Bolsover is one of the great English castles.
It is almost like several castles in one and is a time capsule of a great, now long-lost age of aristocratic chivalry.
Perched high on a windy ledge above the Derbyshire vale below, it looks like it has been lifted straight from a fairy-tale.
Built on an ancient burial ground and overlooking a town once described as “the Satanic capital of Britain” the castle is one of the country’s most haunted sites.
As you approach you cannot help but be in awe of the size of the remains but there is also a pull in that you can feel the sheer weight of history which has occurred at this place over the past millennia and beyond.
This legendary castle was originally built as a 17th century retreat, on top of a great medieval and Norman fortress. For thousands of years people have lived, worked, and died here. Many of them still rest underneath the hallowed ground.
It is for this reason that this infamous place was voted as the spookiest site in all of England by English Heritage members.
Before the Norman Conquest, Bolsover was situated within the Saxon kingdom of Mercia and this hilltop position would have been an important strategic posting. ‘Bolsover’ perhaps meaning ‘fire’ ‘slope’ or ‘edge’ in olde English.
In 1086 William the Conqueror granted the manor to one of his most trusted knights, William Peverel who built the original castle which would have most likely been a timber constructed motte and bailey castle.
The outer Bailey was a large oval with the smaller Inner Bailey within. Both areas contain a large number of earlier burials, some dating from the time when the church burial yard was located here with others occupying various hastily dug great plague pits.
The castle did not stay with the Peverel family for long, with William Peverel the Younger being dispossessed by King Henry II in 1155 for conspiring to poison Ralph, Earl of Chester.
During the later twelfth and early thirteenth centuries the castle was rebuilt in stone. This started in 1173 with the stone Keep and later included the curtain walls complete with turrets. The garrison was also strengthened with a force commanded by 20 knights during the Baron’s Revolt.
This work had been completed by 1215 when the castle came under a determined attack from William de Ferrars, Earl of Derby during the first Baron’s War, when a group of Baron’s fought against King John because he refused to accept the terms of the Magna Carta.
It is said that the wall was breached in a siege with surviving parts of the castle later built into the wall walk which can be seen from the central Venus garden.
The Castle came into the possession of the formidable Bess of Hardwick, Countess of Shrewsbury following the purchase of the manor by her husband, George Talbot, later the 6th Earl of Shrewsbury in 1553.
On her death it passed to her son Charles Cavendish who began to build the castle which can be seen today. Its outward appearance is that of a formidable fortress, but in reality it was designed for sumptuous and elegant living.
The work was overseen by the mason John Smythson, son of the renowned Elizabethan architect Robert Smythson, and it is likely that both Robert Smythson and Charles of Hardwick had a strong influence in the final design.
Bolsover was a spectacular location for feasting and banqueting. It became a place for lavish entertainments and a range of fashionable cultural pursuits. It was once famously known as ‘The Muses’ Mount’.
It is fascinating to imagine the astonishing scenes of revelry, displays of excess and everything else which occurred within these walls all those centuries ago.
Charles died in 1617 and work on the ‘Little Castle’ continued under his son, William Cavendish and was completed in 1621. He added a second set of residential buildings alongside a new terrace which was likely built primarily to impress the king on one of his royal visits.
The terrace range which now stands in impressive ruins against the backdrop of the valley below was built in stages by William Cavendish between the late 1620s and the 1660s.
It is fascinating to wander around the skeletal remains of these once wonderous rooms and ponder all that has happened and what these walls have borne witness to.
The little castle would also have been an astonishing sight, with wondrous displays of extravagance and wealth and a huge amount of wall paintings, many of which remain today.
William’s social standing rose considerably during the 1620s. He was made Viscount Mansfield in 1620 and Earl of Newcastle-upon-Tyne in 1628.
On 30th July 1634, Charles I and Henrietta Maria visited Bolsover for a lavish entertainment as part of their Royal progress. They were hosted by William, with the famous poet and contemporary of Shakespeare Ben Jonson writing the bespoke entertainment for the visit, ‘Love’s Welcome’.
Interestingly, on the day of the visit a group of miners was marching towards Bolsover to protest about tithes on mining. The King commanded Cavendish to muster local militia to ‘scatter such assemblie’.
It is known that after the banquet, a feast which 41 different species of bird were eaten, the King and Henrietta ‘retir’d into a garden’ which is most likely the Venus fountain garden.
They would have taken in the spectacular views over the valley as the great and good of Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire manoeuvred for position to get a good word with the King.
Shortly after the royal visit William added a new riding school range to the castle. He was an outstandingly accomplished rider and known as one of the best horsemen in Europe.
William is widely credited as being the ‘father’ of modern dressage. The royal horse master and first Duke of Newcastle introduced the highly skilled art in the 17th century. The riding house is the earliest in England to survive complete.
With the advent of the Civil war, Sir William Cavendish took command of the Royal Army who were defeated at Marston Moor in 1644. Although he survived the conflict he was forced to flee into exile and the castle was handed over to Parliamentarian troops in the August of that year.
After the reformation of the Monarchy in 1660, Cavendish returned to Bolsover, but the castle was in a ruinous state.
Despite this he added a new hall and staterooms to the terrace range.
Following his death his successors chose to live at Welbeck rather than Bolsover and despite the Little Castle and Rising range surviving well the castle was largely left as it was.
Walking around the site, there is now an air of great tranquillity, especially as the late afternoon gives way to the darkness.
There is a great sense, particularly on the eve of All Hallows eve and in full moonlight, that the supernatural is not far away.
There is a real mysticism to both the ruins of the terrace, the Little castle and the silhouette of the large tree, marking the site of one of the great plague pits within the old Inner Bailey.
Balls of white light are seen frequently and a young boy is said to grasp the hands of women as they walk through the garden by the tree, perhaps a victim of the plague who is seeking the comfort of his mother.
Bolsover Castle also has its own Grey Lady which is frequently seen walking through the grounds around the Venus garden.
There is the story of an army of Civil war soldiers gliding into sight through the mist of crisp early morning across the old outer bailey. They appear to be dressed in full military regalia before disappearing halfway across the castle yard.
Hooves and horses cries are also heard frequently and the ghost of Sir William himself is also said to wander the ground, continually searching for a return to the days in which he was master of beast and man in these very grounds.
As the full moon shone down over the Venus garden, casting the most phenomenal and supernatural silhouettes it is easy to understand why this place continues to capture the imaginations of so many, as it has done for thousands of years previously.