Knole House is an English country house in the civil parish of Sevenoaks in west Kent. Sevenoaks consists of the town itself and then Knole Park a 1,000-acre (4.0 km2) park, within which the house is situated. Knole is one of England’s largest houses, the National Trust attribute a possibility of its having at some point been a calendar house which had 365 rooms, 52 staircases, 12 entrances and 7 courtyards. Its grade I listing reflects its mix of Elizabethan to late Stuart structures, particularly in the case of the central façade and state rooms. The surrounding deer park has also survived with little having changed in the 400 years since 1600 although its formerly dense woodland has not fully recovered from the loss of over 70% of its trees in the Great Storm of 1987.
The oldest parts of the house were built by Thomas Bourchier, Archbishop of Canterbury, between 1456 and 1486, on the site of an earlier house belonging to James Fiennes, first Lord Say(e) and Sele who was executed after the victory of Jack Cade’s rebels at the Battle of Solefields. On Bourchier’s death, the house was bequeathed to the See of Canterbury — Sir Thomas More appeared in revels there at the court of John Morton — the Archbishop’s cognizance (motto) of Benedictus Deus appears above and to either side of a large late Tudor fireplace here, and in subsequent years it continued to be enlarged such as with the addition of a new large courtyard, now known as Green Court, and a new entrance tower. In 1538 the house was taken from Archbishop Thomas Cranmer by King Henry VIII along with Otford Palace.
In 1566, during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, it came into the possession of her cousin Thomas Sackville whose descendants the Earls and Dukes of Dorset and Barons Sackville have lived there since 1603. The chapel-room with its crypt seems to pre-date this period and has contemporary pews.
The first lease was made on 1 February 1566, between Robert Dudley (Elizabeth’s newly created and later stripped-of-titles Earl of Leicester) and Thomas Rolf. Under this the ‘manor and mansion-house’ of Knole and the park, with the deer, and also Panthurst Park and other lands, were demised to the latter for the term of ninety-nine years at a rent of £200. The landlord was to do all repairs, and reserved the very unusual right (to himself and his heirs and assigns) to occupy the mansion-house as often as he or they chose to do so, but this right did not extend to the gate-house, nor to certain other premises. The tenant was given power to alter or rebuild the mansion-house at his pleasure. As Mr Rolf died very soon after this lease, the tenancy transferred to John Lennard (of Chevening) and his son Samson, Lord Dacre’s son-in-law.
The Sackville descendants include writer Vita Sackville-West (her Knole and the Sackvilles, published 1922, is regarded as a classic in the literature of English country houses); her friend and lover Virginia Woolf wrote the novel Orlando drawing on the history of the house and Sackville-West’s ancestors. The Sackville family custom of following the Salic rules of primogeniture prevented Sackville-West herself from inheriting Knole upon the death of her father Lionel (1867–1930), the 3rd Lord Sackville, and her father bequeathed the estate to his brother Charles (1870–1962).
The house ranks in the top five of England’s largest houses, under any measure used.
The grounds present the largest remaining open space of Sevenoaks which otherwise consists of a generally low-density provincial town, smaller, still mostly wooded Sevenoaks Common, a relatively buffered sand and clay quarry in its north and its only remaining manor as traditionally defined (that is with more than an acre of land).
Art and furnishings
The many state rooms open to the public contain a collection of 17th-century royal Stuart furniture, perquisites from the 6th Earl’s service as Lord Chamberlain to William III in the royal court, including three state beds, silver furniture (comprising a pair of torcheres, mirror and dressing table, being rare survivors of this type), outstanding tapestries and textiles and the Knole Settee. The art collection includes portraits by Van Dyck, Gainsborough, Sir Peter Lely, Sir Godfrey Kneller and Sir Joshua Reynolds (the last being a personal friend of the 3rd Duke), and a copy of the Raphael Cartoons. The eye is especially drawn to some of Reynolds’ portraits in the house: a late self-portrait in doctoral robes and the depictions of Samuel Johnson, Oliver Goldsmith and Wang-y-tong, a Chinese page boy who was taken into the Sackville household have particular character and force. There are also survivals from the English Renaissance: an Italianate staircase of great delicacy and the vividly carved over mantel and fireplace in the Great Chamber. The ‘Sackville leopards’, holding heraldic shields in their paws and which form finials on the balusters of the principal stair (constructed 1605-8) of the house, are derived from the Sackville coat of arms.
The organ, in the late medieval private chapel at Knole, is arguably the oldest playable organ in England. The organ has four ranks of oak pipes (Stopped Diapason 8, Principal 4, Twelfth 22/3 and Fifteenth 2) contained in a rectangular ornamented chest with the keyboard at the top. Its date of construction is not known, but an early guidebook refers to a marked date of 1623 (although no such date mark is still apparent) – a date in the 1620s has been suggested. The pitch of the organ is sharp (A460 Hz) and the foot-pumped bellows remain in working order.
The house is mostly cared for and opened by the National Trust; however, the Trust only owns the house and an adjoining modest park – overall 52 acres (21 ha). More than half the house has been kept by the Sackville-Wests: Lord Sackville or his family trust own the remaining gardens and estate but permit commercialised access and certain charitable and sporting community events.
The National Trust who own the building believe at one point it may well have been a calendar house which had 365 rooms, 52 staircases, 12 entrances and 7 courtyards, but while the number of rooms is approximately correct the staircases is now much lower.
The house is one of the closest to a railway station (in this case a minor main line) in the South-East, at 1.5 miles (2.4 km) from Sevenoaks station.
As a walled garden, Knole’s is very large, at 26 acres (11 ha) (30 including the ‘footprint’ of the house) and as such is large enough to have the very unusual — and essentially medieval feature of a smaller walled garden inside itself (Hortus Conclusus). It contains many other features from earlier ages which have been wiped away in most country-house gardens: like the house, various landscapers have employed to demonstrate the uses of a large gardens with distinctive features. These features include clair-voies, a patte d’oie, two avenues, and bosquet hedges.
Rest of the Park
Overall the house is set in its 1,000-acre (4.0 km2) deer park, which is still in part accurate, however the controlled deer population do not have access to all parts.
Reflecting its woodland, Knole Park, is a Site of Special Scientific Interest.