Sackville dukes of Dorset

The Dukedom of Dorset is mostly forgotten today, a title that had only five holders between 1720 and 1843. Yet their surname, Sackville, is well remembered, particularly as borne by Vita Sackville-West, one of the leaders of the Bloomsbury Group of the early 20th century. The surname also probably inspired Tolkien in his choice of a ‘typical’ double-barrelled surname for posh folks, which he assigned to the pushy relatives of the Hobbit Bilbo: the Sackville-Bagginses. Looking back further in the history of the dynasty, the Sackvilles of the Elizabethan and Jacobean age were courtiers par excellence, and left behind possibly the greatest of all over-the-top aristocratic portraits.

Richard Sackville, 3rd Earl of Dorset, c1613

As is normal for the English peerage, you won’t find much evidence of the history of the dukes of Dorset in Dorset, the county from which they took their name. This is instead a story of Sussex and Kent, in particular of Buckhurst Park and Knole, both set in the hilly area south of London known as the Weald, on either side of the border dividing these two counties. Though they have claims to go back to the Norman conquest (with genealogists pressing for the town of Sauqueville, near Dieppe in Normandy, as their point of origin), they are essentially a great example of one of the families of the new Tudor aristocracy that burst onto the scene in the sixteenth century and made lots and lots of money through royal favour.

Early Norman ancestors listed on probably embellished Victorian genealogies include Herbrand de Sackville (d. 1079) and his son, Jordan, described as ‘Sewer of England’, which isn’t as bad as it sounds (a ‘sewer’ was a household servant responsible for the lord’s table). His son, Sir Jordan Sackville is said to have married Ela de Dene, great-granddaughter of a cupbearer of Edward the Confessor and heiress of Buckhurst in Sussex. A manorhouse did exist here at least as early as the 1270s, and there have been Sackvilles buried in nearby Withyham parish church since that time.

The first really prominent member of the family was Richard Sackville of Buckhurst, a Member of Parliament for Sussex and financial officer in the government of Henry VIII. He had pretty excellent connections: one ancestor was household treasurer for Henry VI in the previous century, one of his aunts was related by marriage to Sir Thomas More, but most importantly, his mother was Margaret Boleyn, aunt of Queen Anne, which meant that his family would be cousins to Queen Elizabeth I. Richard was appointed chancellor of the Court of Augmentations, an office set up by Henry VIII in the 1530s to handle the management of church lands recently secularised by the Dissolution of the Monasteries. Unsurprisingly, much of this money and land found its way into his coffers. In 1535 he made a very good marriage, to the daughter of a Lord Mayor of London, the wealthy draper Sir John Brydges, and in the next decades he was given a knighthood himself and reached the top of the world of finance as his cousin Elizabeth’s Chancellor of the Exchequer, from 1559 till his death in 1566.

Sackville coat of arms

Thomas Sackville took the family to the next level, as one of the favourites of Queen Elizabeth. She promoted him to the peerage as Baron Buckhurst in 1567, and gave him a fantastical house, Knole, about which more below. Lord Buckhurst was a trusted diplomat, travelling to France to negotiate the Queen’s possible marriage to the Duke of Anjou in 1571, then being selected to present the news to Mary, Queen of Scots of her sentence of execution in 1586. As a typical courtier of the Elizabethan age, he wrote poems and plays, but also held an office within the royal administration, attaining the post of Lord High Treasurer in 1599. James I confirmed him in this post early in the next reign, and further honoured him by creating him earl of Dorset, in 1604. By the time of his death in 1608, Thomas Sackville had acquired properties all across the south of England, and established his family as one of the premier noble houses of England.

