Bolsover Castle, high on a hill in Derby and splendidly visible from the nearby M1, has, despite its name, almost nothing of its original mediæval character surviving. Yet despite this it is a fascinating example of an Elizabethan sham castle - an attempt to encapsulate the spirit and glamour of the age of chivalry in a way that rivals modern Hollywood - and thus has a splendid unique air to it, which if not authentically mediæval, is certainly historical.
Outside The Castle
The castle was originally quite large, and is believed to have contained three baileys. The outermost bailey is sited on the castle's southern side, near the town of Bolsover. The mediæval castle's service buildings were sited here. Remains of one of the buildings were discovered recently when the visitor centre, shop and restaurant were constructed, and the area was protected by earthworks. This area was later used as a lawn and now contains a bowling green.
The Great Court
The Elizabethan and Stuart castle that remains today is triangular-shaped and perched on an outcrop of rock that slopes up from the town of Bolsover. The wide-open end of the triangle consists of the Great Court, an area of open grass with one of the castle's entrances on the south-east side. The south-east gate is not defended, and is an ornate gateway rather than a gatehouse that would normally be expected in a castle. Inside the great court, the largest area of the castle, are two ranges of buildings, the Riding House range to the south and the terrace range to the west, with a wall on the east and a large wall separating the great court from the fountain garden and keep (known as the Little Castle) in the north.
The Riding House Range
The southernmost range of buildings in Bolsover Castle is the Riding House range (a series of buildings dedicated to horses) constructed by William Cavendish in the 1630s. The range consists of four areas, including a small shoeing house, which incorporated the forge for the horseshoes and is now used as a shop. From the shoeing house, stairs ascend to the Riding House gallery enabling the horses in the Riding House to be seen from above.
The central part of the range is the Riding House itself, which was dedicated to the art of manege. This was the art of making horses leap, kneel, side-step and circle, which was very fashionable at the time. William Cavendish was obsessed with manege, writing a book on the subject, "La Methode Nouvelle et Invention Extraordinaire de Dresser les Chevaux" in 1657. He was even the riding instructor for Prince Charles (later King Charles II). The Riding House itself contained a soft, sand floor for the horses' hooves, and the horses could be watched in comfort from the gallery of the neighbouring shoeing house. As the Riding House was very much the centre of William Cavendish's life, he arranged that from its massive door you would be rewarded with a fine view north through the archway into the fountain garden and the little castle, and north-west through the terrace range into the terrace beyond. The Riding House originally had a ceiling above the two storeys, which would have been used as accommodation for the grooms.
West of the Riding House were the stables - now converted into a discovery centre - where the horses lived in 12-feet-long stalls. After William Cavendish died, the stables were converted into two grand suites and later - after the castle was allowed to decay and the stable roof was gone - were used as a pig sty and cart shed. West of the stables was a small block which now contains the castle's toilets. This was originally used as a small accommodation block for the stableboys and grooms for the horses. It also contained a dressing room, accessible only from the lodging room in the terrace range next door.
The Terrace Range
The western side of the castle is dominated by the terrace range, the ruins of the Cavendish stately home that was the heart of Bolsover Castle. Building work began around 1610, and work on the range continued until the 1660s.
The south-eastern room in the terrace range is the remains of the lodging room, which was William Cavendish's bedroom. This was one of the most decorated rooms in the house and was considered to be one of the more important rooms in the terrace as only trusted friends and colleagues would be accorded the honour of being invited into the lord's bedchamber.
North of the lodging room was the withdrawing room, a room noted for its family portraits and paintings of Charles II. This was used as a stateroom, and along with the lodging room and entrance hall next to it, was built in the 1660s. The main entrance to the terrace range, roughly halfway along the range, was in the entrance hall, north of the withdrawing room. Visitors to the castle would have been received in this room, which was richly decorated, in stark contrast to the roofless ruin that exists today.
North of the entrance hall lie the pre-Civil War buildings, most notably the great hall. This was used as the main dining room, and as the floor of the great hall no longer exists, it is now possible to see into the remains of the kitchen and other service rooms that lay below the main floor level.
