The Star Chamber at Bolsover Castle

Since 2016, I have volunteered at Bolsover Castle in Derbyshire every summer as a guide. Sadly, this year I haven’t been able to return due to the pandemic, but the site is open daily between 10 am and 5 pm for pre-booked slots only.[1] I know I’m biased, but I would really recommend a visit if you can. It has a fascinating history and some wonderful period paintings which are well worth seeing. The castle is a wonderful mix of Stuart pleasure with the sense of nostalgia towards the medieval, as designed by father and son team Robert and John Smythson for the father and son owners, Charles and William Cavendish.[2] It has been recognised by some as “the most beautiful house in England, and one of the treasures of Western Europe”.[3] I will leave that judgement up to you if you ever visit, but I can imagine in its heyday, it would have been a spectacular sight to behold.

The first building phase of the current castle was between 1611 and 1617, following the footprint of an older medieval castle that was once in existence. This included the building known as the Little Castle, which was the main living accommodation until the Terrace Range was built in anticipation of a visit from Charles I and his wife, Henrietta Maria in 1634. The Little Castle was built as William Cavendish’s pleasure holiday home, as he mainly lived at Welbeck Abbey nearby. For this reason, it was sumptuously decorated and furnished. Each room had a theme and relevant imagery was used to show the classical and biblical knowledge of William.

The Little Castle (Author’s Own Image)

One of the most popular rooms in the Little Castle is the Star Chamber, mainly as it was refurnished in 2014 to replicate what it may have once looked like in the Stuart era, and as many visitors have noted, it feels the most homely. The tapestries are not original to the house, they are actually reproduced versions of original 17th century tapestries found at Blickling House in Norfolk. They were recreated by 3D printing onto linen but are still very effective.

The original interiors of the Little Castle, including the Star Chamber were completed roughly between 1619 and 1921. The Star Chamber itself was created as the main entertaining and reception space for the Castle. It would have originally been furnished with a large table to eat from, as well as many seats to be used either during banqueting or for watching or listening to entertainment, with a raised dais to be used by William and either his first wife, Elizabeth Basset, or his second wife, Margaret Lucas.

The Raised Dais (Author’s Own Image)

The theme of this room is biblical, with painted panels depicting old and new testament figures, the largest of which are King David and King Solomon. These contrast with the two painted panels in the corner, which would have once formed a door to a concealed privy. These depict men in armour, and it has been debated about who these are.[4] Some have claimed that it could be William and his brother. There was once another panel depicting a young boy with a pet cat, but sadly this was stolen.[5] Raylor argues that all the paintings in this room are an allegory for political and religious authority, which originated with these biblical figures, and was passed down not just to himself as the local landowner, but replicated in the monarchy.[6] This can be seen in the use of family crests, indicating where William’s personal authority comes from.

Interior of Star Chamber, showing ceiling, Wikimedia Commons

The reason the room is called the Star Chamber is because at some point following William’s death, an auditor named the rooms in an inventory. The Star Chamber took its name from the wonderfully elaborate ceiling, featuring 254 gold leaf stars. This was restored in 2000, when the coving had to be redone. During this process, the ceiling colour was changed. Prior to this, the colour had been a dark blue, to represent the night sky. During the investigation work, an original light blue colour was found underneath, and it was decided to return it to its sky-blue colour. The ceiling would have originally cost a fortune, as the sky-blue colour is blue verditer, which is created by smelting silver.[7] Also during the restoration, an original 17th century playing card was found underneath the coving. It was probably put there by one of the craftsmen who worked there, hoping to be remembered in some way centuries after he had completed his work. Unfortunately, the card is now at the British Museum, but it is only one of many hidden treasures found secreted away in many country houses across the country.

