With its 365 rooms, 52 staircases, and seven courtyards Knole house is a calendar house. It was built by Thomas Bourchier, Archbishop of Canterbury, in the 15th century. When Thomas Cranmer became Archbishop of Canterbury, the house passed to him. As a kind of thanks from Henry VIII, he was relieved of the house in return for having backed the king in his divorce from Katherine of Aragon. Cranmer was burned on the stake by Mary I. And Elizabeth I handed the house to her cousin Thomas Sackville.
Vita Sackville-West was born in Knole, but had no rights to inherit it as house and title passed in the male line. She never quite got over the loss, writing Knole and the Sackvilles in 1922 (published in 1948 by Drummond). Together with Vita, Knole has been immortalized by Virginia Woolf in her Orlando. Vita was the daughter of the third Lord Sackville who had inherited it from his uncle. His uncle was also his father in-law, as Vita’s mother was the illegitimate daughter of the second Lord.
When reading the book by Robert Sackville-West, you start to understand that Vita’s parentage is in no way odd, but rather the rule in the family. House and titles tended to move sideways in the Sackville family rather than down. When the Sackvilles ran out of steam, a daughter finally inherited the house, but not the titles, and her husband adopted the name of Sackville-West. But the tendency to inherit sideways remained with the family.
In the case of the present Lord, the succession bypassed no less than five female cousins to settle on his shoulders. The book explains how a house may possess a family rather than the other way round. The obsession was certainly there with the first Earl of Dorset who extensively rebuilt Knole in the 17th century on the lavish scale. He was so impressed with his newly obtained title he had the coronet embossed on just about everything including the plumbing. Since then members of the family took turns in building up the fortunes for others to fritter it away.
Robert Sackville-West calls his ancestors a barmy lot and he presents them in that way. You can’t get rid of the feeling though that Vita had a point when she called them a rotten family and barking mad through and through. Vita certainly fitted her own description, living at nearby Sissinghurst Castle with her husband, two sons, and a string of lovers including Dotty, the Duchess of Wellington.
Robert Sackville-West’s Inheritance: The Story Of Knole & The Sackvilles was published by Bloomsbury. The book takes you on a entertaining journey through time featuring the house and its inhabitants; the heirs to land and title present a pageant of builders and spenders. The inheritance in turn sparked periods of land acquisition and aspiration to grandeur counterbalanced by heirs ground down by the duties and the weight of the estate.