There is so much about the people that lived centuries before us that is shrouded in mystery. There might be things that might be just under our noses and we would still not be able to find them. And what better place to find these kinds of things than an ancient mansion.
There are several places that have ancient artifacts and things hidden but a medieval mansion is one with a plethora of artifacts hidden inside them. No one would have thought that a volunteer working on an ancient estate like this would come across something of great relevance that gave a glimpse into the lives of the medieval people.
A 5-year-old restoration project was started by the National Trust at Knole in the year 2014. The project was a highly funded one and a surplus of 20 million pounds was invested in the project and the project aimed at restoring and conserving the building and along with it, all the historical items that were located on the estate.
A major portion of the funds that were being invested in the project was being provided by the Heritage Lottery Fund. Heritage Lottery Funds donates some of National Lottery’s profit to the projects like these which work on preserving heritage around the U.K. Various teams were allocated to restore and preserve the artwork that was found in the various rooms that consisted of vases, furniture, and antique paintings.
Knole is the name of the mansion that is located on a manor that goes by the same name that spreads across 1,000 years in Sevenoaks, which is one of the districts of Kentish countryside. The construction of the mansion dates back to the mid-15 century but its first records are in 1290.
The manor saw many changes in ownership in the next one and a half-century and it has always been with people of great importance like clergymen, nobles, and royalty. The manor belonged to Henry VII who handed it down to his successors and Elizabeth I. And this is one of the reasons why you can still find the original portrait made of the Tudors and I am not talking about the Television series.
The Sackville family
In the year 1637, the whole estate was bequeathed to the 5th Earl of Dorset, Richard Sackville. And since that day the estate has always remained with his descendants. This manor and the mansion have been a witness to the progress of human history.
A Small Country
England took a country that was small and connected by the sea too and completely converted into an empire that was to last for the hundreds of years that were to come. And while England was expanding, so was Sacksvilles too and added great showrooms so that they could display their wealth.
The mansion was expanded further and various additions were connected to the mansion and that did not stop until the expanded mansion outgrew the original mansion. At present, the mansion covers a total of four acres and is called “Calendar house” for a reason.
Vita Sackville-West who grew up in that house who is also an author state that it is a” calendar house”: “Its seven courtyards correspond to the days of the week, its fifty-two staircases to the weeks of the year, its three hundred and sixty-five rooms to the days of the year, but I do not know that anyone has ever troubled to verify it.”
Sackville’s family’s additions are proof of the fact that Sackville-West’s claim that the house has several attributes that are similar to a calendar seems false. Although he is right about the number of courts, his counting seems to have lost a track when it came to the number of rooms which are in a surplus of 365 and the staircase which are less than the alleged 52 staircases.
The counting of Vita Sackville-West might be wrong when it came to counting but still, that’s a pretty huge house. And just so you don’t think that we are exaggerating the size of this house, you should know that Knole is one of the five largest houses in England. The year 1947 was really important in the history of this estate.
Given To Trust
The year 1947 saw the estate being handed over to the National Trust. The 4th Baron Sackville was the one who in the year 1947 gave that estate to National Trust. National Trust is a charity whose main job is to safeguard and protect important buildings with historical significance. And this was one estate where historical events took place.
Opening For Visitors
The National Trust at first did not open the grounds and the mansion to the public, but slowly it started opening the grounds and some parts of the mansion for the public. And it is because of its beauty and its majestic nature that it attracts many tourists.
Strawberry Fields Forever
The Beatles are one of the most prominent tourists to have visited there. On the grounds of the estate, they recorded promotional clips for one of their most famous songs “Strawberry Fields Forever”. This attracted several other tourists and plenty of Beatles fans.
Still Housing Sackville
To this date, the estate houses Sackville, and they live in a separate wing of the estate. And in the part of the estate, they occupy a total of 420 rooms and they are connected by the hallways, courtyards, and staircases. Even though the estate has been donated to the National Trust, that does not mean that they own the property, only 52 acres.
Sackville and his family have not permitted the visitors or any special sporting event to access the ground. Due to its humongous size, it requires plenty of volunteers and a large force of workers to preserve the manor and mansion.
The restoration project that was started did not only aim at refurbishing and cleaning all the furniture and the painting in that estate but it also involved archaeologists as they were also called in. Archaeologists were involved because much of Knole’s history is not in any written form and is therefore forgotten.
