Bolsover Castle

English Heritage

Introducing the Little Castle at Bolsover

Introduction to Bolsover Castle
Bolsover Castle was a pleasure house used by the Cavendish family of nearby Welbeck Abbey for short stays and day trips. Its experimental design and painted interiors represent an astonishing survival.

Building work on the castle we see today began in 1612. It was designed by Sir Charles Cavendish, the third son of Bess of Hardwick, with the architects Robert and John Smythson.

The main block (now called the Little Castle) was developed first, after the remains of a medieval keep were demolished.

Sir Charles’ son William, later 1st Duke of Newcastle, adored Bolsover. After his father’s death in 1617, he spent almost 50 years expanding and furnishing the castle.

Bolsover was a spectacular location for feasting and banqueting. It became a place for lavish entertainments and a range of fashionable cultural pursuits.

William’s family, including his brother Charles and his second wife Margaret, made important contributions to mathematics, philosophy, science and literature. Bolsover was called ‘The Muses’ Mount’.

Ben Jonson, friend and rival to Shakespeare, came to Bolsover in 1618. He may have helped to plan the decoration.

Jonson wrote poetry and dramatic pieces for the Cavendish family, and William became his most generous friend and sponsor.

William gradually extended the Terrace Range along the hillside. He added elaborate kitchens, a grand dining room, formal bed chambers, and a magnificent long gallery.

This section is now a ruin.

William added a riding house for training in ceremonial and martial horsemanship, or 'manège'.

He was an exceptionally skilled rider and published illustrated books on his theories and methods.

The design of the Little Castle used ideas from many sources. Artistic and architectural elements were borrowed from some of the most famous creations of the Renaissance.

It would have been impressive and amusing to encounter this sophisticated curiosity in rural Derbyshire.

An Enticing Entrance
There were mock-medieval and classical elements in the architecture of the Little Castle that evoked the lost Golden Age celebrated in Jacobean court masques. Guests might have anticipated romance and a pursuit of heroic virtue.The statue of Hercules over the entrance symbolises the shared experience of masquing (performing) and the moral journey ahead.

Visitors to the Little Castle enter the Anteroom first. They are immediately faced with a peculiar wall painting showing a platform with classical pillars, and a temple in the distance, resting on clouds.

The rising and narrowing ascent to the entrance continues into an idyllic celestial world, like the imaginary world of a stage set.

Perhaps William and his guests could imagine moving in and out of all the painted locations in the room, like actors changing roles and changing scenes.

Many of the paintings in the Little Castle were based on small Dutch and Italian prints on paper.

Three pictures in the anteroom were taken from a series of the Temperaments, or Humours, copied from Martin de Vos.

See the original print now owned by the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

William’s cultured guests would have known that a fourth Temperament from the series, Sanguine, was missing.

Perhaps when they were at Bolsover William and his first wife Elizabeth were enacting that missing image?

A sanguine temperament was associated with love and sociability.

It was part of the fun of a visit to spot the changes from the original artworks, and to work out what these changes might mean.

The name ‘William’ is written in the book of the melancholic lady. Her face may be a portrait of Elizabeth. The couple were married shortly before the paintings were commissioned.

If guests recognized Elizabeth as the melancholic lover, they might have looked for other portraits, and guessed at more connections to their hosts.

The Decoration from the Hall to the Marble Closet
The Hall is the second room on the ground floor. The paintings here depict four of the Labours of Hercules. 

Hercules may have been associated with William throughout the decoration.

The paintings of the Labours are derived from prints by Antonio Tempesta.

The next room, the Pillar Parlour, is an intimate dining chamber. King Charles I and Queen Henrietta Maria were probably served a banquet in this room when they visited Bolsover in 1634.

Ben Jonson wrote a song for the occasion which referenced the paintings.

The panelling is painted to imitate walnut and embellished with gold. The design was copied from the royal palace of Theobalds in Hertfordshire, one of the most elegant mansions in England.

The ceiling is carved with winged horses taken from Sebastiano Serlio’s influential work 'On Architecture'.

The paintings set into the panelling depict the five senses, from prints copied from Frans Floris.

The senses were associated with moral danger and the effort required to overcome temptation. The struggle to reconcile pleasure to virtue was connected to the myth of Hercules, who rejected the seductive path of vice.

'Visus', or sight, may have been changed to include a second portrait of Elizabeth.

Her outfit in the painting recalls the expensive and fanciful costumes worn for court masques.

The route through the castle continues to twist and rise to the first floor, and it is easy to become disorientated.

The architecture and decoration combine to create feelings of danger, curiosity and anticipation.

The Star Chamber is a presence chamber where William hosted entertainments with banquets, dancing, music and theatre.

The text of Jonson’s 1634 entertainment suggests that a show for the royal couple was performed here, with a simple stage set of a garden.

The room is light and airy with large windows looking out to the sky and the valley below.

Visitors following the story of Hercules might have recalled that when the hero attained virtue, he became a constellation of stars.

