I was rather disappointed. I can only suggest a visit or a look on the Internet to see much more than I am sharing here.
I can say, however, how helpful and informative the staff were. We were often joined by a NT volunteer, seeing our specific interest in a painting or piece of art, or the wonderful tapestries which were undergoing restoration in some of the rooms, who would step up and tell us more or answer our questions, with obvious delight in their subject and love for Knole house.
We had such a laugh when a little Indian boy of about 4 asked his father why all the chairs, lining the walls in one room, were so old and shabby. He asked why would anyone sit on them, and why didn’t they get them fixed or buy new ones? He kept on, like kids do, asking why. In the end his father took him to one of the volunteers who tried to explain about the age of the chairs, and that kings and queens had sat on them. He was not convinced and told the lady that kings and queens should spend their money and buy new ones. In his house the chairs were not old and damaged.
As with so many of the large houses and estates of England, death duties and taxes have led to the break up and sale of so many of these wonderful, historic assets. Knole passed to the National Trust in 1946 after years of negotiation, with an endowment towards its upkeep. The family retained possession of the park and many of the house’s contents, and were granted a 200 year lease on various private apartments within the house.
If you’d like to enjoy Knole house and the park, and all it has to offer, here are some links:
Tel: +44 ()) 1732 462100.
The National Trust takes care of over 300 historic houses, castles, chapels, monuments, and gardens, including where literary first editions of the classics can be found, and where Jane Austen and others lived and wrote.
Plus hundreds of
Medieval fortresses, Public houses (pubs) that welcomed Charles Dickens, and views that have inspired our painters and poets.
742 miles of coastline including The Giants Causeway to the White Cliffs of Dover, and over 247,000 hectares of land; open plains, rolling hills and ancient woodlands, and landscapes captured by artists such as J.M.W. Turner and setting which feature in the books of Beatrix Potter and many others, where you can walk, ride, and stay and much more.
Membership of the National Trust helps care for our special places – forever, for everyone.
I had a fabulous day and would happily go back again to explore more of the house and park. Hopefully when the weather is much cooler.
It is possible to have a tour of the park on board a red double-decker bus and if I recall correctly, it only costs £2.50 per person
Photographs (c) Jane Risdon 2015: All Rights Reserved.