Archaeology Magazine

A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America

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England's Grand Estate

Knole House, in Sevenoaks, Kent, is one of the largest homes in England, and has been witness to six centuries of British history. The National Trust is currently conducting a major five-year program of restoration that is offering an unprecedented look at the house and grounds, and glimpses into the lives of many who passed through its halls—from aristocrats and eccentrics to footmen and housemaids. Each owner of the house, including the Archbishop of Canterbury, King Henry VIII, and many generations of the Sackville family, has added to its size and complexity. The new project, which involves lifting floorboards, inspecting rafters, and repointing walls, is like an excavation of the house itself. While Knole House wasn’t a direct inspiration for Downtown Abbey, its architecture and the dramas of the Sackville family will be familiar to fans of the show. Below is a slideshow of images that illuminate the history of this majestic home.     

  • This 1809 engraving depicts the Outer Wicket Tower of Knole House and the surrounding green. The house was then occupied by the family of George Sackville, 4th Duke of Dorset. (Courtesy National Trust)
  • Today, most of Knole House is operated by the National Trust as a museum, though part is occupied by the family of Robert Sackville-West, 7th Baron Sackville. (Courtesy National Trust)
  • Vita Sackville-West, the early-twentieth-century writer and affiliate of the Bloomsbury Group, grew up in Knole House, 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.” (Courtesy National Trust)
  • Vita Sackville-West poses with her father Lionel, her sons Ben and Nigel, and her mother Victoria, who was the illegitimate daughter of another Baron Sackville, who then married back into the family. (Wikimedia Commons)
  • An army of servants and groundskeepers kept Knole House running for centuries, and many left their marks on the home. In narrow attic spaces, archaeologists found graffiti they left behind, including this sketch dating to 1963. (Courtesy National Trust)