Bolsover: a Mannerist Masterpiece

detail of the Venus Fountain, photo by Edward Moss

If you’ve ever driven on the M1 between Nottingham  and Sheffield you can’t have missed the  large castle perched high on a steep promontory overlooking and commanding the wide valley below. This is  Bolsover Castle, visible for miles around, and enjoying one of  most magnificent settings of any historic building in Britain. Having said that it’s also quite likely you’ll have carried on driving and not turned off to investigate further. If that’s the case you’ve missed a treat, and doubly so since English Heritage completed their restoration and improvement works.

But Bolsover isn’t just any old  castle, indeed its only a castle in form and outward appearance. It’s actually an early 17thc mannerist  pleasure palace and a masterpiece of design. You can tell from that description that I quite liked it! [My photos, Nov 2017] unless otherwise stated] Read on to find out exactly why…

Bolsover from below. Country Life Images

The original castle was built by William Peverel in the 12thc  but eventually passed into the hands of the crown,  and by the end of the 14thc was in ruins.  In 1553 the estate was given to George Talbot, sixth Earl of Shrewsbury and husband of ‘Bess of Hardwick’. Hardwick Hall is just down the road.   Bess’s son by a previous marriage, Charles Cavendish, later bought the Castle and manor from his step-brother the seventh Earl.  That led to the castle’s transformation because in the early 17thc Charles and his son William, demolished the surviving mediaeval buildings and rebuilt everything  on a grand scale and flamboyant style.

The Little Castle from the wall walk

The castle looks out towards Hardwick, and  the site of Bess’s other, lesser known houseOwlcotes, and also across the valley to Sutton Scarsdale, another elite mansion but now just a glorious stabilised ruin. There was a small deer park at the foot of the hill  but most of the hunting was done from Welbeck, the family’s main estate a few miles away. The Cavendish income came from wood, lead and most significantly coal which rapidly became the areas principal industry and Bolsover as a town expanded rapidly because of mining.

William Senior, Plan of the Earl of Newcastle’s Lands in the Manor of Bolsover, 1630-37 (Derbyshire Record Office, D2934 2/P1-2)

The entrance to the Little Castle

By the early 18thc the castle was abandoned as a main residence and fell into disrepair, and although occupied again in the 19thc it was finally handed over to the nation in 1945.  The Ministry of Works, as it then was, found it in a terrible state. The buildings were subsiding badly and also suffering from acid corrosion from the coal industry. Even then its historical and architectural importance was recognized, and  they carried out major structural consolidation and repairs. The interiors were restored by English Heritage between 1998 and 2001 while the wall walk was restored and the balconies reopened  in 2014, when the gardens were also replanted. The whole site is listed Grade I.

The precise history of the site is complex and so I have taken much of my information from the English Heritage Conservation Management Plan which is available on the website of Bolsover District Council as 5 pdfs.

There are three main buildings on the site all probably designed  by the Smythson dynasty: Robert Smythson, the Elizabethan master mason and architect, his son John and his grandson Huntingdon.

The earliest, dating from 1612-17,  is the Little Castle  built for Sir Charles Cavendish on the site of the keep of the medieval castle.  It wasn’t designed a home but as place of entertainment easily accessible from Welbeck Abbey his main seat. The result is fantastic and idiosyncratic to put it mildly.

The conservation management plan describes it as “a  highly individual synthesis of architectural styles suffused with the romantic medievalism characteristic of the culture of Elizabethan and Jacobean court circles.”  Unfortunately there isn’t time or space to describe its architecture or contents properly here but it’s definitely worth searching for more info. There are also a series of inventories of its contents and fittings dating from c.1660 to 1717 which can be found as Appendix 3 of the Conservation Plan.


The entrance to the Terrace Range

A second range of buildings, known as the Terrace Range, was added in along the edge of the former inner bailey. It ran along the ridge again commanding extensive views both from within and from a wide terrace running along the wall.  This was finished in 1634 but plundered for building materials under the Commonwealth, before being partly rebuilt after the Restoration.  In 1665, Charles’s son William Cavendish, was created Duke of Newcastle and his arms emblazoned over the door.

Unfortuantely his son and heir, Henry, did not appreciate his father’s work and reduced Bolsover’s status considerably in the 1680s,  converting it into stables and domestic buildings. Later still  it fell into ruin after  its lead roof was removed  to help with repairs at Welbeck. This range is now managed as a controlled ruin.


The Riding School Range

Joining on to the Terrace Range and running  along the  edge of what had been the outer bailey is another vast building: the Riding School designed in the 1630s for William.  There is some debate about when it was actually built. Historic England’s Register suggests c1630-40 whereas the latest English Heritage guidebook says  about 1660.

Inside the Riding School

It contains an indoor ‘arena’ with a viewing gallery above one end, stables, smithy and staff lodgings.  William  had learned the art of manege alongside Henry, Prince of Wales until 1612  when Henry died.

William had proposed setting up a school of horsemanship, but when the idea was not taken up by the crown he decided effectively to do it himself , and trained his own horses at Bolsover and writing a treatise about riding, A General System of Horsemanship.

