Bolsover Castle

About Bolsover Castle

Bolsover Castle is a partially restored castle in Derbyshire.  The castle was built in the 12th Century and was an active castle from its completion until it fell in a siege in 1217. The castle fell into disrepair, but was restored in the 17th Century by Charles Cavendish and his son William Cavendish.  Luxurious state rooms were constructed and the castle was used more as a romantic ideal of a medieval castle rather than a defensive fortress. The castle again fell into ruin after the Cavendish family vacated it after the Civil War and remained in a ruinous state until it was taken over by English Heritage. Partial restoration has been done to the Little Castle and the Riding School.  There are regular events held in the castle grounds during the summer months and the Discovery Centre provides information about the History of the castle.  

The Riding House Range
Riding School from jo-h via flickr

Riding School from jo-h via flickr

The Riding School Range is situated within the outer walls of Bolsover Castle, Enclosing the South side of the great courtyard.

William Cavendish was an avid horse rider and had this range of buildings built in the 1630’s to accommodate, train and show off his horses. Cavendish trained in horsemanship at the Royal Mews and was considered an authority on the art of Menage, so much so that he was engaged as tutor to the Young Prince Charles (later to become Charles II).

The range consists of four sections:

The forge and ‘shooing’ house

Used to keep make and repair the equipment and shoes for Cavendish’s Horses.

The Riding House

Riding House InteriorThe main door to the Riding House is a grand stone portico which provided a suitably impressive entrance to the Riding House.  The building also has rows of impressive lower and upper windows

The beautiful interior of the Riding House is a fine example of the Italian influenced designs that are prevalent in Bolsover Castle. Even today it retains much of the grandeur that it must have exhibited when first built.

The oak beams were originally hidden by a ceiling, but it perhaps look grander today with the beams on show.

The Riding House was not used to teach people to ride horses, but rather to teach the horses the art of Manage.  Menage consists of horses circling, leaping, kneeling in carefully choreographed displays, much like modern dressage.

The viewing gallery at the West side of the Riding House was added in the 1660’s to enable the aging William Cavendish to observe the training of the horses once he could no longer train them himself.

The Stables

This building is now used as the Discovery Centre, but originally provided stabling for William Cavendish’s horses.  Of course, only the finest horses would have been kept within this range.

The Stable block was later converted into two grand suited of rooms, and fireplaces, internal walls etc. were added.  The building later lost it’s roof and was used as a shed and pig sty, before it was abandoned as the castle fell into ruin.

The Accommodation block

Living quarters, possibly for grooms and the Master of the Horses.

Little Castle Keep at Bolsover Castle

The Little Castle at Bolsover may at first glance look like a castle keep for overseeing a castle during wartime, but further inspection shows that it has few of the features that would have allowed a genuine keep to withstand a siege.

Non warlike features of the Little Castle

Bolsover Little Castle by steve-p

Bolsover Little Castle by steve-p

  • The large windows would have been vulnerable to missile attacks
  • The doors are easily accessed from ground level
  • The elaborately ornamented gatehouses and walls that form the small front courtyard are too low to have provided any real protection
  • There are balconies with doors that allowanother point of entry

The Building of the Little Castle

The Little Castle was in fact started in 1612 by Charles Cavendish and designed with deliberate features of a Norman keep, despite being a house for luxurious pleasure and extravagant parties.

Bolsover Little Castle by Lynne Glazzard

Bolsover Little Castle by Lynne Glazzard

It is thought that Charles Cavendish employed Robert Smythson (designer of Hardwick Hall and Longleat) to create a keep to fit in with chivalrous obsessions of the nobles of the day.

However, both Charles and Smythson died before work had proceeded very far so we can’t know whether the Little Castle was built fully to the original design.

The work on the Little Castle was continued by William Cavendish, with Robert Smythson’s son John supervising the building work, and came to include major influences from the Italian inspired work of Inigo Jones in London.

