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East Midlands Bolsover Castle, Derbyshire

For many people their first view of Bolsover Castle is from the M1, on top of a hill dominating the surrounding landscape. It was a display of wealth which was meant to be seen and to impress. Although it appears at first sight to be a medieval castle, it is in fact a C17th rich man’s extravagance, built for show rather than defence.


Entry through the grand gateway takes you into a grassy area with a massive old copper beech tree in the centre. To the left is the Riding School, with the Terrace Range overlooking the Doe Lea valley and the Vale of Scarsdale, with the Little Castle on a mound ahead.

The present castle was built on the ruins of an earlier motte and bailey castle, built by the Peveril family in the early C12th. A settlement grew up beyond the gate of the outer bailey. It was a splendid site on the edge of a cliff overlooking the Doe Lea valley. The Peveril’s didn’t hold the castle for long as it was forfeited and passed to the king in 1155. By the C14th, the castle was falling into a ruin and was rented out to tenants.

In the C16th the ruined castle was bought by George Talbot, Earl of Shrewsbury, who later married Bess of Hardwick. Charles Cavendish, Bess’s youngest son from an earlier marriage, lived at Welbeck Abbey and acquired the ruined castle in 1608. He employed the architect Robert Smythson to help rebuild the Castle, beginning with the mock Norman ‘Little Castle’ on the site of the old keep.


It was the height of fashion at the time to build mock castles. The medieval walls around the inner bailey were restored to enclose the Fountain Garden.

Charles died in 1617 and was succeeded by his son William, who was a follower of fashion and was considered a playboy, courtier and poet. He finished building and furnishing the Little Castle and was responsible for the wall paintings. It was never lived in permanently, which may explain why there are no servants quarters

Once that was complete, William began building the Terrace Range which followed the line of the inner bailey.


William had ambitions at court and this building became the State Apartments with a Long Gallery and service rooms attached to it, ready for a visit by Charles I in 1634. This was a no expenses spared visit, including a lavish feast and a spectacular entertainment entitled “Love’s Welcome”. William was hoping for an appointment at court. He must have suitably impressed the king as he was appointed governor to his son Charles.

William supported the King during the Civil War but, after the disastrous Battle of Marston Moor, he went into exile on the Continent and Bolsover Castle was surrendered to Parliamentary Troops. Lead was stripped from the roof of the State Apartments.

While in Antwerp William became interested in horses and the ‘art of manege’, establishing a riding school to train horses to circle, leap and kneel in carefully choreographed displays. He returned to England on the Restoration of the Monarchy and his lands were returned to him. He restored and extended the Terrace Range and built a Riding School to house and train his horses. It is one of the finest surviving indoor riding schools in the country.

After William’s death in 1676, his son only used Bolsover Castle occasionally. The Long Gallery in the Terrace Range was used for stabling horses and was also a brewhouse. By the C18th it was in a poor state of repair. In the C19th, the castle was let out to the vicar of Bolsover but he was ‘miserably addicted to intemporate habits’ (alcohol) and was succeeded by his curate who carried out some repairs. The castle was left empty from the end of the C19th until it was given to the Ministry of Works which later became English Heritage. They stabilised and repaired the castle. Further work was carried out during 2013-4 when tapestries were hung in the Star Chamber, rooms on the top floor of the Little Castle opened up and the wall walk restored.

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Bolsover Castle is an impressive structure. The Little Tower is a mock Norman keep built on the site of the Medieval tower. It is accessed up a flight of stairs from a paved forecourt. It is still enclosed by the Medieval wall around what was the inner court. This is now the Fountain Garden.

Outside this is the Great Court, the original inner bailey, which has the Terrace Range with the State Apartments and kitchens on the west side overlooking the Doe Lea Valley. To the south is the Riding House. The Visitor Centre and cafe are in the outer bailey near where the gatehouse would have been. This is a grassed area with picnic tables and a children’s adventure play area.

From the Visitor Centre, the first views are of the Riding House across the grass.


An archway at the side of this leads into the Great Court, a large grassy are with a splendid copper beach tree in the centre. On the left is the Riding House. This is a long stone building with dormer windows in the roof and massive doorways leading into the Riding House and the stables which is now the exhibition area.



On the left of the Riding House is a lower building with the smithy and shoeing house on the ground floor (not open). A shallow staircase leads up to the first floor with two rooms, both with small fireplaces. The inner room has a decorative plaster frieze round the top of the walls.


At the far end is a large viewing window looking down to the Riding House. This has a central post and newly constructed gallery with a raised bank of seats used during special displays of cavalier horsemanship. (There is no access to the Riding House except on these special event days.)


A steeper flight of stairs leads up to two small rooms under the eaves, which were used as lodging rooms. Again these have small fireplaces. The glassed doorway in the far room would have led to a series of other rooms over the Riding House to the stables beyond. These would have been used by stable staff or possibly less important guests. There are massive wooden beams across the roof, which is made up of narrow strips of wood with plaster infill. The glass doorway at the far end gives a marvellous view of the massive oak roof above the Riding House with its hanging bosses. Originally the roof was not intended to be seen and there would have been a flat plaster ceiling over the Riding House.


