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The Many Lives of an English Manor House

A major restoration project at a grand estate reveals centuries of a nation’s history

January/February 2016

Knole House Aerial View


If every home tells a story, then Knole House is a tome. By any measure one of the five largest houses in England, this country estate in Sevenoaks in west Kent has seen six centuries of British history, and the reigns of some 30 monarchs. Knole House has been the backdrop for all the ups and downs of the English aristocracy and for the lives of the countless tradesmen, butlers, maids, cooks, and footmen who kept dwellings like it running.


Located just 30 miles outside London, the house occupies four acres, surrounded by 26 acres of gardens and fields, and another thousand that make up a medieval deer park. If the house sprawls, it is with good reason. From Sir James Fiennes to the Archbishop of Canterbury to King Henry VIII to many generations of the Sackville family, each new owner has added to its size and complexity, which has resulted in a multilevel labyrinth. It is difficult even to get an accurate count of all the rooms—the best estimate is around 420, connected to courtyards, staircases, attics, and seemingly miles upon miles of corridors. “Knole has almost always had too many rooms,” says archaeologist Matthew Champion. “Each owner kept adding to it to increase their status, but they could never keep on top of using them all.”


Vita Sackville-West, the early-twentieth-century writer and inspiration for Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, grew up in the home and described it as resembling “a medieval village with its square turrets and its grey walls, its hundred chimneys sending blue threads up into the air.” Today, one wing is occupied by Robert Sackville-West, 7th Baron Sackville, and his family, but the house is owned and managed by the National Trust, to whom it was donated in 1947 by the 4th Baron, Charles. Supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund, the National Trust is conducting a major five-year program of restoration that is offering an unprecedented look at the house and grounds, its construction, and the lives of many of those who passed through its halls.


The project involves lifting floorboards, inspecting rafters, and repointing walls—an excavation of the house itself. Archaeologists have found, behind the walls and across the gardens, stories of the house’s occupants and employees, stories that reflect the changing moods of the country through time: the economic impact of the War of the Roses, the paranoia following the Gunpowder Plot, England’s obsession with sport, the arrival of modern technology—and, of course, generations of family intrigue.


The history of the site of Knole House goes back to well before the first block of dark-gray local Kentish ragstone was laid in 1445. Within the parkland around the estate are what appear to be the remnants of Bronze Age fields, patterns of irregular plots around one acre in size, according to Al Oswald, a landscape archaeologist from the University of Sheffield. A low hill in front of the house, called Echo Mount, may even be topped by a Bronze Age burial mound. “There’s been lots of speculation about which ‘knoll’ the place name refers to,” says Oswald. “I just wonder if this burial mound is the knoll, the local landmark, from which the house took its name.



England’s Grand Estate



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