Although much may be shrouded in mystery about the people who lived long ago, something comes around once in a while that proves how similar they were to us — like what archaeologists deciphered from this 400-year-old shopping list.
In 2014, the National Trust embarked on a five-year restoration project at Knole. Almost 20 million pounds were injected into the project that aims to restore and conserve the building and the historic items located on the estate. Most of the funding was provided by the Heritage Lottery Fund, which donates a portion of National Lottery profits to various heritage projects around the U.K. Teams worked on restoring and preserving artwork in the various rooms, such as antique paintings, vases, and furniture.
The mansion is known as Knole, located on a manor of the same name that sprawls over 1,000 acres in Sevenoaks, a district in the Kentish countryside. Although its first record is in 1290, it seems construction on the mansion dates back to the mid-15th century. Over the next century and a half, it passed through the hands of various clergymen, nobles, and even royalty. The manor passed to the hands of Henry VIII, who bequeathed it to his successors and Elizabeth I. For this reason, original portraits made of the Tudors remain on the estate.
The Knole And The Sackville family
In 1637, the estate passed into the hands of the 5th Earl of Dorset, Richard Sackville. Ever since then, the estate has remained in the hands of his descendants. Over the centuries, the manor and the mansion have stood, witnessing the progress of human history. England transformed a small, seafaring country into a global empire in the hundreds of years that followed. And just as England expanded, so too did successive Sackvilles add great showrooms to display their wealth.
Various additions were connected to the mansion until it gradually grew far larger than the original mansion. Today, the house covers some four acres. Vita Sackville-West, an English author and member of the family who grew up in the house, claimed it was 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.”
Given To A Trust
Given the nature of the Sackville family’s additions, Sackville-West’s claim that it was meant to be a calendar house seems false. Moreover, although there are indeed seven courts, the number of rooms is much higher than 365 and the number of staircases is fewer than 52. In any case, that’s a big home; in fact, Knole is one of the five largest houses in England. In 1947, the 4th Baron Sackville handed over the estate to the National Trust, a charity that aims to conserve important hiistorica buildings. And indeed some pretty cool historical events happened there…
Strawberry Fields Forever
The National Trust slowly began opening up the mansion and the grounds to the public. Because of its uniqueness, the Knole has attracted many visitors who come to admire its originality and splendor. Perhaps the most notable are the Beatles, who recorded promotion clips for their hit song “Strawberry Fields Forever” on the grounds. This has attracted even more tourism, as the band is so popular that Beatles fans will travel to the estate’s grounds just to find the same place where the clip was filmed.
Still Housing Sackvilles
To this today, the house is occupied by Sackvilles, who live in a wing of the home. All in all, they live in a small fraction of the 420 rooms connected together by the hallways, courtyards, and staircases. Although donated to the National Trust, the organization does not own all the property, only 52 acres. Despite this, the Sackvilles do permit access to the grounds for visitors and special sporting events. The National Trust requires a large force of workers and volunteers to upkeep and preserve the manor and mansion.
The restoration project did not only refurbish and clean old furniture and paintings. Archaeologists were also called in for the project, as much of Knole’s history is unwritten and thus forgotten. They searched concealed and hidden areas, like under floorboards, in attics, and in between rafters. Over time, various objects and items were discovered that can tell us much about the people who lived and worked on the property, like the letters found due to the renovation project and the hard work of its volunteers and staff…
Two letters were found by a volunteer, Jim Parker. He donated his time and labor to the project as a member of the premises and the archaeology teams. Some 40 volunteers like Parker received special training in research techniques to help the staff, proving invaluable to the conservation efforts of the restoration project. These volunteers received their training on the grounds in courses offered by the National Fund. Jim Parker has been volunteering on the estate for the past six years, which culminated in his incredible discovery…
Throughout the project, a substantial portion of the 420 rooms at Knole have been explored by volunteers, including the Cartoon Gallery, the Ballroom, and the King’s Room. This was done under the auspices of Museum of London archaeologists, but nothing like the letters Jim Parker found had yet been uncovered during the exploration of those rooms. Parker actually found the two notes in the attic above the Cartoon Gallery, called the South Barracks. In fact, the attic is in quite a poor condition so it’s lucky the letters survived so long there!