Thomas, 1st Earl of Dorset

From 1605, this premier noble house moved into one of the premier country houses of the Kingdom: Knole, near Sevenoaks, in Kent. This house is still today one of England’s largest private houses and maintains a famous and significant deer park. The estate was held by various Kent gentry families in the 14th and 15th centuries, then was acquired by Thomas Bourchier, Archbishop of Canterbury, who donated it to his diocese in 1480. Knole served as the country house of the next four archbishops, then was given to the Crown by Thomas Cranmer in 1537. Elizabeth gave it to her cousin Lord Buckhurst in 1566, and it was significantly rebuilt by his heirs in the early 17th century—giving it the look and layout we see today, one of the few Jacobean country houses in England that has not been significantly remodelled or refashioned in later periods. There are approximately 365 rooms, causing some to call it a ‘calendar house’. The Sackville-Wests still live there, but since 1947 it has been managed by the National Trust.


The 2nd earl of Dorset, Robert, did not survive his father by long (only a year), and didn’t make as significant a mark (though he had served for much of Elizabeth I’s reign as an MP). He did solidify the dynasty’s entrée into the highest circles of the nobility by marrying Lady Margaret Howard, daughter of the Duke of Norfolk. The same is true for their elder son, Richard, the 3rd Earl, who also is known in part for a great marriage, to Lady Anne Clifford, the heiress of vast lands and estates in Cumbria and Yorkshire. They had two daughters, so this inheritance went elsewhere, and Richard Sackville is known mostly as a gambler and womaniser, something that can perhaps be detected in his fantastic portrait, by William Larkin (c1613), seen above.

An almost identical portrait of his brother, the 4th Earl of Dorset, also suggests an extremely colourful character, a notorious dueller in his youth. In 1613, he travelled to the Netherlands to duel Lord Kinloss over the beautiful Venetia Stanley (it was illegal to duel, so they had to go abroad). He killed Kinloss, but royal favour allowed him to escape punishment.

Edward, 4th Earl of Dorset

In the 1620s, he was a prominent supporter of the efforts to establish colonies in the New World, in particular as governor of the Bermuda Islands Company, and contributor to funds for the Virginia Company and the exploration of Canada (giving his name to Dorset Island in the far north). He was also a major patron of the theatre scene, and built his own theatre next to his London residence, Dorset House on Fleet Street, called Salisbury Court—this burned down in the Great Fire of 1666 and was rebuilt as the Dorset Garden Theatre in 1671 (later called the Queen’s Theatre, then demolished in 1709).

Dorset Garden Theatre, on the Strand, London, 1670s

Later in life, the playboy 4th Earl of Dorset emerged as a solid royalist and statesman in the government of Charles I, serving as Lord Chamberlain of the Household and Lord Privy Seal and President of the Council, in the difficult years of the Civil War after 1644. He had already been serving as Chamberlain of the Queen’s Household since the late 1620s, and his wife had held the post of Governess of the royal children from the 1630s until her death in 1643. Mary Curzon was the heiress of one of the branches of the Curzon family, from Derbyshire, bringing Croxall Hall into the landholdings of the Sackville family. This Elizabethan manor house was used from time to time by their successors, but less and less in the 18th century, and was sold in 1779.

Croxhall Hall

The 4th Earl and Countess were survived by only one son (a second son had been killed during the war). Richard, the 5th Earl, continued the family tradition by holding the post of Lord Lieutenant of Sussex, but added to the portfolio the similar post of Lord Lieutenant of Middlesex from the start of the Restoration. He had married the heiress of the earls of Middlesex (Lady Frances Cranfield), and those properties were added to the ever growing landed wealth of the Sackvilles after the death of her brother, the 3rd Earl of Middlesex in 1674.

Their son, Charles, was created Earl of Middlesex (and Baron Cranfield) before he succeeded his father as 6th Earl of Dorset. Like his grandfather, he was Lord Chamberlain of the Household, for William & Mary (1689-1695), and he served as one of the Lord Justices of the Realm when the King was overseas in the 1690s. But he was better known as a poet and spirited courtier—also like his grandfather in his youth—and a typical libertine of the Restoration court. He was a patron of the playwright Dryden and other writers. His love for the theatre also brought him into contact with Nell Gwynn, the actress, who called him her ‘Charles the Second’, as the second of her lovers with that name (King Charles II was in fact ‘the Third’). Charles died in 1706, but his royal favour carried on into the reign of George I in the person of his son, Lionel Cranfield Sackville, 1st Duke of Dorset.