The Star Chamber Fireplace (Author’s Own Image)

The fireplaces throughout the Little Castle, are all made from Derbyshire stone and marble (other than the Italian Marble used in the Marble Closet) either mined in the Peak District, or more locally to the Castle. They all feature slightly different imagery, but the fireplace in the Star Chamber is the most carved and represents different parts of the Cavendish family. The Talbot dogs on the front are to remember George Talbot, the last of William’s grandmother, Bess of Hardwick’s husbands, and through who’s son, sold Bolsover to this side of the Cavendish family. The Cavendish crest is also wrapped around the sides. This is also the only fireplace to have received some damage. It was probably done by Parliamentarian forces who lived here during the Civil War, following William’s forced personal exile after his defeat at the Battle of Marston Moor in July 1644. Luckily for William, despite instructions to have the place destroyed, the Parliamentarians never did, instead choosing to sell it on in 1650.[8] William’s brother, Charles, saved stopped this sale by returning apologetically to England and brought back William’s estates.[9]

Despite not being able to return to Bolsover myself this year, I have extremely fond memories and hope to return next summer. I gave my first ever guided tour last year and it was received very well by visitors and was hoping to do some more this time, but sadly that wasn’t to be. I hope that this short history of one of the most popular rooms, although not my personal favourite (that’s the Heaven Closet), has been a guided tour of sorts, even if it’s in a very different way. By knowing the history and style of the house, it is almost like knowing William Cavendish himself. This very unique house is said to openly reflect his style and character.[10] If you ever have the chance to visit, remember that as you look around the rooms that are full of imagery that often seems to be puzzling to us. It’s just that for whatever reason, the meaning has somehow been lost to us to a certain extent.


[1] Bolsover Castle, English Heritage, https://www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/bolsover-castle/

[2] Drury, P., Bolsover Castle Guidebook (London: English Heritage, Revised Edition, 2016), p. 3.

[3] T. Mowl, Elizabethan and Jacobean Style (1993), cited in Raylor, T., ‘“Pleasure Concealed as Virtue”: William Cavendish, Ben Jonson, and the Decorative Scheme of Bolsover Castle’, Renaissance Quarterly, 52.2 (1999), p. 402.

[4] Drury, P., Bolsover Castle Guidebook, p. 20.

[5] Raylor, T., ‘“Pleasure Concealed as Virtue”, p. 420.

[6] Raylor, T., ‘“Pleasure Concealed as Virtue”, p. 420.

[7] Drury, P., Bolsover Castle Guidebook, p. 20.

[8] Drury, P., Bolsover Castle Guidebook, p. 41.

[9] Drury, P., Bolsover Castle Guidebook, p. 41.

[10] Raylor, T., ‘“Pleasure Concealed as Virtue”, p. 404.

Caister Castle: A Powerhouse of Wealth

Caister Castle was brainchild of Sir John Fastolf. Fastolf has been immortalised as John Falstaff in Shakespeare (confusingly similar names, I know). Shakespeare’s version portrays a rather comic figure far from the real man. Falstaff is seen as a fat, penniless womaniser, which could be further from the real Sir John Fastolf who built Casiter Castle in the mid-fifteenth century. In fact, the real Fastolf was a wealthy man and he knew how best to show it off by building Caister. He actually gained his wealth during the Hundred Years War.[1] Most notably, he was amongst the army that fought against Joan of Arc.[2]

The fifteenth century powerhouses of the rich were at a crossroads between the medieval castle and what would much later develop into the country house of retreat. Houses were being designed that still retained some form of defensiveness, or at least the appearance of such, whilst also promoting ideas of comfort for residents. Caister was built within this context. During this time the best way to display wealth and power was seen by having a fortified building that had an unusual design.[3] This was something that Caister did very easily.

As is seen in the following images, Caister still had a defence like design by using a moat, the appearance of battlements and a single tower. However, it is its unusual design that I believe sets it apart from other houses of the time. Fastolf had been fighting out on the continent during the Hundred Years War and the spoils he had gathered during that time were what helped pay for the building of Caister in the first place[4]. It was the style of the Lower Rhineland he had been fighting in that inspired his design, especially for the tower.[5] This was no ordinary tower though, it was a solar tower. A solar was a late medieval invention and was a private room, or set of rooms as seen at Caister, for the Lord or his family.[6] Caister’s solar tower is five storeys high and the higher up the room was, the more private it was. The upper three storeys were solely Fastolf’s private rooms and the top one was his treasure room.[7] The fact that there was even a separate treasure room shows how much emphasis Fastolf himself placed on the wealth he had acquired. By creating such magnificent surroundings for himself, he was able to compete with other wealthy men for a visual demonstration of power.[8] This expectation was the reason why everything that happened within the household, both the physical and social, aimed to be a collective effort to maintain the power and status of the Lord.[9]