Parallel to the main rooms in the terrace and to the west was the gallery - a long, wide corridor that ran 170 feet along the terrace and was richly decorated with paintings. This room would have been used for dances.
Outside the gallery lies the terrace itself - a lawn running beside the castle from the south-west gate next to the terrace to the little castle. From here the terrace range of buildings appear richly decorated with cannon-shaped pilasters between the ornate windows, whereas the range is dominated by the stairs and door to the gallery, up a grand staircase to a heavily arched and decorated doorway.
Although the upper storey and the remains of the apartments of visitors and residents of the terrace no longer exist, the terrace range has survived as a ruin that gives us a vivid impression of the splendour in which the Cavendish family would have been accustomed to at Bolsover.
The Fountain Garden
North of the great court lies the fountain garden, separated from the court by a thick wall. The wall originally had a stone walk above it to re-emphasise the idea of a mediæval castle. It is now fenced off and it is believed that the wall itself lies on the ruins of the original castle's mediæval wall. Although the wall itself is from the 17th Century, it is believed that two of the rooms - the east garden room and south garden room, built into the thickness of the wall - were on the site of the castle's towers. The other room, the west garden room, was the site of the original entrance into the garden, which was blocked up and converted into a room when the Riding House range and the entrance opposite the Riding House door was built.
The garden inside is a simple lawn with a path to the little castle, with a hedge around the outside. In the heart of the garden is the fountain from which it gets its name - the Venus fountain.
The Venus Fountain
The fountain dates from around 1630 and has been described as one of the rudest in Britain. On the top is the statue of Venus washing herself. She is standing with her right leg bent - which means that her legs are of different length. Below her four lions on each side of a pillar spout water into a bowl, which itself spouts water on all sides into the basin below.
Around the outside of the crenellated basin below ground level are statues of busts of emperors in marble, as well as four beasts and four satyrs on birds attempting to attack the defenceless Venus. Fortunately, below the lions are four black Derbyshire stone statues of Cupid, who are protecting Venus from the monsters by urinating on them.
The Little Castle
The focus of Bolsover Castle is on the castle's keep1, known as the little castle. This keep is designed to bring to mind a small tower keep, such as that at nearby Peveril, yet was built to create the chivalric atmosphere fashionable during the Elizabethan period, the time in which it was built. From the outside, the castle looks mediæval with some classical features, such as the turrets, the cupola dome and most strikingly of all, the balcony. This balcony on the first floor looks out onto the Venus garden and contains iron railings - one of the earliest examples of external English decorative ironwork still in existence.
Throughout the little castle classical and biblical images abound. It has four floors, with the entrance to the ground floor up a large flight of grand stairs from a forecourt outside (in contrast to the narrow, defendable stairways 12th Century keeps had which the little castle was designed to bring to mind).
The bottom floor, beneath the ground floor, is the basement, which still contains the remains of ovens and sinks in the area that was originally the kitchen, scullery, larder, bakehouse and wine cellar. The largest room in the basement was the "great beer cellar". From the basement, three internal staircases led to the floors above, while two external staircases led outside - one near the grand stairs and one on the opposite side of the building.
The main entrance on the grand staircase is on the western side of the building, from which an anteroom leads to the north. This was used as a room in which guests were greeted and contained three paintings in a Renaissance style, depicting four types of people: melancholic, phlegmatic, choleric and sanguine. There is no painting depicting sanguine humour, which was intentional as William Cavendish believed that he personified that way of life.
Next to this room is the pillar parlour, an impressively decorated room adorned with panels and gilding. The pillar parlour, so-named as it had a central column supporting the floors above, was used as a dining room. It was used for small banquets and is decorated with paintings showing the five senses. It is believed that it was in this room that William Cavendish entertained King Charles I and Queen Henrietta Maria with a song about the senses.
