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Bolsover Castle

Bolsover Castle

To many people Bolsover still evokes collieries and chemical works, but for good or bad all that is now in the past and the hilltop town and its castle has returned to its early glory.  

Approaching from the M1 or Chesterfield, the road climbs steeply from the Doe Lea Valley.  This is where the first view of Bolsover Castle never fails to hit the senses as it sits in proud defiance overlooking the vista of fields gradually rising to the distant moors; all of it once the domain of Bolsover Castle’s builders, the Cavendish family.

Bolsover Castle was built mainly by Charles and William Cavendish, son and grandson of the redoubtable Bess of Hardwick, from whom they seemed to have inherited the need to build bigger and better houses.  Although there had been a castle on the site from at least the time of William the Conqueror, what they built was more of a fantasy where they could relive the pretend life of a medieval knightly court.  Even though the castle was besieged by Cromwell’s troops during the English Civil War, it never had to withstand direct attack – its inhabitants sensibly negotiated an honourable surrender before a shot was fired.

Although technically highly skilled stone masons with an eye for design rather than architects as in the modern terminology, Charles then William Cavendish used the talents of the Smythson dynasty, top mansion builders of the day.  The first part to be built was the ‘Little Castle’, the square four-storied keep-like tower dominating the escarpment skyline. Even though it was probably built on the site of a much earlier tower, it was never intended for military use. Surrounded by a walled garden, this was a place of retirement from the stresses of running a large estate, but mostly for extravagant pleasure, sometimes acting as the stage for plays and music.  As an indication of the priorities surrounding the running of the castle, the beer cellar occupies almost half of the basement area nominally devoted to catering.  One cannot help but wonder what went on within the privacy of the garden, with its secluded bowers looking out on to a most erotic fountain: latter day comparisons with the Profumo scandals at Cliveden easily come to mind!

It was William who extended the range of buildings beyond the Little Castle.  A skilled horseman in the art of manège, a form of modern dressage, he built the Riding House Range which is the first building on the approach from the entrance to the site.  To its left is the Terrace Range built by John Smithson (he dropped the ‘y’ from the earlier form of the name), who was greatly influenced by the then fashion for adding Dutch gables in order to break up long outlines of tall buildings.  It was here that William Cavendish twice entertained King Charles I and his Queen Henrietta Maria. The king seems to have been attracted to the East Midlands, in particularly Sherwood Forest which he visited twice while staying at William Cavendish’s Welbeck Abbey. It was during the king and queen’s second visit that they came to Bolsover, where a masque, a kind of allegorical play, had been arranged for them.

Entertaining Charles I and Queen Maria

Called ‘Love’s Welcome’, the masque was written by William’s friend the Jacobean playwright Ben Jonson.  This was just a part of the lavish entertainment Cavendish put on in order to impress the king with the hope that it would prompt the monarch to award William with a place at court – a wish that was not fulfilled.   Costing today’s equivalent of hundreds of thousands of pounds, entertaining the king and queen along with all the hangers on from the surrounding district as well as the royal court almost bankrupted William Cavendish. The event started with a banquet, a sumptuous feast which included 41 types of bird such as peacocks and swans, together with sturgeon.  With all this on board, scenes of the masque were performed in different locations in and around the castle.  It began in the Pillar Parlour, a room in the Little Castle, where a tenor sang about the Five Senses, while the king and queen ate a light snack of ‘sweetmeats’.  They then moved on to the garden and were entertained by the castle’s workmen with a ‘Dance of Mechanickes’.  Gluttony did not end there, for yet another banquet arrived, this time appearing as though from heaven, let down by two cupids from one of the balconies, accompanied by a flattering speech from the cupids about the ‘perfect love that existed between the royal pair’.

One cannot help but be sympathetic towards William Cavendish who had to foot the bill for the sycophantic affair; one of the table cloths alone cost £160, just a part of almost £15,000. A disapproving commentator later called it ‘a stupendous entertainment, which (God be thanked) … no man ever in those days imitated’.  All for nothing in return, but not to be deterred William Cavendish continued to back the Royalist cause, this time disastrously losing at the Battle of Marston Moor in 1644: preferring to smoke his pipe rather than direct the battle.  With the castle in Parliamentary hands beyond 1649 and with William hiding in Holland, it took the diplomacy of his son the second Charles to buy back the family estates.

Bolsover Castle today

Unlike many castles and grand houses, once it was abandoned by the family, Bolsover Castle managed to survive the ravages of time. One of the reasons is due to the care given to it by the Reverend John Hamilton Gray, Vicar Of Bolsover when he and his wife made it their home.  Finding the place run down and neglected, they set to work to convert it into a Victorian country house, but without altering the overall fabric and design of the place. Whenever items were damaged beyond repair, such as parts of the Venus Fountain, Hamilton put them into storage, or made drawings which subsequently proved useful to later restorers.  Such was the improved status of the castle that the fourth Duke of Portland reposed it in order to celebrate his 81st birthday, inviting 2000 guests for an occasion that almost paralleled the visit of King Charles I in 1634.

In Hamilton’s time the Venus fountain was in a poor state.  Fortunately he had the foresight to collect as much information about its design as possible, together with fragments of the lead figures surrounding the central feature.  As a result and with careful modern sculpting techniques, the fountain is now restored to its former glory – Venus coyly stands on top looking as though she had just climbed out of the bath; below her are four boys doing what little boys do best and surrounding them are mythical beasts and Roman emperors all spouting water which nowadays arrives by pump.

The really serious work of conservation has come about since the castle came into the ownership of English Heritage.  Throughout the last ten years or so, detailed examination, especially of the Little Castle, brought to light many of the methods and designs chosen by Charles and William Cavendish.  The flamboyant, almost erotic frescos and star-studded ceilings have been cleaned or replaced with materials closely matching the original: Victorian era paint was carefully removed without damaging the original and replaced with modern versions. Of all the restored rooms, perhaps the Star Chamber is the one deserving the most compliments on its restoration.  This was the room where only privileged guests would be invited to enter and now looks exactly as it would have in the 17th century.  Light and airy with views out towards the Peak District, together with one of the Little Castle’s elaborate fireplaces, its panelled walls are embellished with paintings of Roman emperors and empresses.  Despite all this magnificence, it is the ceiling which gives the room its name that takes the breath away.  Unusually for its time, the ceiling is coloured with blue verditer, a by-product of silver refining.  Later overlays have been carefully removed and the ceiling repainted with an authentic match to the original; scores of lead stars have been re-gilded, all bringing the room back to its former glory.

Alistair Plant


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