The 1st Duke, created in 1720, had been named a Privy Councillor right away in the new reign (1714), and Groom of the Stole, one of the most intimate posts in the royal household. His wife, Elizabeth Colyear, was named Lady of the Bedchamber to the new Princess of Wales (Caroline of Ansbach) in the same year, and would serve her for the rest of her life (as Princess and as Queen-Consort), becoming Mistress of the Robes in 1723. Two years later, the Duke was promoted to the office of Lord Steward of the Household, acting as Lord High Steward of England at the coronation of 1727, then being sent to Ireland as Lord-Lieutenant (or Viceroy) in 1730. His eight years there was uneventful, so he was sent back in 1750—this time he got involved in political infighting in Dublin and became so unpopular he was recalled in 1755, and was given the post of Master of the Horse as compensation. He died in 1768, at the ripe old age of 77.

Lionel Sackville, 1st Duke of Dorset

The first Duke also set about rebuilding Buckhurst Park as a summer retreat, much cooler than Dorset House in London. The house, sometimes known as Stoneland, was mostly a new build on the site of the old manor house. It would be renovated again in the early 19th century along fashionable ‘Jacobethan’ lines, and the park landscaped by Humphrey Repton. The estate would later be augmented with formal gardens designed by the leading designer Edwin Lutyens in 1902. The estate borders the Ashdown Forest, and some of the woods at Buckhurst were frequented in the 1920s by local writer, A. A. Milne, who used this as a setting for Winnie-the-Pooh’s adventures in the ‘Hundred Acre Wood’.

Buckhurst Park, c. 1900

The 2nd Duke of Dorset, Charles, was part of the clique of the Prince of Wales in opposition to his father, George II, in the 1730s-40s (as the heir he was known as the ‘Earl of Middlesex’), and an MP for East Grinstead and then for Sussex. He was also an opera impresario, having acquired the taste on his Grand Tour, and he tried to re-launch Italian opera in London (and his Italian mistress), with only limited success—like Handel, he found that Italian opera was no longer favoured in England in the 1740s.

Charles, 2nd Duke of Dorset, on the Grand Tour in Italy, c1730

The 2nd Duke was only duke for four years, following his father to the grave in 1769, and was succeeded in the dukedom by his nephew John, the only son of the unfortunate Lord John Sackville who had been committed to an asylum, c. 1746, then sent to Switzerland where he died. The 3rd Duke served the very delicate and important position of Ambassador to France in the tumultuous years between the end of the War of American Independence (which was won with French support) and the outbreak of the French Revolution. He correctly identified the disturbances of July 14 as a ‘revolution’ (still a fairly new concept at the time) in his dispatches back to London, and returned to England in August when events started to heat up, particularly against the nobility—though he was not formally replaced until the next summer. Like his uncle, he was also interested in the Italian arts, and had a long-term mistress, Giovanna Zanerini, a ballerina at the King’s Theatre Haymarket.

John, 3rd Duke of Dorset

Dorset spent the 1790s as Steward of the Household, and died in 1799, succeeded by his son, George, 4th Duke, who died young in 1815 (not yet 22). The latter left two sisters, Mary, Countess of Plymouth, who inherited Knole and the estates in Kent, and Elizabeth, Countess De La Warr, who inherited Buckhurst and the lands in Sussex and Middlesex. Mary died with no heirs, so Elizabeth inherited the lot, and was created Baroness Buckhurst in her own right in 1864. We will pick up her story again below.