Archaeologists’ main task was to search areas where ancient people might have concealed or hidden things. They constantly kept on looking in areas like in attics, like under floorboards, and in between rafters. And because of this, they were able to find things that helped them to know a lot about people who used to live here.
People say that hard work eventually pays off and they could not have been any more right.
The hard work of all the volunteers and the workers paid off when they stumbled across something that left everyone awestruck because of its unexpected occurrence.
Jim Parker was a volunteer that was leading one of the teams of the volunteers. Jim Parker was one of the greatest volunteers amongst the whole group of 40 volunteers. Jim invested too much of his time and labor as a member of the archaeology team on the premises and what he found was worth all the pain.
Around 40 volunteers along with Jim took part in special training in research techniques that were aimed at providing invaluable services and help to the staff. The training that these volunteers received was from the courses that were offered by the National Fund and Jim had been a part of the team of the volunteers for the past 6 years.
The amount of time that Jim had invested was one of the reasons that he was able to discover something of this huge relevance. During the project, a considerable portion of the rooms of the manor and the mansion were searched which included the Ballroom, the King’s Room, and Cartoon Gallery by the volunteers but no discovery was comparable to the one of Jim’s.
While exploring the rooms Jim Parker came across something that no one could believe. While exploring the Cartoon Gallery that mainly goes by the name Southern Barracks, he found two notes. To be precise, in the attic above the Cartoon gallery he found two letters that are pretty lucky to have survived given the condition of the attic and the time for which they were lying there.
The Usual Stuff
In the daily preservation schedule, the volunteers and the staff usually come across various stuff that includes old animal bones, rusty nails, old writings, etc. Many a time, the items that are discovered are the litter that the visitors or the people who worked there or lived there might have dropped, but these items are considered almost worthless.
The process of finding animal bones and the litter was the same for Jim. In the beginning, while searching the South Barracks mostly what Jim found was animal bones, but then he stumbled across the letters. “I was very excited to see some pieces of paper hidden underneath some rush matting,” said Jim.
When Jim came across the pieces of paper, he at once gathered all his teammates. The letter was all coated with dust. “We realized [one of the items] was a letter,” Parker said, “and there was writing on it which looked like a 17th-century hand. I was nicknamed ‘Jimdiana Jones’ after that!”. Who are we to judge but the nickname seems quite appropriate.
When Jim along with his teammates was satisfied that they were letters, he took both of the parchments in hand and took them to the experts and brought their attention to what he had found. Jim was highly praised by them for his fine work of spotting the letters. But the experts said that before the writings could be deciphered the letters needed to be restored.
A Third Find
While Jim was being a superstar in the volunteers for his amazing discovery there was another guy who was close to finding something big too. A building contractor Dan Morrison who was in a team other than Jim’s also came across a piece of parchment and the experts say that they belonged to the same era. The letter that Dan found was lying in a ceiling void near the Upper King’s Room and dated back to February 1622.
The experts say that at some point that spanned over the centuries, the letter might have fallen from the attic and might have got stuck in the ceiling void. On further examination, the experts concluded that the letter that Dan found and the letter that Jim found are both made of parchment, which is a type of paper that is made using stretched animal skin.
17th Century Notes
Whilst the preservation process was going on in the English countryside, on an old mansion and a manor, the volunteers found three letters that dated back almost 400 years ago and these letters provided a glimpse into the daily life of the people back in those days.
Archaeology Conservation Lab
As soon as the experts identified them as papers they concluded that they might hold historical relevance as the letters were touted to be at least 400 years old. Upon discovering this fact, the letters were directly sent to Archaeology Conservation Lab at University College London and then they were treated there.
Knole and Archaeology Conservation Lab at University College London share a very healthy professional and working relationship. Sending the artifacts is just one of the examples of the relationship they share apart from it, the school generally takes a field trip to visit the 15th century home and educate students about the historical site.
The letters were written on a piece of parchment which is made using the animal skin. And the centuries for which they remained hidden had taken a toll on the animal’s skin and the letters were sent to the departments where there were specialists who could take care of them.
Now once it was sure that the letter needed some specialist’s care, the next step included finding the one who could take care of them and eventually decipher them. Then came Jan Cutajar in the picture and he was the one whom the letter needed badly.
