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Sackville family secrets from Knole in Sevenoaks
By Jo Pattison
BBC Kent

Robert Sackville-West
Robert Sackville-West whose family has lived at Knole for over 300 years

Knole is a beautiful English house in Sevenoaks.

A house which has been home to the same family for hundreds of years - the Sackvilles.

Set in a huge park famous for its deer herds, the house remains much as it was back in the early 17th Century, when it was first occupied by a Sackville, Thomas, the 1st Earl of Dorset.

Within the walls of this magnificent building are tales of kings and queens, love and lust and murder and execution.

What better to find out more than from Robert Sackville-West himself, the 7th Baron Sackville.

The Chapel

Wooden Calvery scene
The wooden carving given to Thomas Sackville by Mary Queen of Scots

Knole began life as a medieval manor house but in the middle of the 15th Century it became an archbishop's palace.

Consequently Knole has its own chapel - once the private chapel for an archbishop of Canterbury and it is home to a carved wooden Calvary scene with a secret.

Thomas Sackville was a courtier and statesman at the court of Queen Elizabeth I. He was given the job of going to Fotheringay Castle, where Mary Queen of Scots was in prison, to break to her the news that she was to be beheaded. "I'm not sure how you do this," says Robert. "But Thomas did so with such tact and compassion that Mary gave him this wooden Calvary scene."

The Great Hall

The Great Hall
The Great Hall is the first room visitors enter

The Great Hall is the first room you enter as a visitor today and it is also the first room guests entered in the early 17th century when Thomas Sackville took the house over.

The hall is lavishly decorated with an intricately carved wooden screen at one end, a magnificent ceiling and huge portraits of dignitaries, including one of Thomas Sackville himself.

Under his portrait is a showcase which houses a facsimile edition of Orlando by Virginia Woolf. "Virginia dedicated Orlando to her lover Vita Sackville-West," explains Robert. "Anyone who has read it and has been to Knole will immediately notice all the references."

Above the door well is a portrait of Edward 4th Earl of Dorset - he was the Sackville living at Knole at the time of the Civil War. Wearing his royalist finery Edward has a key in the painting. "That key is the symbol of his office as Lord Chamberlain to the royal household and there in the bottom left hand corner of the frame hangs the actual key - we used to love that as kids."

The French Library

Richard and Edward Sackville
Richard and Edward Sackville fought for the King in the Civil War

At the time of Thomas Sackville, there was a period of about 20 or 30 years where the family were incredibly rich and successful and occupied the state rooms which visitors see today. However, after that the family withdrew to smaller, more domestic, rooms on the ground floor and the French Library is one of those rooms.

The painting in the French Library dates from time of Civil War and features Edward Sackville's sons Richard and Edward. The Sackvilles were royalists and they fought with King Charles I. However, Kent was predominantly a parliamentarian county and so Knole was taken over by Cromwell's forces and occupied as an administrative centre by parliamentary soldiers.

"While Edward Sackville was fighting with King Charles, his two sons were also fighting for the royalist cause," explains Robert. "In this beautiful portrait the very sad thing is that the younger of two boys, Edward, was captured after the battle of Abingdon and taken prisoner of war by the Cromwell's soldiers and then gratuitously murdered by them. So this beautiful portrait has this very sad dimension to it."

The Poet's Parlour

Charles Sackville
Charles Sackville was friends with King Charles II

Another of the smaller family rooms is the Poet's Parlour. "This room is known as the Poet's Parlour because pretty much all the portraits around the walls are of poets and playwrights dating from the late 17th century," says Robert.

One of the largest portraits is that of Charles Sackville, 6th Earl of Dorset, who was a minor poet himself and a big patron of poets at that time - John Dryden, Matthew Prior, Alexander Pope were some of his protégés - and he had a bit of a reputation.

"He was a hell raiser at the court of King Charles II," smiles Robert. "The King got him off two criminal charges, one for manslaughter and the other was for public indecency from the balcony of a brothel in Covent Garden. One of his mistresses was Nell Gwyn who eventually became the mistress of his mate, Charles II."

"This has always been the family dining room; it has been the family dining room for well over 300 years. With the sort of life that the 6th earl would have led, it would have been bawdy, racy, scurrilous probably rather drunken conversation that would have gone on in a room such as this."

Living at Knole

Knole House
Robert still enjoys looking out from the rooftops of Knole

He has regaled stories of his ancestors, but what is life like living at Knole for Robert Sackville-West today?

"I spent part of my childhood here from about nine to 18 when I left home although I'd come back because my parents lived here - in fact my mother still lives in a wing of the house. Then two years ago my wife and three kids, we moved into a wing of the house and it's been great - it's brilliant."

"Knole has been much the same for hundreds of years," says Robert. "It's a great place to live. Every now and then you are taken short and you think what an amazing place this is, but most of the time you just get on with life and you don't really think about it. But yes, it's a massive privilege to live somewhere as beautiful as this.

"It has one or two minor drawbacks in that it's not the sort of house where you can close your door and not see or hear anyone else," adds Robert. "There are 80,000 visitors to the house every year and you hear them. I can hear their footsteps - I don't mind it at all - but you're always conscious of living in a small community which sometimes is full of visitors. So that is a different experience and has occasional drawbacks but I certainly at the moment wouldn't swap it for anything else."

Favourite places

"I think the most magical places about Knole are the attics and there is a whole floor of Knole that is attic and, in parts, semi derelict. We used to love it as children and our children love it - they are just empty, quiet, slightly decrepit places - it's wonderful," says Robert.

"Mucking around in those attics, going through little windows out onto the roofs and peering over the battlements of the massive seven acres of roof here - it's a whole different world up there and I think that's probably one of the things I remember most as a child. I still get excited whenever I do it - yes, every now and then I still go out on the roofs.

"Also there's a particular view in one corner of the park from a place called Shot Tavern Gate. You can see right down in the distance this massive great house looking like a village really, with a clock tower, with a flag fluttering in the summer breeze - it's just brilliant."

Poet's Parlour
Robert in the Poet's Parlour, the family dining room which has remained unchanged for hundreds of years

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