Bolsover Castle: a ‘Delicate Little House’

Sir William Cavendish was very keen to show his celebrated guest his other pride and joy, the little castle that he was finishing on the heights of Bolsover.  As you drive today up the M1 (and as you will flash by it on the new high speed rail, if that ever gets built), you can see it commanding the landscape from its rocky plateau.  From this vantage point Jonson and his companion will have had an eagle’s eye view of Welbeck and Worksop, and been able to track their onward route north to Hodsock Priory and then to Bawtry. Our account notes that Bolsover was known as ‘Bozer’ – a local pronunciation that is still current today.

Bolsover aerial view

Bolsover Castle, thanks to English Heritage @EnglishHeritage

Bolsover had previously been owned by the earl and countess of Shrewsbury, and was one of their several properties that Sir William’s father, the canny Sir Charles Cavendish, under the guise of friendship had been able to divert his way.  Sir Charles had begun the new castle, ‘a delicate little house’, a gothic fantasy that Sir William saw to completion, with its extravagant and somewhat risqué wall and ceiling paintings, in which you can still lose yourself today.

Bolsover’s ‘Heaven Room’, @EnglishHeritage

In this fabulous work, the Cavendishes employed the talented mason and architect John Smithson, son of Robert, the creator of Hardwick Hall, the masterpiece home of Elizabeth, Countess of Shrewsbury (aka ‘Bess of Hardwick‘, and Sir Charles’s mother), just up the road from Bolsover. But Sir William’s ambitions far exceeded those of his father, and he went on to build the magnificent and more classical range that dominates the skyline at Bolsover. This was the work he was probably discussing with Smythson when Jonson visited.

The Cavendishes’ accumulation and embellishment of their various estates was subsequently celebrated by the family friend, poet and doctor Richard Andrews:

Hardwicke for hugeness, Worsope for Light,
Welbecke for use, and Bolser for sight,
Worsope for walks, Hardwick for Hall,
Welbecke for brew-house, Bolser for all …
Hardwicke is rich, Welbecke is fine,
Worsope is statelie, Bolser divine.

Most remarkable about Jonson’s sojourn with the Cavendishes is perhaps the body of work that resulted. Whilst at Bolsover, he spoke with Smithson about the creation of a splendid tomb for Sir Charles, that still ornaments the church down the hill at Bolsover, alongside that of his wife Catherine.

Charles Cavendish was a Man whome…
Nobilitie, Bountie, Justice, made Honourable,
Counsell, Ayde, Secrecie, made a Trusty Friend,
Love, Trust, Constancie, made a Kind Husband,
Affection, Advice, Care, made a Loving Father,
Friends, Wife, Sonnes, made Content,
Wisdom, Honour, Content, made Happy.

It’s entirely plausible that this commission was the main purpose, or perhaps excuse, for Jonson’s visit to Welbeck in 1618. It’s even possible that Cavendish’s desire to bring Smithson and Jonson together at Bolsover was the initial impetus for a journey that grew wildly in the planning until it became the walk as finally undertaken that summer. From this perspective, Jonson’s visit to Belvoir and his inspection of the Bottesford tombs looks less like tourism and more like research – the Manners family had built a fittingly grand mausoleum in their parish church, and now Jonson was going to help Sir William Cavendish establish something similar at Bolsover.

Whatever the truth of it, this was the documented beginning of a relationship between poet and patron that would endure until Jonson’s death. Cavendish’s situation and concerns shaped Jonson’s work, and the writer’s style and values shaped his patron’s own intellectual life.

Little Castle, Bolsover

The Little Castle, Bolsover

A couple of years later, Jonson created an entertainment to mark the christening of Sir William’s son. He subsequently penned an epitaph for his hostess, Lady Catherine, Sir William’s mother, a manuscript version of which – now in the British Library – is once again accompanied by Smithson’s designs for a monument, winged cherubs framing Jonson’s words.

Jonson’s most important works for the Cavendishes, however, came in the 1630s. During Charles I’s progress to Scotland in 1633 for his belated coronation, he stopped at Welbeck, where a costly feast was laid out, and accompanied with a masque by Jonson known as The King’s Entertainment at Welbeck.  So delighted by this was the king that in 1634, Bolsover and the Cavendishes were granted the honour (and had to incur the expense) of entertaining both Charles and his queen, Henrietta Maria.  Naturally Cavendish, now the earl of Newcastle, turned again to his trusted literary friend to write an appropriately splendid entertainment, Love’s Welcome at Bolsover, using various parts of the whole complex at Bolsover as his moving stage. Newcastle was desperate to use this occasion to impress his royal master with his suitability for high office at court.  As his second wife, Margaret Cavendish, was to recall, he spared

nothing that might add splendor to that Feast, which both Their Majesties were pleased to honour with their Presence: Ben Johnson he employed in fitting such Scenes and Speeches as he could best devise; and sent for all the Gentry of the Country to come and wait on their Majesties; and in short, did all that ever he could imagine, to render it Great, and worthy Their Royal Acceptance.  This Entertainment he made at Bolsover-Castle in Derbyshire, and resigned Welbeck for Their Majesties Lodging; it cost him in all between Fourteen and Fifteen thousand pounds.

Newcastle’s objectives at court were not immediately fruitful, the eroticism of Bolsover’s painted panels, and their echoes in the masque in the figures of two Cupids, Eros and Anteros, apparently not to the taste of this more prudish king.  Ultimately, however, Newcastle was to become Governor to the young Prince Charles, remaining a royal favourite through the vicissitudes of the Civil Wars, and regaining his estates and a dukedom on Charles II’s restoration in 1660.

The day after his visit to Bolsover, Jonson was to admire his host’s horsemanship, perhaps Cavendish’s chief passion. English Heritage is celebrating this legacy by staging displays of expert dressage by riders in seventeenth century costume at Bolsover every weekend from now until September. You can also wallow in the world of Bolsover and Welbeck in Lucy Worsley’s extensively researched and eminently readable book, Cavalier.

And if you would like some local tourist information, try here.

Anna Groundwater

Anna Groundwater is the post-doctoral research fellow on the project at the University of Edinburgh, where she also lectures in early modern British and Scottish history.

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