The origins of this enormous, Kentish ragstone house are obscure, but it is believed that an estate has been in existence here since at least the 12th century. However, it is known that, in 1456, Thomas Bourchier (Archbishop of Canterbury) bought Knole for little more than £266, and set about transforming this fortress-like building into a home 'fit for the Princes of the Church'. For the next 30 years, until his death, he employed his great skills to expand and restore this imposing country house.
Knole House saw four more Archbishops before Henry VIII took possession of it, enlarging it to a standard befitting a Royal Palace (and at considerable cost), but never actually spending much time there. After a generally confusing period of history and ownership, Elizabeth I presented the house and estate to her cousin, Thomas Sackville in 1566, and his descendants have lived at Knole House ever since. It is largely due to the efforts of Thomas Sackville, who spent a great deal of money, time and energy redeveloping the house into a luxurious family residence, that Knole House became the splendid place that survives today.
Externally, this vast house resembles a complete village, with so many gables, chimneys, battlements and pinnacles and, like a well-protected medieval community, has a central Gatehouse. There is also a great inner Gatehouse (Bourchier`s Tower) with a central oriel window and machicolations on either side, which conjure up visions of traditional castle life but which are, in fact, purely for decorative purposes.
Some of the beautiful, and original, features of Knole House include the fine plasterwork ceilings, the magnificently carved wooden screen in the Hall, and the fabulous painted walls of the staircases and the Cartoon Gallery. Notwithstanding all other aspects of work undertaken by such skilled craftsmen of that time, the 'piece de resistance' is surely the great chimneypiece and overmantel found in the Ballroom - formerly the chief living room of Archbishop Bouchier. The elaborately carved marble and alabaster structure reaches from floor to ceiling, and is ranked amongst the finest works of Renaissance sculpture in England.
The kitchen, originally located in a separate building along the courtyard known as Water Court, is a clear demonstration of the fact that the 15th century house was built on a grand, though not ostentatious, scale. A curious legend attached to Knole House is that it had seven courtyards, representing the days of the week, fifty-two staircases - one for each week of the year - and 365 rooms, corresponding to the days in a year. No apparent significance has ever been attached to this interesting bit of trivia but it is quite thought provoking.
During the Civil War, Knole House suffered the loss of many valuable items when the property was seized by the Parliamentarians. Fortunately, the 6th Earl of Dorset (Charles) was able to restock Knole House with priceless furniture and other valuable objects from the Royal Palaces when he became Lord Chamberlain to William III. Resulting from this, Knole House has the enviable reputation among all English country houses, of owning the most rare and important 17th century collections.
Set in lovely parkland, with large herds of fallow and Japanese deer roaming free, Knole House has an interesting combination of historical, ecclesiastical, Royal, and literary associations. There is just so much to appreciate and learn about Knole House and the Sackville family. For example, Vita Sackville-West's work 'Knole and the Sackvilles' is one of the classics on English country houses, and her good friend, Virginia Woolf, wrote 'Orlando' largely based on the history of the house and family.