The Dukedom of Dorset, without the lands and houses, passed to Charles Sackville-Germain, son of George, Viscount Sackville of Drayton (cr. 1782), the youngest brother of the 2nd Duke. Lord George had been a prominent soldier in the Seven Years War, and commander of British Forces in Europe in 1758, until he was dismissed and court martialled in 1759 for refusing to follow orders. He was nevertheless rehabilitated by his friend the new king, George III, in the 1760s, and became Secretary of State for America in 1775, as part of the ministry of Lord North. A few years before, Sackville had been adopted by the widow, Lady Elizabeth Germain, of Drayton. As it turned out, Lord George Sackville-Germain was rather uninformed about the situation in America, and his bungling of much of the war forced his retirement in an effort to save the North ministry (which it didn’t)—he died a few years later. Despite not being a tremendous success in the New World, he left the name Sackville in several towns, in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, and in New South Wales (Australia).

George, Viscount Sackville of Drayton

The last male heir of the House of Sackville was Viscount Sackville’s son, Charles, who became the 5th Duke of Dorset in 1815. He served as Master of the Horse under two Tory governments of the 1820s and 30s, and died unmarried in 1843. His seat was Drayton House, near Kettering in Northamptonshire, an early 18th-century house built around a 14th-century core. When he died, this house and the Germain estates passed to his niece Caroline Stopford, whose descendants took the name Stopford-Sackville.

Drayton House

This takes us back to the other female heirs of the Sackvilles, the sons of Elizabeth, Baroness Buckhurst. She had married in 1813 George West, 5th Earl De La Warr. The West family were also from Sussex, with roots in the 14th century, created barons in 1402. They inherited the lands and titles of the La Warr family in 1427 (and were given precedence of the original La Warr barony of 1299). The Wests had plenty of aristocratic blood, marrying a cousin of the Plantagenets in the 1380s and a cousin of the Tudors (Anne Knollys) in the 1570s. The La Warr family were Normans who settled in Gloucestershire in the Middle Ages and gave their name to the village of Wickwar, but more famously lent their name to the evolving maps of the New World, lands being explored to the north of the new colony of Virginia—what is now known as Delaware: the state, the river, and the native people who inhabited the region. Thomas West, 3rd Baron de la Warr—the barony being re-created in the 16th century, when the original, and the West barony too, passed to female heirs—was the first Governor of Virginia, from 1610, and actually went there to get the colony going, returned to England, then died in 1618 on a return trip. His brother Francis (whose wife bore the wonderful name of Temperance Flowerdew) had been commander of the fort at Jamestown since the start, and became acting governor in 1627. Another brother, John, married the daughter of Virginia governor George Percy, and was named governor himself in 1635—he left descendants, the Wests of West Point, Virginia.

Thomas West, Lord Delaware (from Encyclopedia Virginia)

Over a century later, John West, 7th Baron de la Warr, was named governor of another colony, New York, in 1737, and was later elevated to an earldom (De La Warr, with the viscountcy of Cantelupe) in 1761. Subsequent earls held prominent positions in the military and the royal households of the Hanoverian monarchy, with the 5th rising in the hierarchy to the position of Lord Chamberlain of the Household (1841-46; 1858-59). It was he who had married the Sackville heiress, and they changed their surname by law in 1843 to Sackville-West. They had six sons: the first, ‘Lord Cantelupe’ (named for an ancient West family property in Devon, Cauntelow) died before his father, in 1850; the second, Charles, 6th Earl De La Warr, committed suicide in 1873, leaving the earldom and the Buckhurst estates to the third son, Reginald, who had been his mother’s designated heir (and originally held the title Baron Buckhurst)—he had also been a clergyman, and served as Chaplain to Queen Victoria from1846 to 1865, before marrying and continuing the Sackville family line (he changed his name from West to Sackville in 1871). The 9th Earl was given the name Herbrand—in line with the fashion of the late Victorians to revive ancient Norman names (recall the first Herbrand de Sackville, at the start of this post). He became an eminent courtier and politician, a Lord in Waiting to George V in the 1920s, and Chairman of the Labour Party in the 1930s. He was appointed Lord Privy Seal, 1937-38, Envoy to the Emperor of Ethiopia, 1944 (in the wake of Haile Selassie’s restoration behind the forces of Great Britain), and Postmaster General in 1951. Today’s Earl De La Warr, the 11th (William, since 1988), splits his time between the City and raising livestock at Buckhurst, and in particular, developing the perfect sausage. You can find the Buckhurst Sausage at the Dorset Arms pub in Withyham and at Waitrose!