The south of the ground floor is dominated by the hall, the largest room in the little castle. This too contained pillars, and was intended to replicate the great halls seen in mediæval castles. There are classical paintings here also and the room is dominated by images of Hercules. The ground floor is dominated by staircases, and contains stairs in the southwest corner that descend to the basement, as do stairs in the middle of the floor, whilst stairs in the northeast corner and west of the Hall ascend to the floors above.
The first floor contained five rooms: the star chamber dominated the north of the floor, the marble closet the west, the heaven room the east, and on the south side of the floor lay the elysium room between two bedchambers.
The star chamber is the most spectacular room in the castle, with painted panels and a highly decorated ceiling painted blue to resemble heaven and the sky above, with gold stars shining through. There are several paintings in this room of key biblical figures, such as Moses, Saint Peter and King David, as well as heraldic devices. Next to this lay the marble closet, a room decorated in black and white and used for more intimate and private conversations, as well as for dressing. Next to this room was a small balcony over the grand staircase.
The south side of the first floor was the private space of William Cavendish, with three rooms being part of his personal bedchamber. The bedchamber itself was located on the southeast side and contains dark, wooden panelling originally decorated with rich tapestries. Dominating the room now is the large fireplace which would have kept the room warm and cosy. From the bedchamber lead two closets. To the north is a room decorated with images from the life of Jesus with a painting of his ascent to heaven on the ceiling. To the west lies elysium, a closet decorated with classical gods and goddesses based on paintings in the palace of Fontainebleau, France. From here the main balcony over the Venus garden is accessible.
The second floor contains a maze of smaller rooms and chambers used as the quarters for family members and important members of the lord's household, but is dominated in the centre by the lantern room. This octagonal room contains a octagonal cupola skylight decorated with gold plaster to give the impression of the sun shining just above. The room also contained spaces in which guests could sit, rest and admire the light. The roof above the second floor was originally accessible from the northeast staircase, yet it is now fenced off.
The Original Castle
Although none of it remains, following the Norman Conquest Bolsover Castle was a standard mediæval castle, probably similar in size to Peveril Castle, also in Derbyshire. After the Norman Conquest, William The Bastard made William Peveril, one of William The Bastard's most trusted knights, Bailiff Of The Royal Manors Of The Peak.
William Peveril was granted the land of two Saxons, Gernebern and Hundline, and began work on constructing the castle. In 1114 William Peveril died, and the castle was inherited by his son, also called William Peveril. By this time the Peveril estates also included the larger Bolsover Castle, and William Peveril concentrated his time and attention on this castle instead.
In 1135, on the death of Henry I, the Civil War between King Stephen and Empress Matilda known as 'The Chaos' began. William Peveril was one of the many Norman barons who supported King Stephen, and initially resisted the ascension of Henry II, son of Matilda. In 1155, accused of the murder of the Earl of Chester, William Peveril was forced to forfeit his possessions, and retired to spend the rest of his life in a monastery.
It is believed that the original castle's inner ward was on the site of the fountain garden wall, with the keep perhaps in the same position as the little castle. Very little is known about the mediæval castle, although it is known that it was besieged in 1215.
In 1325 Gerald de Furnival defended Bolsover Castle during the Baron's Revolt which erupted throughout the country after de Furnival's refusal to obey the Magna Carta. Bolsover Castle was besieged by William de Ferrars, Earl of Derby. Although the details are vague, one of Bolsover Castle's towers was breached in the attack.
After this time, the castle was allowed to decline as it had little strategic value and was too old and uncomfortable to be a royal palace particularly when the crown had several castles in its possession.
In 1608 Charles Cavendish acquired Bolsover Castle from Gilbert Talbot, son of the 6th Earl of Shrewsbury. Gilbert Talbot was both Charles Cavendish's step-brother and brother-in-law. Charles's mother Bess of Hardwick's2 fourth husband was George Talbot, 6th Earl of Shrewsbury. Gilbert Talbot was also Charles's brother-in-law as he had married Mary Cavendish, sister of Charles. To further complicate the family tree, Charles Cavendish's older brother Henry Cavendish was married to Gilbert Talbot's sister Grace. Suffice it to say that Charles Cavendish acquired Bolsover Castle from his intermarried relative, Gilbert Talbot.