Jan Cutajar is a conservation expert who is working as a lab teaching assistant at University College London. The first thing that Cutajar did on receiving the letters was to take a photograph of the letters before he could start with his carefully planned process.
A Careful Procedure
Cutajar knew that the process had to be carried out very carefully or else it could turn into a total disaster. Apart from the dust, stains, and the dirt that was stuck on the paper, the paper was itself brittle and any attempt to flatten out the letters and decipher what was written on them could turn out to be destructive.
Believe it or not, but the letters were lucky that they ended up with Cutajar and he knew exactly what he was doing. He used various tools and objects like rubber powders, brushes, and other special cleaners in the process of restoring the parchment paper. And the next step was placing the pages in a humidifier.
The magic that Cutajar had carried on the parchment paper was starting to be seen now!
After these processes, the parchment paper relaxed and the letters started flattening in a paper press. The additional technology that Cutajar used was infrared technology. And after this process was when the experts could get a proper look at the pages and now was the time that they could try and decipher the letters. But they had no idea what these letters would contain.
Amongst the three notes that Jim and Dan found the note which was most readable was the one that dated back to 1633 “Mr Bilby, I pray p[ro]vide to be sent too morrow in ye Cart some Greenfish, The Lights from my Lady Cranfeild[es] Cham[ber] 2 dozen of Pewter spoon[es]: one greate fireshovell for ye nursery; and ye o[t]hers which were sent to be exchanged for some of a better fashion, a new frying pan together with a note of ye prises of such Commoditie for ye rest. Your loving friend, Robert Draper. Octobre 1633, Copthall.” What did this letter mean?
This letter that was deciphered gives us an insight into the daily life of the people who lived in this estate hundred of years ago. It is a shopping list and some of the things mentioned in the list are Greenfish and the other items included a spoon made of a different type of metal-Pewter and even a shovel for shifting coal in a fireplace.
Besides the very old script and the spelling on the letters, it also tells us about the type of English that was used in the connection between high-ranking servants and it also demonstrates how it ended up in Knole. The person who writes the letter- Robert Draper is most likely a high-ranking official. But the intriguing fact about this letter is that the return address is in Copthall and not Knole.
How It Got There?
Now the thing that was to be deciphered was that how did the letter reach Knole.
The experts came out with a fact that the letter arrived in Knole due to the relations between the Cranfields- the people who lived in Copthall had with the Sackvilles of Knole.
The theory that the experts gave was not apt until they came up with the proofs for the same. If the experts are to be believed then, Frances Cranfield who lived in Copthall was married to Richard Sackville, many years after the letter was written.
Copthall And Knole
According to the records, trunks of items were sent from Copthall to Knole and vice versa. Moreover, the experts believe that the letter might have been sent along with the trunks or other items and might have fallen and settled in the floorboards and waited there for centuries before it was found.
The Third Letter
The letter that was found by Dan is the letter which is in the worst condition out of the three letters that were found. The letter is still waiting to be deciphered. Thanks to the work done by Jan Cutajar on the letter that some part of the letter that was found by Dan is readable but not the whole of it.
The letter found by Dan says, “The XVIIIth of February 1622, [Received] by us the poore prisoners in [illegible] the [illegible] [from the] right honourable the Earle of Middlesex our worthy [illegible] [by the hands] of Mr Ayers the some of three Shillings [illegible] for our releefe & succour for which wee give [good] [illegible] for all our good benefactors. Richard Roger [illegible].”
Significance Of Find
Nathalie Cohen is one of the National Trust’s regional archaeologists and she said,” It is extremely rare to uncover letters dating back to the 17th century, let alone those that give us an insight into the management of the households of the wealthy, and the movement of items from one place to another.”
Nathalie further added, “Their good condition makes this a particularly exciting discovery. At Knole, our typical finds relate to the maintenance of the house such as wiring and nails or things visitors have dropped such as cigarette packets and ticket stubs.” Now the question is where are the letters residing now?
The letters are going to be displayed so that the public can view them in the visitor center at Knole. “These letters are significant as artifacts but also for the insights they give us into the correspondence of the early seventeenth century,” Nathalie said.
Hannah Kay who is a general manager of Knole stated that “We regularly make new finds, but such rare items mark a particularly special moment for us – made all the more exceptional by the fact that it was our dedicated volunteer team who came across them.”