Virginia Woolf describes Knole in her novel Orlando (1928) as looking ‘like a town rather than a house… courts and buildings, grey, red, plum colour, lay orderly and symmetrical… here was a chapel, there a belfry; spaces of the greenest grass lay in between and clumps of cedar trees and beds of bright flowers’.
This vision of a house of multiple courtyards has eluded visitors until now, because at ground level you see little beyond the surrounding walls. Only from the rooftops and attics do you get a view that brings home the sheer scale of Knole. Set within 1,000 acres of rolling parkland in Sevenoaks, Kent, Knole was bought by Thomas Bourchier, Archbishop of Canterbury, in 1456, expanded by his successor archbishops, and acquired – as was his habit – by Henry VIII in 1538. In 1604, after 66 years as a royal palace, it was purchased by Thomas Sackville, Lord Treasurer under Elizabeth I and James I, and further developed to create a sumptuously decorated Jacobean great house.
Treasures to draw crowds
When one of Sackville’s successors, Charles, the 6th Earl of Dorset, was made Lord Chamberlain under William and Mary, he was able to help himself to unwanted and discarded furniture from the other royal palaces as one of the ‘perquisites’ of his job. Out from Hampton Court and Whitehall, and into Knole, went Stuart furniture, tapestries and portraits. Decidedly old-fashioned at the time, these are now what attracts visitors to Knole, displayed as they have been in the ‘show rooms’ that have been visited by the public since the 18th century.
Indeed, Knole’s proximity to London made it a favourite destination of railway-borne tourists in the 1860s and 1870s, when upwards of 10,000 visitors a year came to see the house; a thriving hotel trade grew up in Sevenoaks to cater for the crowds. In 1946, ownership of the house was passed to the National Trust as the only way, given the punitive levels of inheritance tax at the time, that the Sackville-West family could afford to stay there.
The house, like all old houses, has not been immune to the ravages of time. Consequently, the Trust has now launched an ambitious plan to deliver the urgent conservation work needed to secure the exteriors, interiors, and collections at Knole. A major programme of emergency repairs to the existing walls, roofs, and windows has just been completed.
The next phase involves the building of a new conservation centre (the ‘Knole Studios’, described below), a learning centre, and a refurbished café. Added to this, environmental conditions within the showrooms will now be controlled, and a number of new spaces, including some of the attics, will be open to the public for the first time.
Archaeology at Knole
Archaeology has been at the core of this conservation programme, and has been ongoing at Knole since 2007. Specialists from MOLA (Museum of London Archaeology) undertook a three-dimensional survey of the 20 show rooms, long galleries, and formal painted stairways, recording every detail, from fireplaces to ceiling mouldings.
As for the attic spaces, visitors will soon be able to access some of these, and enjoy that view lovingly described by Virginia Woolf of endless rooftops and courtyards, but before that could happen the roof tiles and battens covering the eastern and southern ranges had to be removed and repaired. This initiative allowed MOLA archaeologists to make a detailed study of the building’s development, and they recorded at least 20 different phases of construction, dating from the 1440s through to the 20th century. One big surprise was to discover that much more survived than had been expected of the 15th-century structure (the archbishops’ palace), encapsulated within the Jacobean building.
The MOLA team also found fragments of the early 16th-century decorative façade of the east front, with its unusual ovolo moulded window jambs, and the beautiful S-shaped Medieval wind-braces of the Great Kitchen roof. More recent finds from within the roof spaces included a packet of cigarette papers dating to c.1915, a matchbox with a handwritten date of 1949 inside it, a number of other cigarette boxes (again with names and dates), plus a copy of an unauthorised biography of Marilyn Monroe, all presumably left by workmen and reflecting the way they would pass the time during their lunch breaks.
The attic interiors have been left pretty much untouched: what future visitors will see, apart from the views, is a long enfilade of roof timbers and wonkily plastered walls, stark in their emptiness by contrast with the highly furnished state rooms below. There is also a considerable number of graffiti: during the winter of 2012/13, graffiti specialist Matthew Champion identified some 250 individual graffiti, mostly dating to the late 19th and 20th centuries.
These included names, dates, information about activities such as snow clearance and the installation of services, architectural sketches, pencil portraits, and drawings of birds, flowers, plants, and trees. Suddenly, in these once-hidden spaces, we get a much more personal insight on those who lived and worked at Knole. This complements the oral history project that is currently under way at the property (www.knolestories.org.uk) where Knole staff past and present, as well as volunteers and estate-workers, have been able to help tell us more about the people named in the graffiti, and something about their lives and the work they did at Knole, as well as about the social history of a large country house.