William Cavendish is known to have planned a trip to London in 1618 to plan the furnishings and paintings for the interior, and the balconies show definite influences from earlier work by Jones.

Further discussion of the interior and purpose of the Little Castle at Bolsover Castle can be found below.

The Terrace Range
The Terrace Range by jo-h

The Terrace Range by jo-h

The Terrace Range was constructed in the 1630’s on the orders of William Cavendish.  His aim was to create a set of banqueting halls and state rooms that would be fit for Royalty.  William Cavendish had the ambition to become Master of the Horse to the King Charles I, having already been entrusted with the education of Charles’ son, the future Charles II.  To gain this honour he would need to have a grand house, suitable for the lavish banquets required to entertain the King and his court.

The Terrace Range was not built all in one go, but was built, extended and updated over a period of 40-50 years. The Northern end of was converted from an earlier house around the same time that the Little Castle was being built (around 1612 onwards).  Next the Long Gallery and Great Chamber were added to create the massive dining and entertaining area that was required to impress royalty. Later, the great Chamber was given an upper storey and elaborate curved gables.  Finally, after William Cavendish’s return from exile in the 1660’s the state rooms were rebuilt and updated to the styles that were popular at the time.

The Terrace Range at Bolsover Castle

Bolsover Terrace Range by Steve-p via Flickr

Downstairs in this set of buildings you can still see the giant kitchens and larders that would have provided the food for hundreds of guests.  The rooms are ruined but the scale of some of the fireplaces and ovens hints at the requirements these parties had.

The ruined and tumble down nature of the Terrace Range as it appears today makes it hard to visualize the opulence of the decoration and furnishings that would have adorned the building when it was in use.  However, the scale of the buildings and the designs of the remaining stonework enable one to imagine the scale of celebrations and parties that could have occurred.

Bolsover Castle Walls
Caslte Walls by steve-p

Caslte Walls by steve-p

In 1086 the manor of Bolsover was granted to William Peverel by William the Conqueror and by the twelfth century there was a castle at Bolsover.  It is thought that the Medieval outer curtain walls were situated where the current garden wall now stands.

Over the centuries the castle at Bolsover was involved in many disputes, and changed hands from the Crown to Barons and back again. It was laid siege for nearly a year in 1216 -1217 and eventually fell into the hands of the Ferrar family.  The repairs to one of the towers in the curtain wall show in the accounts for the year 1223.

What is now the inner garden wall was rebuilt on the foundations of the medieval wall in the 17th Century to create the picturesque fountain garden.  It is thought that the large rooms within the thickness of the wall may be at the locations of the towers on the medieval walls.

You can now take a walk along the top of the walls of Bolsover Castle and enjoy views over the surrounding countryside.

The outer courtyard is mainly surrounded by the Terrace Range and the Riding House Range.  This area was not created as a defensible “castle” and so doesn’t have even the illusion of being an outer curtain wall.

Inside the Little Castle

Bolsover Castle, and the Little Castle were in gradual decline from their heyday in the 17th Century through to their stewardship by English Heritage in the late 20th Century.

The Interior of the Little Castle has survived better than many other parts of the Castle and so you can still get a hint of some of the opulence that William Cavendish achieved when it was his residence.

Ground Floor

Ante Room

As you enter the Little Castle, up the main steps you pass through the entrance way, and on the left is an ante room.  This was probably used by the steward to greet guests.

Pillar Parlour at Bolsover Little Castle

Pillar Parlour by Sue Harker via flickr

Pillar Parlour

The pillar parlour, originally known as the lower dining room, is a lavishly decorated room that was used as a second dining room for more intimate  dinners and celebrations.

The white pillars and sweeping arched ceilings are a beautiful example of 17th Century architecture.  The walls are wood panelling with grained and gilded decoration, lasted until 1976 but were then stripped.  However, dedicated work by English Heritage has seen the room restored to how it would have looked to the Cavendish family.