This leaves one final line, the Sackville-Wests, the family of the writer Vita. The fourth of the six sons mentioned above, Mortimer, was supposed to inherit the barony of Buckhurst when his older brother succeeded to the earldom (by the slightly weird terms of the creation of his mother’s title), but didn’t. So in compensation, he was given the Sackville estates, including Knole, and created 1st Baron Sackville of Knole in 1876. He held a number of prominent places at court and died in 1888, leaving the barony and Knole to the fifth brother, Lionel. The 2nd Baron Sackville was a diplomat, spending much time abroad where he acquired a mistress, Pepita de Olíva, an internationally famous Spanish dancer. Her origin story is so incredible it is worth quoting from her online biography from the Real Academia de la Historia: ‘Officially the daughter of Pedro Durán [a barber or a butcher] and Catalina Ortega, there were rumors that she was the illegitimate daughter of Francisco de Borja Téllez-Girón y Pimentel, 10th Duke of Osuna. … Catalina Ortega, daughter of a gypsy who made sandals in Malaga, had worked in a circus. …’. She even had a waltz named for her by the Viennese composer Johann Strauss, the ‘Pepita-Polka’. Pepita and Lionel spent several years together in various settings, she touring as a dancer, he working in British embassies; they had five children, called themselves ‘Comte et Comtesse West’ at their Villa Pepa in France, and when she died in 1872, he considered that she was legally his wife. He served as ambassador to Spain, 1878-81, then to the United States, 1881-88 (when he succeeded as Baron Sackville). When he died in 1908, his children tried to claim that their parents had been legally married, but the case was thrown out of the British courts in 1910.


The eldest daughter of Lionel and Pepita, Victoria, did however become Lady Sackville, by marrying her cousin, another Lionel, son of the sixth of the Sackville-West sons (William, d. 1905). They had only one child, the Honourable Victoria (‘Vita’) Sackville-West, who married the Honourable Harold Nicolson (third son of the 3rd Baron Carnock). Denied possession of her cherished childhood home, Knole, because of her gender, Vita purchased the nearby derelict Elizabethan manor of Sissinghurst Castle (which had belonged to one of her distant ancestors), in 1930, and she and Harold transformed it into the marvellous garden showpiece beloved by tourists today. I first visited in 1993, sang with my college choir in the rose garden, and was privileged to receive a guided tour of the house by Vita and Harold’s son, Nigel Nicolson. It’s an incredible sensation when you browse the books in someone’s library and nearly every book is either written by that person’s mother or father. An unforgettable experience.

Vita Sackville-West

Later that day we also visited Lionel, 6th Baron Sackville, at Knole, and wondered at the number of courtyards that make up this very complex house, and at the expanse of parkland populated by hundreds of deer. Since 2004 the house and its park has been looked after by his nephew, Robert Sackville-West, 7th Baron Sackville, a businessman in the world of publishing, who has himself published a history of the Sackville family, and an intriguing book, The Disinherited (2015), about the failed claims of the children of Lionel and Pepita. It would be equally intriguing if a descendant of the 18th-century Sackvilles, in Buckhurst or Knole, ever tried to reclaim the earldom or the dukedom of Dorset, long since forgotten.

Knole’s main gate today

(images Wikimedia Commons)

Published by Jonathan Spangler

I am a historian of monarchy and the high aristocracy of Europe. I focus primarily as an academic on the early modern period and France, but my interests range from early medieval Ireland to 20th-century Russia. I teach history at Manchester Metropolitan University in Manchester, England, and am the senior editor of The Court Historian, the journal of the Society for Court Studies. I am also a musician and an avid traveler. I love heraldry and genealogy. My ancestors came from Germany to the American colonies in the 18th century and I am a proud Virginian.

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