Beyond the Riding House were the stables which held about 15 horses. At the far end was a lodging room used by stable staff. In the late 1680s, the horses were moved out of the stables into the former Long Gallery in the Terrace Range and the space was converted into living quarters and fireplaces added. This is now an exhibition area with display panels about the Cavendishs and Bolsover. It contains the original oak doorway which lead from the Little Tower onto the wall walk.



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The Terrace Range is built above the cliff with splendid views across the Doe Lea Valley. This was designed for show and lavish entertainment and was where William Cavendish entertained Charles I and Henrietta Maria in 1634. The Northern range was completed first with the service quarters in the basement and a hall above.

During the Commonwealth, the lead was removed from the roof of the Northern Range and the buildings plundered. They were restored when William returned at the Restoration of the Monarchy and were extended to form the State Apartments with a splendid Dining Room, Withdrawing Room, State Bedroom and the Long Gallery. The architecture of the Northern Range and State Apartments is very different.


Above the main entrance is the coat of arms of the Dukes of Newcastle, which William became in 1665. After William’s death, Bolsover Castle was hardly used by his son and the Terrace Range fell into disrepair and is now a roofless ruin.

The main entrance leads into the Dining Room. Beyond it to the north would have been the Hall, over the service quarters and kitchens. To the south was the Withdrawing Room and the State Bedroom. The massive doorways between the rooms gave a clear view along the length of the building.


The large rectangular windows overlooked the Great Court with views of the Riding House and the wall around the Little Castle.


Another splendid doorway leads from the Dining Room into the Long Gallery which runs the length of the State Apartments.


Massive windows give views over the Doe Lea valley. This was originally the deer park of the medieval castle. Now there are views of New Bolsover, the C19th model housing built for the coal mines.

A massive doorway leads out to a flight of steps dropping down to the terrace below which runs along the length of the building. The outer wall of the gallery is very ornate with short carved stone pillars between the windows and carved stone down pipes.


The terrace was originally the main entrance to the State Apartments and the courtyard to the Little Castle. Later when the entrance was removed to the Great Court, the terrace became a viewing platform across the valley.

At the northern end of the terrace is a doorway half way up the wall. This originally had a stair up to it and was the 1630s entrance


At the northern end of the Terrace Range were the service quarters with the kitchens, larders, ovens, brewhouse and cellars. State of the art when they were built, these are now in a ruinous state and little is left of their structure. The kitchens had a roasting hearth and charcoal stoves for more delicate dishes, a boiling room and pastry ovens. There were different larders for raw meat, fish, dairy produce and dry goods. The clerk had his own room off the kitchen with a small fireplace. Next to it was a vaulted room where silver and silver gilt plate could be cleaned and stored after use.




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Superficially resembling a Norman tower, the Little Castle was designed for pleasure and luxurious parties. No expense was spared and it was designed to impress. It is surrounded by the garden wall which follows the line of the medieval castle wall.


There is a broad wall walk round the top of the walls accessed from the first floor of the Little Castle. There are niches with seats along the walls and smaller niches for bee skeps.


Round the bottom of the walls is a narrow border planted with C17th plants. On the walls are espalier fruit trees. There are small rooms set into the walls. That next to the entrance to the Great Court has glazed doors was probably used for intimate banquets.

The wall encloses the Fountain Garden with the Venus Fountain. Venus is emerging from her bath. Round the inside of the basin are busts of Roman emperors. The Fountain Garden was the site of the Royal entertainment, based on the theme of love, given by William Cavendish to Charles I and Henrietta Maria in 1634.


The Little Castle was designed to be entered via the terrace, up a flight of stone stairs. On either side of the entrance are small lodges.


There is a small paved courtyard and another flight of stairs to the grand entrance. Above the doorway is a statue of Hercules holding up the balcony of the Marble Closet. On either side of him are lions.


The doorway leads into a small porch with stone seats on either side. Immediately on the left a doorway leads into the Anteroom with a vaulted plaster ceiling.


This has panelled walls with a dark painted motif in the centre of the panels. The windows have wooden shutters. Above the panelling are paintings representing three of the four classical temperaments.


On the long wall is Choleric (ambitious and passionate) represented by the soldier with his mistress. Next to it is Phlegmatic (relaxed and stable) with a fisherman and fishwife. Above the door is Melancholic (introverted and thoughtful) with an old man tempting a girl with jewels.


The room has a small fireplace, so could have been used for welcoming visitors. Another suggestion is that it was used for visitors conducting business with William Cavendish. Off it is a small room which may have contained a latrine.

Beyond it is the Hall which was used as the main reception area. Pillars support the rib vaulted ceiling. There is a splendid stone fireplace. The base of the walls is covered with grey painted panelling which would have had tapestries hung in front of it. Above are paintings of four of the twelve labours of Hercules.


On one wall, a spiral staircase gives access to the wine cellar in the basement. At the far end of the room, a lobby gives access to the stone staircase to the upper floors and also to the Pillar Parlour.