The paintings in the hall depict the 5 senses which seems a suitable theme for a room where banquets and entertainment that stimulated all the senses were held.


The Grand Hall on the ground floor of the Little Castle has the vaulted ceilings and pillars common to the main rooms of the ground floor.

Restoration work by English Heritage has been carried out to return the colouring of the walls and ceiling to how they would have been in the 17th Century.  The walls are plastered, and have been incised to make them appear like large stone blocks, and the grey paint enhances this illusion.

The fireplace in the Hall is dated 1616 and it is thought that the structure of the Little Castle was completed in this year.

There are further paintings in the arched areas of the walls that depict the labours of Hercules.  The paintings cleverly incorporate perspective views of the ceiling vaults to make it appear when standing in the right place, that the room continues on behind the subjects of the paintings.



The Little Castle houses extensive kitchens and pantries in the basement to cater for the residents, as well as the parties and banquets that occurred here.

You can still see the bread ovens in the bakery and sinks and fireplaces in the kitchens.

Great Beer Cellar

The largest room in the basement is the Great Beer Cellar, which you can imagine housing a huge store of wines, beers and other drinks to keep the revellers upstairs happy.

First Floor

Star Chamber by Sue-Harker_3

Star Chamber by Sue-Harker_3 via Flickr

Star Chamber

The Star Chamber was the main chamber for the owners of the castle.  Only family members and privileged guests would have been allowed to attend meals in this part of the Castle. The walls would have been hung with colourful tapestries and there would have been opulent furniture.

In the seventies it was assumed that the oak panelling would have been bare in the 17th Century  and in 1976 much of it was stripped back to the wood, destroying the original paint work.  In other areas, pieces of original decoration were overpainted with what was then thought to be the original colours.

Since then the decorations have been extensively restored by English Heritage so the walls and ceiling appear much as they would have done in the 17th Century.  Panelling has been restored to it’s painted state and the ceiling has been decorated using paints made up with the pigments found in the surviving painted areas and using traditional techniques.

It was common in the 17th Century for ceiling to be painted blue to match the heavens.  The stars that decorate the ceiling are made from lead and gilded with gold leaf.

Bed Chamber

The main bed chamber appears fairly plain in comparison to some of the other rooms on this floor, but would have been hung with rich tapestries to provide the opulent effect that William Cavendish throughout the Castle.  The records show that William had a feather mattress and bolster, three blankets, a canvas quilt, a Holland quilt and a silk quilt.

With a fire roaring in the ornate fireplace it would have been a very comfortable room.

Two closets lead of this room:


This closet has a painted ceiling that depicts Christ’s ascension to heaven.A ring of cherubs surround Christ as he rises towards the light above.

The angels around the outside play all manner of instruments including, lutes, horns, triangles, harps, violins and tambourines.

The Heaven closet symbolises divine love and contrasts with the the theme of the other closet.


Elysium by volantra via flickr


The Elysium chamber (or closet) depicts the gods and goddesses of Ancient Greece.  The Ceiling shows the throngs of Greek gods rising up through the clouds.  Many of the Gods can be identified from what they are carrying, with Dionysis being a particularly striking figure.

This painting symbolises physical love and contrasts with the divine love depicted in the Heaven closet.


Marble Closet

The third closet on this floor is the Marble Closet which was decorated in black marble.

Second Floor


Bolsover Castle Lantern

The Lantern at Bolsover by Volantra via Flickr

View into the Lantern

Lantern by Volantra via flickr

The lantern is an unusual, octagonal room beneath the central turret of the Little Castle.  The turret is circled with windows that allow light to spill down into the centre of the upper floor.

The plaster of the central area has a golden tint that gives the light in the lantern a summery quality.  This area would probably been the centre of much of the activity in this are of the castle due to this lightness.


Bed Chambers

The rest of the second floor is taken up with a range of rooms that were probably used for family members and the senior servants of the household.



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