Knebworth House has had more than its fair share of distinguished visitors and residents over its 500-year history.
Alan Jamieson followed in their footsteps…
It’s possible that Knebworth House is unique in being able to boast both a militant suffragette and an early feminist writer amongst its former inhabitants… The many illustrious Lyttons who’ve resided (off and on) at Knebworth for over 500 years include Lady Constance, an active member of the Women's Political and Social Union, who was sentenced to hard labour in Walton Gaol, Liverpool, spent time in Holloway, and lectured from experience on the iniquities of force-feeding prisoners on hunger strike. Then there was Rosina, who upstaged her husband, prolific author Edward Bulwer Lytton, by writing her own best-sellers, in a Victorian ‘Mills and Boon’ style, attacking male dictatorship over women. To prove that there was nothing wrong with male dominance, he silenced her (in the way that husbands generally solved a tedious domestic problem in the 19th century) by having her committed to a lunatic asylum.
Portraits of these famous – and many more not-so-famous Lyttons – hang on the walls of Knebworth. Sir Robert, the first grandee who lived there in the 15th century, is in the banqueting hall, a majestic room filled with suits of armour and warlike banners. Above is a minstrels’ gallery for occasional tunesmiths to entertain the roisterers. Past distinguished visitors include Queen Elizabeth I, Charles Dickens, and, in the 1930s, Winston Churchill who set up his easel and donated his painting of the hall to the grateful family.
Knebworth is a cornucopia of architectural styles. The Tudor mansion was first extended with rooms heavy with Jacobean panelling, and in the 18th and 19th centuries the Lyttons added the turrets, gargoyles, onion cupolas and battlements that give the exterior its dramatic appearance and conceal the original redbrick house. Inside, there’s also a rich mixture of styles. The dining parlour, for instance, is furnished with a Berlin dinner service and Venetian glass on a grand rosewood table, made for the 1st Earl of Lytton who just happened to be Viceroy of India in the 1870s. The library has, of course, the 70 or so volumes of Bulwer’s Lytton’s prodigious output – including his 20 ‘best-selling’ novels (‘best-selling’ in the 1860s that is; dense and rather impenetrable narratives, they are seldom read today), 15 volumes of poetry, nine plays and four solid books of essays. The rest of the collection reads like a rollcall of England’s literary greats.
The pretty 12th century St Mary’s Church in Old Knebworth
Up the stairs, dodging the muscled Nubian slaves, armorial shields and more suits of armour, you can gaze at portraits of the family including the asylum-resident Rosina, now something of a heroine because of her modern views of women’s rights. You can stand in the oval ante-room where, it is said, Sir Rowland welcomed Good Queen Bess on her visit to Knebworth in 1571. Sadly, there’s no record of what she thought of the mansion.
Other magnificent rooms include the state drawing room, which escaped Victorian ‘restoration’ because it was too cold to live in. Bulwer Lytton’s study has a display of manuscripts, letters, books and personal items including a four-feet long cherrywood pipe that he smoked, probably alone. Look too for the crystal ball into which he gazed for hours, seeking inspiration for literary gems. We have to make do with staring blankly at a computer keyboard.
The Falkland room with hand-painted Chinese wallpaper has a bridal bed (just big enough for two). Next, in the Hampden room, is a fine collection of children’s furniture, toys and dressing-up clothes, including a Napoleonic suit, ideal wear for a 10-year old boy. Mrs Bulwer Lytton’s bedroom is stylish 1820s in Regency cream: she was a formidable lady, who took regular guidance from a very large Bible open at the foot of her bed. Along the corridor is the Queen Elizabeth I room with another grand bed: there’s no proof that the Queen lounged on it but other famous persons have done so, including Mick Jagger, when the Rolling Stones played – to a vast crowd – in Knebworth Park in 1976.
The Lytton family name was superseded in due course. Lady Hermione Bulwer-Lytton (who inherited Knebworth House as a result of the deaths of her brothers, Antony
in a flying accident in 1933 and John at Alamein in 1942) married Cameron ‘Kim’ Fromanteel Cobbold, first Baron Cobbold, Governor of the Bank of England in the 1950s and later Lord Chamberlain. Today, younger Cobbolds – the Honourable Henry and his wife Martha – continue the tradition of safeguarding one of Hertfordshire’s finest buildings.
Knebworth looks imposing at any time of day
It’s not all ruffs and swords and life with the Lyttons, however. The house is naturally a major attraction but the thousands who flock here come for other reasons too. There’s a vast parkland to explore, a Lutyens gardens, a maze in which to lose yourself (or the children), 12th century St Mary’s church, and the Indian Exhibition of items from the days of the Raj.
There are also 72 life-size dinosaurs munching on the rhododendrons; Queen Elizabeth may not have noticed them, but modern visitors seem quite keen. And there’s an adventure playground for children, a bouncy castle, miniature railway and a Tarzan trail. The Cobbolds are experts at promoting their historic home with a range of events… regular garden shows, bike shows, car rallies, jousting, theatre productions and art exhibitions, plus musical extravaganzas that capture both headlines and crowds. In 2003 over 375,000 people squashed into the park over the course of three days to listen to concerts by Robbie Williams. It was the biggest UK music event ever – must have been fun to be in a stationary car on the adjacent A1…
For more info, visit www.knebworthhouse.com or telephone 01438 812661.