If you've been watching my BBC4 series Harlots, Housewives and Heroines, and if you want to know more about the seventeenth century, then you might like my book Cavalier...
The Story of a Seventeenth Century Playboy
Cavalier, The Story of a Seventeenth Century Playboy (as it's called in paperback) or Cavalier: a Tale of Passion, Chivalry and Great Houses (its hardback title), first published 2007, is a vivid portrait of a seventeenth-century nobleman, his household, and the dramatic decades surrounding the English Civil War.
'Sensuous and immediate ... Worsley has created an astonishing reconstruction of Cavendish's life and world. Cavalier is a remarkable achievement by an immensely talented and innovative historian'. Mail on Sunday
It tells the story of William Cavendish, first Duke of Newcastle, courageous and cultured, whose passions were architecture, horses and women. Above all, though, the book is about the great houses that Cavendish built. From Ben Jonson and Anthony van Dyck to long-forgotten servants, Cavalier recreates the cacophony, stink, ceremony and splendour of his stately homes and their inhabitants.
‘Worsley's strength is her sense of period, and her ability to bring people to life. It is almost as if she knows each of the army of servants that attended the Cavendishes, thanks to her forensic knowledge of the family's archives’. Independent on Sunday
'This is ‘living’ history, with the details of everyday life in an English country house in the seventeenth century brought to vivid life. Cavalier is richly entertaining, beautifully illustrated and an absorbing interactive experience’. Daily Mail
'Excellent, vividly depicting the extraordinary size and complexity of a nobleman's household'. New York Times
To buy Cavalier, click here.
How I came to write my book ‘Cavalier’ … extract from an article published in History Today, September 2007
I first met William Cavendish in June 1995. Taking a book at random from my university history library, I found myself one rainy afternoon starting to read Mark Girouard’s Robert Smythson and the Elizabethan Country House (Yale, 1983). I ended up devouring it before dinner, crouched on the hairy carpet of my college room, and remaining motionless so long that the carpet’s corduroy stripes became permanently tattooed into my knees. The book is about Elizabethan and Jacobean architecture, the secret ‘conceits’ or messages hidden in buildings, and Girouard’s own search for the real-life houses described in the treasure trove of sketches by the designer Robert Smythson (now owned by the Royal Institute of British Architects). The book’s climax was my first glimpse – through Edwin Smith’s brooding photographs – of Bolsover Castle in Derbyshire. I was instantly smitten by this building, and by its builder, William Cavendish.
With amazing luck, I later landed a job as Assistant Inspector of Ancient Monuments for English Heritage, where I was to work on a great re-presentation project at Bolsover Castle. And in my spare time I began a PhD thesis on William Cavendish’s architectural patronage. He was the grandson of the more famous Bess of Hardwick, builder of Hardwick Hall in Derbyshire. Born in 1593 to security and wealth and a tradition of commissioning remarkable buildings at home in the Midlands, William Cavendish nevertheless exerted himself to penetrate the upper ranks of the court, using masques, horsemanship and architecture as his calling-cards. He eventually achieved a longed-for court post with his appointment as tutor to the future Charles II. But he was to lose everything after leading the Royalists to defeat in the battle of Marston Moor in 1644, the turning point of the Civil War. Years of miserable exile in Antwerp followed, until William returned to London in triumph at the Restoration to the throne of his former pupil Charles II in 1660. He spent his declining years in the company of his beloved horses, and of his wife, the extraordinary proto-feminist writer Margaret Cavendish. After her death he consoled himself by embarking upon one last mansion, Nottingham Castle. Mark Girouard described him as ‘a man of whom it is impossible not to be fond, so gentle was he, so generous, so brave, so tolerant, so easy’, and his letters and constant amateur versifying reveal a character in line with the extravagant and whimsical buildings he commissioned.
My research was guided by the needs of the re-presentation project. We wanted to understand the process by which a house like Bolsover Castle (begun 1612) was designed and built, what rooms were used for, how both family and servants behaved within them. William’s buildings are romantic, quirky, gothic recreations of earlier times, hard to classify, dense with elusive meaning. Yet the hot air is taken out of many a scholarly exploration of the iconography of his triumphant holiday house, the Little Castle at Bolsover, by a painted message in the closet hidden in the heart of the building. It says, succinctly, ‘All is but vanitie’. It reads as if William is having the last laugh on us.