The starry ceiling also echoed the traditional decoration of theatres, such as Shakespeare’s Globe in London.

The two gentlemen in the corner appear to be in a gallery, as if watching a play. It's possible these figures are portraits of William and his brother Charles.

It would have been amusing to look for other portraits too. Those who knew Jonson might have noticed his resemblance to the figure of Aaron, across the room.

Perhaps the poet was given a place as the spokesman of Moses and the first high priest?

The paintings in the Marble Closet, beside the Star Chamber, show three pairs of virtues copied from a set of four prints of 'The Allied Virtues' by Hendrick Goltzius.

The fourth pair, 'Peace and Concord', was excluded.

The paintings in the Marble Closet may have been added for the royal visit of 1634.

Perhaps the King and Queen appeared to be living emblems, enacting 'Peace and Concord', just as William and his wife were enacting 'Sanguine'?

The Murals in the Bedchamber Closets
The Principal Bedchamber is next on the route. It has a pair of decorated closets (smaller rooms). Here the sequence of painted schemes ends with two versions of the moment William achieves immortality. He can choose to rise either into Christian heaven or into classical Elysium.  

The Heaven Closet is covered in painted decoration, with three large cupboards concealed in the panelling. These were probably used for books and curios, as well as private objects like love tokens and letters.

The panels were decorated with more than 160 landscape scenes in gold.

On the ceiling, eleven angels dance with Jesus in a cloudy sky. More angels play a variety of instruments in a heavenly orchestra.

The scene is a riot of movement and sound, an outpouring of jubilation. Joy triumphs over sorrow.

Angels descend from the corners carrying music from two well-known dancing and drinking songs, with lyrics that feature Robin Hood and Little John.

This probably references the family’s roots in Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire.

William played the lute and viol, and he could have supplied the missing tune.

Another angel descends with a trumpet of fame and a garland of roses. If William had stood by the window, he would have appeared to receive the garland.

The figure of Christ at the centre of the ceiling may be based on famous depictions of the Day of Judgement. Perhaps the virtuous William was invited to rise into heaven to dance with the angels.

The second closet leading from William’s bedchamber is also richly painted. It was probably used for relaxing, drinking, and conversation.

The scheme shows classical gods and other figures in the pagan heaven of Elysium.

The panelling was originally painted blue with a design in gold that resembled woodgrain, marble or flames.

This could have alluded to celestial fire, transformation and the burning passions of love and creativity.

The pictures on the cornices are composed of pairs of classical gods and goddesses.

Each figure is connected to images on the ceiling above. Juno looks up at another version of herself where she has given birth to a son.

The scheme celebrates physical desire and the creation of children, expressing hopes for a flourishing Cavendish dynasty.

Perhaps if William copied Hercules, he would become supremely virtuous. He could enjoy the same eternity of sensual pleasure.

The Bedchambers, Kitchens and Garden
The second floor of the Little Castle was planned in a contrasting classicised style. It features a fashionable Renaissance lantern – a cupola-like structure providing light to the room below. 

There are eight bedchambers at the top of the building, four of which have ornate chimneypieces.

These, like the others in the Little Castle, were designed by the castle’s architects, Robert and John Smythson.

The stairs continue upwards to the roof, which was originally flat. The little turrets at the corners were intended for banqueting and William's visitors would have admired the breathtaking views from the top of the tower.

In the kitchens in the Little Castle and the Terrace Range William's cooks could produce large quantities of elaborate food.

This would have included the sweet dishes and pastries that were fashionable for banquets.

The themes of temptation, love, truth and virtue that were developed in the paintings continue into the garden.

The fountain statue is of Venus, or perhaps Bathsheba, the wife of the Biblical King David. She faces Hercules slaying the Nemean lion.

Within the wall are banqueting spaces, and a still room that may have been used for scientific experiments.

William may have put on displays of swordsmanship and horsemanship in the garden and the outer courtyard.

Visitors could have watched from the wall walk, the flat roofs of the Little Castle and the Terrace Range, or from the balcony of the Elysium Closet.

The Little Castle is both inventive and delightfully quirky. Viewing the decoration is a multisensory experience. The paintings are amusing, perhaps even a little shocking, but their aim is to encourage and inspire.

At Bolsover, William and his guests could enjoy all the pleasures of the body and still find a place in heaven.

Credits: Story

Crosby Stevens, Rose Arkle

Peter Brears, Martin Butler, Paul Drury, James Fitzmaurice, Mark Girouard, Anna Groundwater, Maria Hayward, Karen Hearn, Nicholas Helm, Paula Henderson, Angela Hobbs, Lisa Hopkins, Helen Hughes, Lynn Hulse, James Knowles, James Loxley, Timothy Mowl, Stephen Paine, Timothy Raylor, Julie Sanders, Roy Strong, Anthony Wells-Cole, Lucy Worsley

To find out more about the paintings and literature associated with the Little Castle

Visit Bolsover Castle

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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