Bolsover Castle – A Most Intriguing Site

During the Attingham Summer School, I was fortunate to visit Bolsover Castle which is a fascinating site.  It features Terrace Range, the ruins of a grand house, Little Castle, a miniature version of a grand house and the oldest riding school in England to survive intact.

Located in Derbyshire, Bolsover has a long and illustrious history.  In the 12th century, a defensive castle was built on the site for William Peverel with a stone keep added by Henry II around 1173.  It remained in royal ownership until 1553 when it was granted to the 6th Earl of Shrewsbury, the fourth husband of Bess of Hardwick.

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View of the east facade of Terrace Range with the Little Castle in the background.

Through that marriage, the property passed to Sir Charles Cavendish (1553-1617) and his son William (1592-1676) who employed Robert Smythson (d. 1614), his son John (d. 1634) and his grandson Huntingdon to demolish almost all the medieval buildings and replace them with grander new buildings at Bolsover.  Work began c. 1612 on two significant new structures, the Little Castle and the Terrace Range.

The Little Castle is incredibly intriguing.  It was envisioned by Sir Charles Cavendish as an exquisitely petite grand house to be used as a retreat for his family from their formal life at their nearby seat at Welbeck.  It was anything but rustic, however, with the small scale of the house providing the retreat aspect rather than a “casual” interior.  The rooms were decorated with the same fine stone chimneypieces, paneling, painting and plasterwork that would have been found in the main residence at Terrace Range. It was built to resemble a Norman tower that had been domesticated over time and included a full kitchen to facilitate the elaborate banquets that the Cavendish family hosted there.

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The not so little Little Castle.

The Smythsons also designed and built Terrace Range in various stages for the Cavendish family between c. 1612 and 1640.  Briefly in 1633 and then again in 1634, Cavendish, a prominent royalist, entertained Charles I at Bolsover.  A major shift in the design of Terrace Range, the addition of a large state apartment, took place shortly before this visit, perhaps owing to William’s royal ambitions. His loyalty to the crown was rewarded and despite having to seek refuge in Amsterdam during the Civil War, William was elevated to the rank of Duke of Newcastle Upon Tyne in 1665, which he celebrated by adding his coat of arms above the great court doorcase.

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The Riding House Range.

Huntingdon Smythson also designed the Riding House Range for Sir William Cavendish who was an expert horseman in the art of manège.  The sophisticated architectural detailing of the stables and riding house reflects the status of these valuable manège horses.  In 1658 Sir William wrote a book on training horses that advocated mutual respect between horse and rider rather than using brute force.  His teachings were the foundation for the modern sport of dressage.

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The elaborate roof of the riding school dates to the 1660s and was not intended to be seen.  Plaster between the beams was removed during renovations in the 18th century, supposedly to give the space a more archaic feel.  The horses were magnificent, but no photography was allowed during their performances.


Sadly, the magnificence of Terrace Range was short-lived.  William’s son Henry dismantled the state apartments as early as the 1680s and by the 1770s, it was a roofless ruin as the Cavendish family had moved back to Welbeck having stripped Bolsover of its contents and lead roofing.  In 1755 Bolsover became the property of the Dukes of Portland.  While Terrace Range remained unoccupied, Little Castle was occupied into the late 19th century which helped with its survival.  In 1945 the Portland family gave the property to the state and it is now managed by English Heritage.

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This ceiling in the Star Chamber of the Little Castle has been restored to its original grandeur.

In the 1970s, repair work was undertaken at the Little Castle which unfortunately resulted in much of the original 17th century decoration being stripped off or repainted in schemes quite different from the original.  In 1999, English Heritage embarked on a major project to research the original interior decoration and return the property to a more appropriate 17th century appearance.  While the interior stonework was largely left intact, most of the painting and plasterwork that is seen was redone within the past twenty years.  The riding house and stables were also repaired, and horses are once again trained on site.  With ruins, a miniature grand house and horses, there is a little something for everybody at Bolsover!

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Original mantel and overmantel in the Marble Closet.






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