The project to re-present Bolsover Castle involved creating a new visitor centre, and recreating statues, buildings and gardens. Most fun of all was the process of restoring the fountain of Venus. This fountain was one of the most bizarre agglomerations of water and sculpture to be found anywhere in seventeenth-century England. The fountain’s white marble statue of a curvaceous Venus, rising from a bath and demurely clutching a towel to her chest, looks northwards, her broad placid face turned modestly away from the balcony of the master’s closet not far above her. A local carver depicted this Venus as a meaty Derbyshire lass rather than closely copying the original statue that provided the idea for her pose. This original was an etiolated and graceful figure carved in Italy by the famous Giambologna, whose work was known in England through miniature bronze versions. Below Venus, lions’ faces are intended to spit water, and four little boys, carved in a dark marble, urinate into the deep octagonal basin below. This basin has niches set into its sides, possibly originally intended for swimmers. There is even a drawing by William Cavendish’s designer, John Smithson, showing nymphs seated in the niches, rather unusually engaged upon squirting their own bodily juices, and even defecating, into the water. This is an extraordinarily lewd design, suggesting that the fountain was at some level intended for a playboy’s pool parties.
And a detective story now unfolded: identifying fragments of the original statues, and of their later replacements, investigating the possible drawn sources, working with an archaeological illustrator to imagine their original appearance, and finally, working with a sculptor to recreate them in stone. Although the fountain still contains many mysteries, one thing we can state with certainty: even in the seventeenth century, it never worked properly. And it came very close indeed to defeating English Heritage’s engineers too.
In the year 2000, the Castle was re-opened, with great fanfare; in 2001, William’s wonderful fountain, complete with modern interpretations of its missing lascivious beasts, was turned on. (Sadly English Heritage’s public affairs department vetoed the suggestion that Dennis Skinner, another ‘beast of Bolsover’, should be invited to flick the switch). That autumn I finished my thesis.
According to the censorious Puritan Lucy Hutchinson, William Cavendish never found London life comfortable and should have remained in the Midlands: it was ‘a foolish ambition of glorious slavery’ that ‘carried him to Court, where he ran himself much in to debt’. In 2003 I, too, felt the lure of London, and became Chief Curator of Historic Royal Palaces, the independent charity which looks after the unoccupied royal palaces of the Tower of London, Hampton Court Palace, the state apartments at Kensington Palace, the Banqueting House at Whitehall, and Kew Palace in Kew Gardens. Few historic houses could be more spectacular than the Cavendish family’s homes of Hardwick Hall and Bolsover Castle and Welbeck Abbey, but these just about were.
At English Heritage and now at Historic Royal Palaces, pleasing the visitors is terribly important. I knew that I wanted to turn my PhD research into a book that might likewise interest people casually dropping into the world of history, as well as its long-term denizens. My thesis was entitled The architectural patronage of William Cavendish, first Duke of Newcastle. I thought that sounded rather dry, so it became a book proposal rather saucily (or so I thought) called Cavalier: the Biography of a Seventeenth-century Household. But no, this would not do. After a long and interesting process, it ended up as Cavalier: a Tale of Passion, Chivalry and Great Houses.
Julian Loose, my editor at Faber and Faber suggested that I should try a kind of freeze-frame approach to biography, concentrating in detail on a particularly interesting day in William’s life, then fast-forwarding to the next day, or chapter. The possibility of writing architectural history like a feature-film seemed rather intriguing. Above all, I wanted to convey ideas about how rooms and buildings - many of them no longer in existence or else greatly changed - were actually used by their seventeenth-century inhabitants. Julian also edits novels, and I looked too at historical novels for inspiration. I was particularly struck by the cinematic opening pages of Michel Faber’s The Crimson Petal and the White, which zooms in on the daily life of a prostitute in Victorian London in such a visceral fashion.
So I selected ten individual days on which something interesting happened in the Cavendish household, and began to follow the action from the characters’ waking up through their getting dressed, going about their business … in this manner we witness the last illness of William’s father, a day’s labour on a seventeenth-century building site, the masque he staged in 1634 and the battle of Marston Moor, among others. And I ended up writing it all in the present tense, odd at first, but now oddly hard to cast off as a mode of communication. I spent a lot of time worrying how accuracy and the demands of narrative can be held in balance, and never did I have to work so hard. But nothing could have been more fun.
© 2013 Lucy Worsley