Charles Cavendish employed the famous designer Robert Smythson to help redesign the castle as a more modern residence. In 1613 the foundations of the little castle were laid - however, in 1617, four years after beginning to construct the new castle, Charles Cavendish had died. He was buried nearby in Bolsover Church.
William Cavendish, Charles Cavendish's son by his second wife, inherited the castle and continued his father's building work, finishing the little castle in 1618, and then beginning work on the terrace range. While this was going on, William's main residence was at Welbeck Abbey.
William Cavendish was fond of music, poetry, architecture, horses and women. He was married twice - once in 1618 to Elizabeth Bassett, a wealthy Staffordshire heiress. She died of illness during the Civil War in 1643 whilst William was fighting for the royalist cause.
William Cavendish was a staunch royalist and friend of Charles I. In 1633 Charles had visited William Cavendish at Welbeck Abbey after a visit to Sherwood Forest, and had enjoyed himself so much that he stayed in Welbeck Abbey with his beloved wife, Henrietta Maria, for several weeks in July 1634.
On 30 July, 1634 the royal couple visited William Cavendish in Bolsover Castle. William Cavendish had commissioned Ben Jonson to write a masque3 in their honour. Love's Welcome was set in several of the little castle's rooms. This was followed by a vast banquet which included a feast of 41 different types of birds. The whole banquet cost William Cavendish £15,000 and put him in debt for the rest of his life. He had hoped to impress the king into giving him a lucrative court position, yet this was not to be. However, in 1638 William became tutor and riding instructor to the future Charles II.
The Civil War
On the outbreak of the Civil War, William Cavendish and Bolsover Castle declared for the king. However, despite William's obsession with horse training and the art of manege, his involvement in the war was more of a hindrance than a help. At the time it was said that he was more concerned with his appearance than winning battles, and would 'lay in bed until eleven o'clock and combed [his hair] till twelve'. This was not a useful tactic for a commander of the king's troops, and he was primarily responsible for the royalist defeat at the Battle of Marston Moor in 1644. After the defeat he fled abroad to the exiled court of Queen Henrietta Maria, where he met his second wife, Margaret 'Mad Madge Of Newcastle' Lucas. He later lived in Antwerp, living in the painter Sir Peter Paul Rubens's house.
In 1645 the parliamentary army approached Bolsover Castle, which, following the spirit of its owner, promptly surrendered before a siege began. The occupants were allowed to march out but the castle was confiscated. In 1649 parliament ordered that Bolsover Castle be slighted - with the house to be left alone, but all the outer walls and court demolished and doors removed. The castle was then sold to Robert Thorpe, with William Cavendish unable to return to England unless he compounded himself - ie, apologised before parliament and paying a fine in order to have his lands restored. William Cavendish refused to do this.
After The Civil War
Fortunately for William Cavendish, his younger brother Charles Cavendish compounded himself on William's behalf, paid the fine and bought back the Cavendish estates, passing them on to William's children. In 1660, on the restoration of the monarchy, William Cavendish returned to England. Despite his reputation for having let down the royalist cause, he was granted the title of Duke of Newcastle in 1665. Bolsover Castle was repaired and the Riding Range completed.
William Cavendish died on Christmas Day 1676 at the age of 83 and was buried in Westminster Abbey; his tomb was labelled 'The Loyall Duke'. His son Henry by his first wife inherited both his castle and title - however, the title Duke of Newcastle died with him. Henry's daughter, who had married John Holles, inherited the castle and eventually passed it onto their own daughter, who was married to the Earl of Oxford. The castle was then inherited by the Duke of Portland.
By 1829 the Dukes of Portland were renting the castle out to Reverend John Hamilton Gray, vicar of Bolsover. It was during this time that people began to visit Bolsover Castle for its historical significance. A serialised novel was published about William Cavendish's royal cousin, Arbella Stuart, set in Bolsover Castle. In 1912 Queen Mary visited it. During the Great War it was used as a rifle range and after the Second World War was regularly open to visitors, as it is today.
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