Newcastle at Bolsover from A General System of Horsemanship



As happened with the Terrace Range the roof was removed to re-use the materials at Welbeck, but luckily  it was  replaced by the Ministry of Works in splendid style.

English Heritage are now once again using the Riding School for dressage and manege displays. Follow the link to find out more.

There are  four distinct garden areas at Bolsover.  The largest, the Outer Court and the Inner Court which in front of the Riding School and Terrace Range are simple grass enclosures. The third is the wide grassed terrace mentioned above which runs along  most of the west side of the site in front of the Terrace Range and Little Castle.  It is bounded by a low crenellated wall  from which the land falls very steeply away to the west. There is a viewing platform at one end which doubles as a walled forecourt to the Little Castle.   The terrace commands panoramic views across the vale below and as far as the Peak District, and instead of the motorway and post-industrial landscape of today would have encompassed two other grand houses: Owlcoates  and Sutton Scarsdale on the opposite slope.

The fourth garden area – the Fountain Garden – brings to mind  a medieval Hortus Conclusus, and occupies the rebuilt castle’s inner bailey. It was originally surrounded by the high walls of the mediaeval castle, but topped by a crenellated ‘High Walke’.  A bridge was constructed about 1633 to join it to the Terrace Range. The Fountain Garden area and its walls were badly damaged during the Civil War and not repaired until William Cavendish returned after the Restoration. He moved its entry point from the Great Court creating a grand rusticated doorway.

The crenellations of the High Walke do not appear on a late 18thc drawing so presumably they had crumbled or been taken down.  Now, thanks to a massive restoration programme, the walls have been repaired, the crenellations replaced and the whole circuit once again opened allowing visitors to stroll round the entire length. The effect is nothing short of spectacular.

The wall has  3 apartments built  into its enormous thickness, which may be the remains of mediaeval towers. One has an impressive lion mask over its entrance,which leads to a rib-vaulted room with an elaborate chimneypiece, and with two subsidiary rooms leading off. The others are simpler one-roomed spaces with fireplaces. There are also three seating alcoves in the Fountain Garden wall.

The Fountain Garden is simple in design and form. Archaeological survey and excavation during the 1990s revealed the detail of the 17thc path layout but no traces of beds were found. However in the reconstruction of the garden narrow beds have been created at the base of the wall, while the central area is lawn.

Designs relating to the Venus Fountain, from  RIBA Library but reproduced in the Conservation Plan


At the centre is a stone edged fountain topped by a statue of Venus getting out of her bath.  From a distance the ensemble  looks relatively plain and simple but my jaw dropped and I grinned as I got closer.

Detail from the Venus Fountain. Photo by Edward Moss

First I noticed the putti peeing into the basin, and then realised that the basin was not a shallow pool but a deep octagonal pit, which has niches all round. They contain busts of Roman emperors and a series of dolphins spewing more water. Once again the effect is spectacular.

Detail from the Venus Fountain. Photo by Edward Moss

The Venus Fountain is  one of a very small number of surviving in situ 17thc fountains in the country.

Originally designed by John Smythson, whose drawings survive,  it also features on another drawing of 1633 although there the basin is shown as circular, and the whole ensemble much closer to the wall. Was that simply badly draughtsmanship  or was the fountain altered later?

The South side taken within the Walke’ c.1634-5

By the time the fountain was actually installed it had become even more elaborate and fantastic.  There was a royal visit  to Welbeck and  Bolsover in 1634.

Detail from the Venus Fountain. Photo by Edward Moss

 Sir William Cavendish  held  banquets at both houses by entertainments penned by Ben Jonson.   At the castle it was a masque entitled Love’s Welcome to Bolsover, which was actually performed in the Fountain Garden. Unsurprisingly it had the theme of love in all its forms , but also highlighted the divine status of kings.  Roy Strong suggests that the fountain was a physical expression of Caroline court mythology deliberately created for this visit.  Certainly its design ties in with the elaborate Mannerist  architecture and interior decoration inside the Little Castle.

There were once also 3  more secular statues – probably satyrs – in the garden. They could have represented baser more physical lust in contrast to the symbolism of  pure love supplied by the Venus statue.

Engravings from Samuel Pegge’s History of the Bolsover and Peak Castles (London, 1785)


Bolsover was fortunate in its builders, and fortunate too that also abandoned in the 18thc it was not completely ruined. The power of the architecture of the Little castle and its commanding position may just have been sufficient to save it.

West view, Nathaniel and Samuel Buck, 1727

Design for pedestal of garden fountain , RIBA Library

The Ministry of Works too deserve congratulations for their conscientious efforts to restore the range and protect the rest of the building, and for not giving it the standard ancient monument treatment.

And English Heritage too deserve our thanks for effectively making it their 17thc showcase site. There might be cavilling about the garden – there’s no sign of it in the contemporary drawings – but that’s an argument that  backs to the long debate about reconstruction, recreation or ‘in the spirit of’ which will run and run.  Which ever side you’re on you’ll find something to love at  Bolsover.

More information via the English Heritage website or the Conservation Management Plan.

Engravings from Samuel Pegge’s History of the Bolsover and Peak Castles (London, 1785)



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