Dirty, devilish, untold history
A similar insight into the more private, domestic side of life at Knole was revealed when MOLA archaeologists opened selected areas of panelling and floorboards in the winter of 2013/14. They revealed previously unrecorded parts of the building’s structure, such as evidence for Medieval room partitions in the Cartoon Gallery and Upper King’s Room, but they also retrieved ticket stubs, sweet wrappers, dead mice, 17th-century textile fragments, and a lock of what may be human hair (whose hair, we do not know), as well as more graffiti – including witch marks and demon traps.
The discovery of these netherwordly ritual protection marks under the floorboards and around the fireplace in the high-status space of the Upper King’s Room was particularly exciting. A series of incised marks on alternate floor joists demarcated a virtual ‘protective box’ around the open fireplace through which it was believed a demon could otherwise enter. Finding these marks on securely dated (1606) structural timbers is extremely rare, and provides fascinating evidence of early 17th-century beliefs about witches and demons. Of interest is the fact that the marks were hidden under the floorboards, which means that the occupants might not have known they were even there.
Conservation in action
In addition to our archaeological research, we are looking forward to the creation of the ‘Knole Studios’, a new on-site conservation venue in the former Barn – a structure that lost its roof to a serious fire in August 1887. With the help of a generous £7.75 million Heritage Lottery Fund grant, we plan to complete the new facility by early 2016.
Once the Studios are open, objects from the house will be cleaned and conserved in front of the public. Rather than hiding conservation work behind the scenes, as might have been the practice in the past, Knole Studios will therefore act as a big part of the visitor experience, and visitors will be welcome to interact with the conservators as they work. The studios and learning centre will also be used for training volunteers and apprentices in heritage skills, and opportunities will be provided for the public to participate in this work.
The Studios will thus enable the Trust to achieve a significant level of public engagement, something that we are determined to carry through to future archaeological work as well. We are already running a public lecture programme, guided tours of the new spaces, parkland walks, lectures to local history and archaeology groups in Kent and East Sussex, archaeologically themed activities as part of Knole’s ‘Family Mondays’, and, as part of the Festival of Archaeology, an annual ‘Archaeology Day’ at the property. This year has also seen the first intake to the ‘Knole Unwrapped’ archaeology programme – a community project training volunteers in archaeological methods and techniques, including building recording with James Wright (MOLA), graffiti survey with Matthew Champion, digital survey techniques with Catriona Cooper and Sam Griffiths (Southampton University), landscape survey with Alistair Oswald (York University), and geophysical survey with Gary Marshall and Tom Dommett (National Trust).
And so, not only have we managed to unlock new and hidden sides to the story of Knole, but we look forward to welcoming many more visitors and indeed volunteers to this most sumptuous English country mansion to enjoy Woolf’s ‘courts and buildings, grey, red, plum colour… orderly and symmetrical… and beds of bright flowers’.
Knole in context
In order to really appreciate a site, we need to understand its wider landscape. As such, over the past two years, Alistair Oswald of York University and Stewart Ainsworth of Chester University have started a major landscape survey in the Park and Garden. They have pinpointed and examined features dating from the prehistoric to post-Medieval periods, including a possible Bronze Age barrow on Echo Mount, evidence for early field systems, and extensive sand-quarrying. Inspired by these discoveries, Knole’s education and community-engagement teams are now looking at ways of telling the stories of Knole’s prehistoric past through guided walks and school events.
Meanwhile, Professor Matthew Johnson of Southampton University (UK)/Northwestern University (USA) is also examining Knole as part of the wide-ranging ‘Elite Landscapes in Southeastern England’ project, which has already investigated the surroundings of Bodiam Castle, Ightham Mote, and Scotney Castle (for further details, visit http://sites.northwestern.edu/medieval-buildings/). Work to date has included geophysical surveys of the land to the west of the house, and a digital survey of the West Front. Together, these landscape projects allow a deeper understanding of Knole’s wonderful and complex archaeological stories.
In the future, the ‘Knole Unwrapped’ volunteer team will be able to participate in both the recording of the site, and the interpretation of Knole’s wonderful and complex archaeological stories for the tens of thousands of people who visit the property each year.
Please see the National Trust website for details of future lectures and other events: http://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/knole/visitor-information/
You can also visit Knole’s Facebook page www.facebook.com/KnoleNT or follow Knole on Twitter https://twitter.com/KnoleNT
Nathalie Cohen is a regional archaeologist for the National Trust, covering properties in Kent and East Sussex, with a particular focus on the major project at Knole.
Additional reporting by Christopher Catling, joint author (with Julian Munby of Oxford Archaeology) of the Knole Conservation Management Plan.