Something Besides Bones
In general, the findings are usually everyday items: old animal bones, rusty nails, old wiring, etc. Often enough, items discovered may be litter dropped by visitors or the many people who lived and worked on the premises over the centuries, but in general, these are considered worthless. Not much more than animal bones were found in the South Barracks, but then Jim Parker made his discovery. “I was very excited to see some pieces of paper hidden underneath some rush matting,” he recalled.
The paper was 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!” What an appropriate nickname! With the two pieces of parchment in his hand, Parker brought the notes to the attention of experts working on the scene, who praised him for the fine work spotting the letters. But before they could decipher the writings, they would need to be restored.
A Third Find
Around the same time that Jim Parker made his discovery, a building contractor named Dan Morrison also found a piece of parchment from around the same era. Dating to February 1622, the letter was found in a ceiling void near the Upper King’s Room. It’s likely the letter fell at some point over the centuries from the attic and got lodged in the ceiling void. Just like the other two notes found by Jim Parker, this note is also made of parchment, a type of paper made out of stretched animal skin.
17th Century Notes Found In Kent
During renovations on an old mansion in the English countryside that dates to the Middle Ages, three letters were discovered from 400 years ago, providing a rare and fascinating glimpse into the daily life and workings of society in those days.
Archaeology Conservation Lab At University College London
The papers were so old that they were sent to and treated by the Archaeology Conservation Lab at University College London. Knole and the institute of higher learning enjoy a close working relationship. Besides sending artifacts to the school, field trips regularly set off to visit the 15th-century home and teach students about the site. Besides the dust and dirt that had accumulated on the papers, hundreds of years take their toll on animal skin, requiring the care of specialists.
A Skilled Expert
The letters found the care they needed in Jan Cutajar, a conservation expert working as a lab teaching assistant at University College London. Cutajar photographed the letters before beginning the careful and painstaking process of restoring them. Unfortunately, the parchment that was transferred wasn’t in the best of conditions. Besides the dirt, dust, and stains, the paper itself was brittle and resisted being bent. Any attempt to flatten out the pages and read exactly what was written could have disastrous consequences.
Luckily, Jan Cutanjar knew exactly what he was doing. He used rubber powders, brushes, and other special cleaners to restore the parchment paper. After this, he placed the pages in a humidifier. The paper relaxed and the letters were flattened in a paper press. In addition, Cutanjar used infrared technology to view the parchment. It was only after this process that the experts were able to get a proper look at the pages and attempt to decipher them. Little did he know what they would contain!
Out of the three, the 1633 note was the most readable. It reads: “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 does this old English mean?
Origin Of Note
This shopping list provides an exciting glimpse into the daily life of those who lived hundreds of years ago. Greenfish, for example, is unsalted cod, and the other items were a spoon made of Pewter ( a type of metal) and a shovel for shifting coals in a fireplace. Besides the archaic spelling and script, the letter demonstrates the type of English used in correspondences between high-ranking servants and tells a fascinating tale of how it ended up in Knole. Robert Draper seems to be a high-ranking official, but the letter’s return address is in Copthall, not Knole…
How It Got There
The letter finally arrived in Knole due to the close relations the Cranfields of Copthall, or Copped Hall, had with the Sackvilles of Knole. Most significantly, they married one of their daughters, Frances, off to Richard Sackville several years after the letter was written. Records show trunks of items were moved to Knole so it’s likely the letter was sent over along with other items, fell, and finally settled in between the floorboards and then sat there for hundreds of years.
The letter found by Morrison, the building contractor, is of worse quality and still needs to be deciphered. Some of it is readable thanks to the infrared technology, but unfortunately not all. We do know is it says, “The xviijth 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, the National Trust’s regional archaeologist, called it “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. 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.” Where are the letters now?
The letters will go on display in the visitor center at Knole so the public can view them. “These letters are significant as artifacts but also for the insights they give us into the correspondence of the early seventeenth century,” Nathalie Cohen said. Hannah Kay, general manager of Knole, said, “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.”