And the Sackville-Wests

Grid Ref: TQ 539 542
Date: 8 June 2013


The Grade I listed Knole House lies in the 1,000 acre Knole Park just south of Sevenoaks in Kent. It is now in the care of the National Trust. it is one of the largest houses in England and is or was a so-called calendar house with 365 rooms, 52 staircases, 12 entrancess, and seven courtyards. It has Elizabethan and Stuart architecture.

When I visited Knole, the weather was disappointing for photography but as I was about to leave, the light improved to allow me to capture the magnificent frontage. The following year I had the opportunity to attend a course on Biographies of County Houses which would include Knole as one of its subjects.

Knole House
Frontage of Knole House


The first house on the site belonged to James Fiennes first Lord Saye and Sel (1395-1450) . The Barony was created for him in 1447 for various services including fighting in the 100 years war, being High Sherrif of Kent in 1436 and two years later High Sheriff of Surrey and Sussex. He also served terms as Constable of Dover and Warden of the Cinque Ports from 1447 to 1450 and Lord High Treasurer of England from 1449 to 1450. However, he was a supporter of William de la Pole, 1st Duke of Suffolk one of the principals supporters of Henry VI. Suffolk was murdered in 1450 and James Fiennes was imprisoned in the Tower of London before being murdered by the rebels led by Jack Cade. On Fiennes' death the house was bequeathed to the See of Canterbury.

Thomas Bourchier (1404-1486) became Archbishop of Canterbury in 1454. He was a great grandson of Edward III and one of his brothers was the 1st Earl of Essex. He became Lord Chancellor in 1455 and was created a Cardinal in 1470. He was the Archbishop who crowned Richard III and Henry VII. He started to build the earliest of what now remains at Knole between 1456 and 1486. The house was sequestered from Archbishop Thomas Cranmer in 1538 by Henry VIII.

The house was acquired by Elizabeth I's cousin Thomas Sackville in 1566. His descendants became Earls of Dorset. In 1720 the 7th Earl became the first Duke of Dorset. Thomas Sackville was Lord High Treasurer to James I. He made extensive alterations to Knole house in anticipation of a visit by the King. The 6th Earl was Lord Chamberlain to William and Mary and one of his perks was to acquire furniture and effects no longer required by the Royal Family. In this way he was able to furnish parts of Knole House with 17th century Stuart furniture, including three state beds. There is also magnificent collection of portraits, a virtual Who's Who of 16th and 17th century England. It includes work by the court painters Sir Peter Lely and Sir Godfrey Kneller.

The 10th Earl and 4th Duke of Dorset was George John Frederick Sackville (1793-1815. When he died as a result of falling from a horse while hunting in Ireland, he was succeeded as 5th Duke by his cousin, Charles Sackville-Germain who died childless. However, the 4th Duke's estatae at Knole went to his sister Elizabeth. She married George West, 5th Earl de la Warr (1791-1869) and they change their name to Sackville-West.  They had nine children of whom the first, George, died unmarried in 1850, before his father. The next son, Charles, was 6th Earl until his death in 1873 and then the third son, Reginald was 7th Earl until his death in 1896.

A fourth brother, Mortimer Sackville-West (1820-1888) was made 1st Baron Sackville in 1876 for services within the Royal Household. The peerage was set up so that it could go to a younger brother if he had no heirs and this proved to be the case. So in 1888, younger brother Lionel became 2nd Baron Sackville (1827-1908) . He had seven children with a Spanish dancer, Josefa de la Oliva. When he died one of sons, who styled himself Ernest Henri Jean Baptiste Sackville-West claimed that he was heir as his parents had married some time between 1863 and 1867. A long legal battle ensued in which it was found that Josefa's husband had been alive all through her relationship with Lionel so the children were illegitimate. Lionel was succeeded as 3rd Lord Sackville by his nephew, also called Lionel who proceeded to marry his cousin, the illegitimate daughter of the 2nd Lord Sackville, Victoria Josefa Dolores Catalina Sackville-West. They were the parents of Victoria, known subsequently as Vita Sackville-West. She was their only child.

In 1913, Vita married Harold Nicholson and their first son was born in 1914 at Knole.  Vita had a lesbian relationship with Violet Trefussis and later Virginia Woolf.  The latter wrote the Orlando for Vita.  Vita’s husband, Harold Nicholson was a diplomat.  He was a homosexual and they had in effect an open marriage but remained devoted to each other. Vita and her husband Harold bought Sissinghurst, largely a ruin but with the gatehouse intact and spent much of their lives creating the gardens there.

Vita’s father died in 1928 and he was succeeded by his brother Charles John Sackville-West (1870-1962) as the 4th Baron Sackville.  Vita did not visit Knole again for many years.  She was heart-broken at losing her family home.  The house passed to the National Trust in 1947.  Vita was commissioned then by James Lees Milne to write a guide book.  Although she had not visited the house for 25 years she remembered accurately all the furniture and pictures and where they were.

The 4th Baron Sackville was succeeded by his son Edward Charles Sackville-West (1901-1965) who was followed, as 6th Baron by his cousin Lionel Bertrand Sackville-West (1913-2004). When he died aged 90 he was succeeded in the title by his nephew Robert Bertrand Sackville-West. From 1967 the 5th Baron and his family lived at Knole in apartments that had been negotiated when the National Trust took over.


Gatehouse at Sissinghurst spacer Gardens
Gatehouse at Sissinghurst   View across the gardens from the gatehouse

The Brick gatehouse at Sissinghurst was built in the 1530s by Sir John Baker, one of Henry VIII's Privy Councillors.

Books about Knole

Knole and the Sackvilles, by Vita Sackville-West, 1922
English Country Houses, by Vita Sackville-West, 1941
Orlando - A Biography by Virginia Woolf, 1928
Inheritance - A Story of Knole and the Sackvilles by Robert Sackville-West


Wikipedia Article on Thomas Bourchier, James Fiennes, Knole House and links therein.
Notes from a course on books about English Country Houses given by Roger Mitchell at Alston Hall Adult Education College, Longridge, Lancashire

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