This was used as an intimate dining room by William Cavendish and his guests. Lit by candlelight this must have been a stunning room. In the centre a pillar supports the rib vaulted ceiling. The base of the ribs are decoratively carved.


The room has been restored to its original state with deep reddish brown wooden panels lined with gold leaf and gold paint with decorative black infill. This was made from coal dust, chalk and egg white. The small paintings illustrate the five senses.


The equally impressive fireplace made of local sandstone with black jet and decorative marble insets. Next to it are some of the original panels which haven’t been restored.


The quatrefoils in the windows were the work of the C19th vicar who lived in the Little Castle.



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Stone stairs off the ground floor lobby lead to the first floor. A doorway gives access to the wall walk.


A small lobby gives access to the Star Chamber, the most important room in the Little Castle. This was the great chamber of the Little Castle and was a formal reception room where William Cavendish and his wife received privileged guests. It is a light and airy room with large windows with wooden shutters.


There is a beautiful sky blue ceiling which was painted with a pigment from the by-products of silver refining. The stars were made of lead which has been gilded.


Two of the walls have grey panelling which is now covered by reproductions of mid C17th tapestries with religious scenes. On the floor is modern rush matting which is the likely C17th floor covering. The red velvet chairs are also reproductions. That used by William and his wife to receive guests is set on a dais. On important occasions this may have had a canopy above it.

Round the base of the other two walls is brown panelling picked out in bottle green and ochre. Above are large paintings of Moses, King David, King Solomon and the prophet Aaron. The smaller paintings are of male saints.


There is another splendid sandstone and jet fireplace which has the coat of arms of George Talbot, Earl of Shrewsbury, the last husband of William’s grandmother Bess of Hardwick. In a corner is a small latrine.


Off the Star Chamber is the Marble Closet, a small room with double doors opening onto the small balcony above the main entrance. The name comes from the black and white marble floor and white marble vaulted ceiling with black marble ribs.


The paintings above the bright scarlet wall hangings are personifications of virtue, although they look a bit like lesbian love scenes. They represent Fortitude and Patience, Justice and Prudence and Concordia and Peace. There is a stylish white sandstone and black jet fireplace. This was planned as a withdrawing room and is now furnished with a couch and table with more red velvet chairs.


Back through the Star Chamber, more stairs lead to a set of private rooms. William’s Bedchamber has a small fireplace and is unfurnished. It has grey panelled walls which would have been hung with tapestries, hiding the open cupboards set in the panelling.

Off it is the small Heaven Closet. This has a ceiling painting of the Ascension with a small central figure of Christ surrounded by cherubs. Round the edge and on the top of the walls are more cherubs playing instruments. It represents divine love.


Below the paintings, the walls are covered with panelling squares. These are painted bottle green and have a double gilt border and small designs in the centre with pastoral scenes. There is a small fireplace and wooden shutters on the windows. This seems to have been William’s private study and where he kept his treasured possessions and personal papers.



The Elysium Closet is off William’s bedchamber and is opposite the Heaven Closet. It has a balcony overlooking the Fountain Garden. This was used for intimate social gatherings and the paintings are of gods and goddesses enjoying sensual pagan pleasures.


The stone stair case continues up to the top floor with an octagonal room below the central lantern. This has corner niches where guests could sit.


Off it are a series of smaller rooms. Those with fireplaces are thought to be bedrooms. Those without may have served as wardrobes or else sleeping quarters for personal servants. In the walls are recessed open cupboards. The fireplaces are small but again are decorated with black jet and are exquisitely carved.



The rooms are unfurnished although one has copies of Titian’s paintings of Roman emperors. Another has clothes for dressing up. The stairs continue up to the roof but are now fenced off to visitors.

The tour continues down a spiral staircase to the basement.



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Bolsover Castle cont...

The Basement is reached down a spiral staircase and contains the kitchens and service rooms. These rooms are built partially below the ground and have very high windows. Over the years they have suffered from damp and the growth of algae on the walls. The spiral staircase leads to a passage way with a wooden shuttered service hatch into the kitchen.


At the far end of the passageway is the Pastry Room with a bank of three ovens.


Next to it is the Kitchen with a central pillar supporting the vaulted ceiling. On one wall are two large open fireplaces. One was used for roasting and the other for boiling.


Opposite them is a very shallow sink with drying racks above.


Off the Kitchen is the the Wet Larder with massive stone vats used for salting and preserving food.


Beyond is a large empty hall with stone floor with drainage channels and two pillars supporting the vaulted ceiling. This was the Great Beer Cellar.


A doorway and steps lead up into the Fountain Garden.

We’ve always enjoyed visiting Bolsover Castle. Its setting on top of the cliff is stunning and there is a lot to see. There didn’t seem to be a lot of in depth information in the exhibition area. In fact there was little information around the site. There are reproduction cabinets in some of the rooms with some information on the inside of the doors. As this is gold on wood, it isn’t always easy to read. There is a good audio guide which we didn’t use this visit and there is a comprehensive guide book.. There was a high staff presence around the Little Castle when we visited and staff were willing to talk and answer questions.

There is a large car park, cafe and picnic area. The post code is S44 6PR and the grid reference is SK 472705.


Plan of the castle

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