Caister Castle, Norfolk
G. H. Beaumont, Caister Castle, Norfolk (1785), Anglesey Abbey, Cambridgeshire, UK/Bridgeman Images

Houses with towers, such as Caister, were usually reserved for those who had royal favour and were given permission to build in this way as they involved castellation that had to be granted a permit from the King.[10] They were also harder to build because of the height and so, it is amazing to see that Caister’s large tower still survives intact, even more so this is the main part if it that still remains standing.[11] However, this may be due to it being one of the earliest, if not the earliest example, of a castle being made from brick in England. Brick was only just being used on a large scale in England and it is most noticeable in later fifteenth century examples, such as William Hasting’s Kirby Muxloe in Leicestershire.[12] It was largely used by royal favourites due to the cost and lack of availability of the material.[13] When teamed up with the tower design of Caister, it shows just how much wealth and royal favour Fastolf must have acquired during his time fighting on the continent.

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Pollard, R., Caister Castle (1800), British Library Collection
Caister had the typical fifteenth century double courtyard design. Both of these revolved around two great halls, one used in the summer and the other used in the winter.[14] There is no suggestion as to why this was, so it is possible that one would have been easier to heat in winter than the other. The main hall, possibly the summer one, was the main place for display as it was the main communal area. Within it were examples of stained glass depicting Fastolf’s coat of arms, his wife’s family coat of arms, his own motto and reflections of his military achievements.[15] Perhaps it may have mentioned his fighting Joan of Arc, but unfortunately the specific achievements identified in the windows is unknown. The only known military achievement Fastolf was known to have memorialised was the Siege of Falaise which was a tapestry used as the ‘cloth of state’ behind the dais end of the great hall he would be sat at.[16]

Overall, I believe Caister to be the testament of a man who had many a military achievement, most notably fighting against Joan of Arc. Unfortunately, most of its grandness can only be imagined due to most of it being in ruins, but it would have been spectacular. Even today I find it a place of unusual serenity considering its proximity to the popular seaside resort of Great Yarmouth. If you haven’t been there, I would thoroughly recommend it and it also has a fabulous car museum to visit too!

[1] Emery, A., ‘Late-Medieval Houses as an Expression of Social Status’, Historical Research, 78 (2005), p. 158.

[2] Harrison, K., Joan of Arc: A Life Transfigured (New York: Doubleday, 2013), p. 81.

[3] Thompson, M., The Medieval Hall: the Basis of Secular Domestic Life, 600-1600 AD (Aldershot: Scholar Press, 1995), p. 153.

[4] Emery, A., ‘Late-Medieval Houses as an Expression of Social Status’, p. 158.

[5] Wood, M., The English Medieval House (London: Ferndale Editions, 1981), p. 172.

[6] Wood, M., The English Medieval House, p. 67.

[7] Wood, M., The English Medieval House, p. 172.

[8] Wood, M., The English Medieval House, pp. 1728-179.

[9] Girouard, M., Life in the English Country House (London: Yale University Press, 1978), p. 15.

[10] Girouard, M., Life in the English Country House, p. 76.

[11] Girouard, M., Life in the English Country House, p. 73.

[12] Pevsner, N., The Buildings of England: Leicestershire and Rutland (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1960), p. 132.

[13] Pevsner, N., The Buildings of England: Leicestershire and Rutland, p. 132.

[14] Girouard, M., Life in the English Country House, p. 60.

[15] Emery, A., Greater Medieval Houses of England and Wales, 1300-1500: Volume 2 East Anglia, Central England and Wales (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), p. 57.

[16] Parker (1983) cited in Wood, M., The English Medieval House, p. 404.