In the dusty attic of an ancient manor house, a team of volunteers trawled through the relics of the centuries. They swept through the long-discarded wires, nails and rubbish that littered the floor, not finding anything of interest. But then suddenly, one man pulled a folded sheaf of paper from beneath the floorboards. He had discovered something amazing, kept hidden in the house for hundreds of years.
A medieval deer park sits near the town of Sevenoaks in Kent, England. It is the last of its kind in the county. And at the heart of the park is the grand and imposing Knole House, an English country manor that dates all the way back to the 15th century.
Perhaps unsurprisingly for such an old house, Knole has a long and checkered past. Its first owner died in a rebellion against the king. And afterwards, in 1456, the Archbishop of Canterbury ordered work to begin on rebuilding the property.
Over the years, the building has been home to various archbishops, kings, earls and dukes. And each has left their mark on the sprawling property. The house that now stands at Knole, meanwhile, is a mix of Elizabethan, Tudor and Stuart styles.
Today, the sprawling mansion is the seat of the Sackville-Wests, a family of aristocrats who can trace their lineage back to an earl who acquired the house in the 17th century. And impressively, Knole is now counted as one of the five biggest houses in England. In fact, it boasts an incredible 365 rooms – one for each day of the year.
Like many historic houses in England, Knole is run by a conservation charity called the National Trust. And recently, the Trust has been carrying out extensive renovation work on the building – with some incredible results.
As part of the conservation work, a team of 40 volunteers have been working alongside the Museum of London Archaeology to uncover the house’s secrets. Together, they have searched every nook and cranny of the King’s Room, the Ballroom, the Gallery and the attics, hoping to discover treasures from another age.
Often, however, what they have uncovered has been less than inspiring. As archaeologist Nathalie Cohen explained on the National Trust’s website, “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.”
And by the time the team had reached the South Barracks, one of Knole’s attic spaces, that trend looked set to continue. Hidden away in the dusty recesses of the room they found more discarded nails, as well as some animal bones – most likely the remains of a meal enjoyed many years ago.
But then, amazingly, someone struck gold. Jim Parker, a six-year veteran Knole volunteer, discovered a stash of old paper hidden beneath the floor. At first, he dismissed it as rubbish – but then he took a closer look.
The papers, as it turned out, were actually letters, and they were written by hand some 400 years ago. “The first piece was folded and very dusty,” Parker told the National Trust. “We realised it was a letter and there was writing on it which looked like a seventeenth century hand.”
In total, Parker found two letters in the attic at Knole, bearing the dates May 1603 and October 1633. Dan Morrison, a contractor, also discovered a third letter dated February 1622. The last letter was found stashed in another attic above the Upper King’s Room.
Most intriguingly, the letter dated 1633 appears to give a fascinating insight into daily life in an English country house. The letter was most likely penned by a servant, and it details a request for several domestic items to be transferred from a London house to Copt Hall, a mansion in Essex, England.
Experts believe that a connection was formed between the two houses in 1637, when Frances Cranfield of Copt Hall married Richard Sackville, the owner of Knole. And in the 18th century many items were moved from Copt Hall to Knole – including several trunks stuffed with papers.
The 1633 letter bore the signature of one Robert Draper and it was written in an elegant hand, which has led experts to conclude that Draper was a highly-regarded servant. And among the items requested in the correspondence were lights, pewter spoons and a fire shovel for the nursery.
Humorously, Parker’s discovery led his colleagues to nickname him “Jimdiana Jones,” after the famous fictional archaeologist. But these artifacts needed a lot of work before they could be restored to their former glory.
The letters had spent four centuries gathering dust, and unsurprisingly dirt and grime had obscured much of their meaning. Conservation student Jan Cutajar from University College London had the task of restoring them, and he knew exactly how much of a challenge it would be.
“I was conscious the work had to be of the highest quality,” Cutajar told the National Trust. “When you think that you’re reading someone’s handwriting from 400 years ago, it sends chills down your spine.”
Luckily, Cutajar also succeeded in restoring the letter dated 1622. And by reinforcing the ancient document with Japanese tissue paper, he was able to partially decipher the text. It reads as a 17th century thank-you letter, expressing gratitude to an unknown person for a charitable act.
As of 2017, all three letters are on display to the public at Knole House’s Visitor Center. And meanwhile, restoration work will continue for the next two years. Staff hope that the project will uncover even more of the house’s secrets, revealing a complete picture of a way of life that has all but disappeared.