William Cavendish's home ...
... Bolsover Castle, Derbyshire.
The ceiling in the Star Chamber
The fabulous Pillar Parlour
Venus arising from her bath.
Pictures by John Kerrison.
The opening chapter of Cavalier…
Welbeck Abbey, 27th March, 1617 ...
Sir William Cavendish, twenty-three years old, is hurrying through the draughty stone passages of Welbeck Abbey towards the chamber where his father lies ill. A servant opens a low door, and a breath of fresh air accompanies William into a dimly lit bedchamber. His silhouette, seen against the light from the passage, describes a tightly tailored upper body and arms above voluminous breeches. His face and high white ruff show brightly against his dark doublet and his hair is brushed into a fashionable peak over his forehead. Crossing the threshold into the room, William leaves behind one stage of his life and enters another, for his father is suffering from a grievous illness and has summoned his son for one of the most important conversations in a great landowner's lifetime.
Inside Sir Charles Cavendish's room the air is heavy with the scent of fresh blood drained from the patient's veins by his doctors. There is also a tang emanating from his close stool, the upholstered seat that hides his chamber pot. The bedchamber's walls are richly hung with tapestry, and a fringe hangs down from the canopy or sparver of Sir Charles's great curtained bed. Only a murky finger of light enters through the flecked, translucent leaded panes of the stone-mullioned windows. Sir Charles's stout shoehorn, carved with the miniature figures of Adam and Eve and the Cavendish family's symbol of a stag's head, lies near to hand upon a table draped with a rich Turkish carpet, but it is doubtful whether he will ever need it again. In his long nightshirt, a kerchief tied round his head, William's father lies propped up in bed, half-sitting against plump pillows; sixty-five years old, he is accustomed to sleeping semi-upright rather than prone. Sir Charles's nose is lengthy and aquiline. Hair still sprouts thickly over his high forehead and kinks round his ears; his beard is chest-length below clean-shaven cheeks, and his fingers are long and pointed. Until now, he has maintained his health with some success. Despite his advanced years, he has been a hale, active man, keeping himself fit with regular riding and swordplay, an art at which he is a great master. Such martial pursuits have brought him pain as well as pleasure: today he lies uncomfortably upon an old injury to the buttock that he suffered in a pistol fight with a group of his Nottinghamshire neighbours. Sir Charles has been thrusting, successful and well-connected, but also valiant and generous. He still possesses a clear mind and memory, and his household has little idea of how ill he is. But now, crossing the room and seeing his father's face, William realises that this sickness could be fatal.
As William approaches his father's bed, many other people are waiting to hear why Sir Charles has summoned his son with such solemnity and whether the head of their household is going to pass safely through his illness. At this pivotal moment in the quiet bedchamber at Welbeck Abbey, the very epicentre of the vast Cavendish estates, the fears and expectations of the many members of the family and household remain pinned to their patriarch. Elsewhere in the house, Sir Charles's wife and younger son await news of his condition. They are anxious to know whether Sir Charles believes that he will recover or whether he has decided that the time has come to make provision for the future management of the household. Also waiting for news are Sir Charles's confidential upper servants (many of them his relations), his lower servants going about their menial tasks in the kitchens, gardens and stables, the servants out at the farm, the builders at his half-finished new castle at Bolsover, seven miles away, the tenants of his estates across the Midlands, their own maids and servingmen, the labourers in the fields and the paupers who depend on the Cavendishes' charity. The household and estates revolve like a vast wheel around the fixed point of Sir Charles's bed. As William's father's life moves towards crisis, change will ripple through all these lives, and the power bases and allegiances of the household will now begin to shift.
© 2013 Lucy Worsley