Bolsover Castle

As visited on a very foggy day

Bolsover Castle, on the eastern side of the Peak District in Derbyshire, was a large Norman motte and bailey castle dating from the Conquest (built by William Peverel, William's local land baron in these parts). It is sited on a fairly prominent hill -- not a crag as such go -- and takes the classic keyhole form, with a keep tower and round inner ward at the edge of the hill and a wedge-shaped bailey or courtyard extending from it. In the early days of King Charles I, it was transformed by Sir Charles Cavendish, a son of the rich and famous Elizabethan grande dame Bess of Hardwick, the keep reconstructed as an elaborate fantasy castle, a palatial wing constructed along the western slope of the hill, and an elaborate riding academy on the 'flat' side facing the town of Bolsover. The famous Smythson architectural family was involved in its design. Charles I saw a Ben Jonson play here during an extended visit, so we know this place was the latest in ostentatious trendiness in its time. The fortunes of that family (Duke of Newcastle) did not fare well after Cromwell, although the buildings weren't destroyed by that castle-buster -- not strategically important enough to matter much, and the remodelling had pretty much rendered it indefensible as a fortress, with thin walls and large windows, even though it looked like a perfect castle of the Arthurian Romance type. It just mouldered into ruin as a neglected possession of gentry who couldn't be bothered with roof repairs over the next few centuries, preferring to concentrate on their 18th century mansions (such as Welbeck Abbey). Because it never got remodelled, it remains one of the best examples of the Jacobean medieval style, not domestic (e.g. St. James's Palace vs. Ham House) that still survives relatively untouched. Robert Smythson, the builder of Hardwick Hall, designed the basic reconstruction plan, which took some 30 years to accomplish.

[Bolsover Castle]
The Keep or "Little Castle"
Very elaborately decorated within in the best style of the Jacobean period, painted ceilings, marvellous marble fireplaces (that don't look very heat efficient, but these people were rich enough not to care), and a general atmosphere of the contemporary idea of what Avalon must have looked like. This was basically a private family retreat -- the kitchens and grand halls, etc. located out in the outer ward. Although it is on the site of the Norman keep, and it sort of looks like a Norman keep, the thick-looking walls are a sham -- they are honeycombed with little chambers and wide window niches.

[Bolsover Castle]
Interior of the Keep
This is John Smythson's famous Star Chamber. There are a lot of rooms like this packed into this small keep, including the Pillar Chamber, Hall, and "Elysium" and "Heaven" chambers. Note the elaborate tall marble fireplace; this is characteristic of this building, as are the panels and painted ceiling. Sadly, there is no furniture in this building -- it was all removed to Welbeck Abbey, the family's main house, in the 18th century, and the Little Castle was rented out to a Victorian vicar (of dubious reputation, according the guide book) who did some lousy things like punching out new doors where they didn't belong.

[Bolsover Castle]
The Terrace Range
The Keep was too cramped for the large parties that came to visit. The grand State Apartments were designed by Robert Smythson and his son John, and contained no less than two kitchens and a bakery, large dining room (originally the Great Hall), a huge Entrance Hall, a 220-foot long Great Gallery, and some elaborate living quarters. See that path in front of the impressive facade? That would have been the line of the Norman curtain wall along the hillside overlooking a deep valley. The wall was sacrificed to provide a magnificent view from the new mansion to the Peak District in the west and a nice promenade terrace -- you can't really see the remains of the grand staircases, benches, statuary, flowerbeds, etc. that used to run beside the path, since it was really very foggy when this picture was taken, and a lot of reconstructive repair work was going on [could not get inside the building].

[Bolsover Castle]
The Riding Academy (exterior)
The third generation of Smythson's, Huntingdon, designed the riding school, one of the few left in England, for the indoor art of equestrian dressage. There is nothing comparable to, or as old as, this except on the Continent -- such as the "Spanish Riding School" in Vienna.

[Bolsover Castle]
The Riding Academy (interior)
Taken from the spectator gallery, which looks out from a nice comfortable anteroom, where you can imagine a lot of port wine was drunk, and there would have been the Jacobean equivalent of snooker tables. There is also elaborate provision for grooms, blacksmiths, ostlers, and 'Monsieur Riding Master' (no doubt, however, the horses had better accommodation than the handlers). William Cavendish, the 'Horsemanship' Duke of Newcastle, took this very seriously, and continued indulging in this sport while in exile and in debt on the Continent during Cromwell's regime. [I gather this place is still used, since there was horse dung on the arena floor when I visited.]

Rough General Plan of the Castle
The Riding Academy (1630-34) was built across the middle of the old outer bailey of the castle, creating Outer and Inner Courts. The Outer Court is now a school and playing field, but it would have contained all the domestic offices -- stables, servants' quarters, granaries, etc. The State Apartments were basically built in three stages: (1) Cavendish Apartments (northern portion, CA on the plan -- 1608-17, Sir Charles), (2) Dining Room, Kitchens, and Great Gallery (western portion -- 1617-20, Sir William), and (3) Entrance Hall and Private Rooms (southeastern portion -- 1635-40, Sir William). The Little Castle and Fountain Court (1608-30) stand where Peverel's keep and inner bailey once stood; the walls of the Fountain Court are medieval with new facing (Smythson's), nothing else of the medieval castle apart from the general layout having survived the rebuilding. A small Norman keep stood on the site of the forecourt of the new Keep. Three Garden rooms are built into the walls on the site of the gatehouse and the two mural towers that were known to exist (GR on the plan); there are also little niches and grottoes for trysting, and a grand Venus fountain. A waterworks tower at the junction of the east boundary wall and the Fountain Court was the first thing built in the reconstruction, showing sensible priorities. (One curious thing about this, though -- there are no bathrooms, at least shown on the official plan; the little rooms in the keep turrets are described as 'stool closets', which means the servants had to hump up and down the stairs with buckets, not a very pleasant job.) From the Cavendish Apartments, a bridge gave access to the wide parapet of the inner bailey, which also connected with the Little Castle, although one would have to walk around the whole circuit to reach it.

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Here's gratitude for you. I wrote to the Bolsover Town Council and offered this page to them for free (apart from linking to me from their web site). No reply, nothing. Oh, well.... Does this page really suck that much, or is it too heavy on graphics so it takes too long to load? Does it not make you want to visit the place? If yes to all that, then I guess this is a waste web space.

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