Cavalier: A Tale of Chivalry, Passion, and Great Houses

Cavalier: A Tale of Chivalry, Passion, and Great Houses

by Lucy Worsley

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From the Chief Curator of the Historic Royal Palaces in England, a vivid portrait of a seventeenth-century nobleman, his household, and the dramatic decades surrounding the English Civil War.

William Cavendish embodied the popular image of a cavalier. He was both courageous and cultured. His passions were architecture, horses, and women. And,

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From the Chief Curator of the Historic Royal Palaces in England, a vivid portrait of a seventeenth-century nobleman, his household, and the dramatic decades surrounding the English Civil War.

William Cavendish embodied the popular image of a cavalier. He was both courageous and cultured. His passions were architecture, horses, and women. And, along with the whole courtly world of King Charles I and his cavaliers, he was doomed to failure.

Cavendish was a master of manège (the art of teaching horses to dance) and obsessed with building beautiful houses in the latest style. He taught Charles I's son to ride, and was the general of the king's army in the north during the Civil War. Famously defeated at the Battle of Marston Moor in 1644, he went into a long continental exile before returning to England in triumph on the restoration of King Charles II to the throne in 1660.

This is the story of one remarkable man, but it is also a rich evocation of what sustained him—his extraordinary household. Lucy Worsley brings to life the complex and fascinating hierarchies among the inhabitants of the great houses of the seventeenth-century, painting a picture of conspiracy, sexual intrigue, clandestine marriage, and gossip. From Ben Jonson and Anthony Van Dyck to long-forgotten servants, Cavalier is a brilliant illumination of the stately home and its inhabitants. The household's cacophony and stink as well as its ceremony and splendor come to life.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

Worsley, the chief curator of Britain's Historic Royal Palaces, closely examines the life of 17th-century English aristocrat William Cavendish, a champion of poetry, music, horses, women and architecture, with reference to numerous primary sources including a rich body of his estate papers, letters and poems. Every detail of Cavendish's universe comes to life, from architect John Smithson's designs for his exquisite home to the job descriptions and diets of the building site's laborers. Also vividly described is a nasty household plot against Cavendish's much younger second wife and a costly entertainment staged by Cavendish to curry favor with Charles I. It succeeded, and the King made William earl, marquis, his heir's tutor and a Civil War general, a commission beyond Cavendish's abilities. After a key battle of the war ended in disaster, Cavendish fled to the continent, lived in relative poverty and was branded a coward, but his fortunes rebounded under Charles II, who minted him duke of Newcastle. Although fascinating, this diligently documented account reveals its roots as a doctoral thesis. 16-page color insert, b&w illus. (Oct. 20)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
Library Journal

Worsley (chief curator, Historic Royal Palaces; Bolsover Castle) has written an offbeat biography of Stuart grandee William Cavendish (1593-1676), telling his story through ten short episodes of an eventful life. True to her background, in each vignette Worsley lovingly documents the quality of life in a 17th-century household: food, dress, manners, decor, horticulture, and the backstairs staff. The "necessary woman" who empties Cavendish's chamber pot earns about as much attention as his first wife. Worsely also describes in fascinating detail the many building projects of the Cavendish family, particularly the Little Castle at Bolsover, where in 1634 Cavendish entertained Charles I with a masque written for the occasion by Ben Jonson. The foreground of most versions of Cavendish's life-his poetry, tutoring of young Charles II, civil war defeat in battle at Marston Moor, and subsequent exile to Antwerp-becomes the background in this charming picture of how Cavendish and his household experienced their lives. Worsely argues that this careful look at Cavendish's household shows a world transforming itself from medieval to recognizably modern during the course of his life. No library should be without this innovative volume.
—Stewart Desmond

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Product Details

Bloomsbury USA
Publication date:
Edition description:
First Edition
Product dimensions:
5.80(w) x 10.08(h) x 1.20(d)

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By Lucy Worsley


Copyright © 2007 Lucy Worsley
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-59691-358-5

Chapter One

A Deathbed


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.

The person most immediately affected by the danger to Sir Charles's health is the young man now sinking to his knees on the matting of plaited rushes by his father's bed. William is a true Cavendish, ambitious and proud. His grandmother was one of her age's greatest builders: the Countess of Shrewsbury (c.1527-1608), commonly known as 'Bess of Hardwick', who constructed the famous Hardwick Hall. William was brought up in the landlocked Midlands, where the country houses built by competitive neighbours form a dense clot of England's most impressive architectural achievements. Sir Charles, Bess's youngest son, is one of the courteous and chivalrous Elizabethan knights who will leave a lasting reminder of their pleasant and prosperous lives in the form of their near miraculous houses, and the new stately suite he has added to Welbeck Abbey is only one of his many building projects. The grandson of a Derbyshire sheep farmer, Sir Charles is now the proud possessor of an abbey, a castle and two healthy heirs.

His elder son William is a similarly likeable, warm-hearted young man, but he is also impulsive and addicted to risk-taking and pleasure. He is, and will remain, a lifelong lover of horses, architecture and women. His smile and manner are engaging, but he has yet to grow into the grave, responsible figure who may successfully hold high office at court or govern a household, let alone manage the raucous and competitive Cavendish servants. Physically, he is only moderately tall, but 'his shape is neat, and exactly proportioned'. He is extremely fit and upright in bearing from his daily exercise on horseback or with the sword. He eats like an athlete, keeping himself on a strict diet, and his habitual supper consists only of 'an egg and a draught of small-beer'. Fastidious and careful in dressing, he wears bright silks, lace collars, feathered hats and high boots, following fashion so far as it is appropriate 'for men of Heroick Exercises and Actions'. He rides his beloved dancing stallions every morning, demonstrating the flying leaps of the art of horsemanship or manège, while his curls and feathers mirror the horses' luxuriant manes. This moment in his father's bedchamber is one of the rare occasions on which he is to be seen without a whip in his gloved hand.

Despite the carefully calculated image of arrogant perfection that William presents to the world - jaunty beard and high-heeled shoes - he relishes his body's natural functions. He is a fluent and enthusiastic, if as yet unpublished, writer, devoted to his mentor the poet Ben Jonson (1572-1637), and colourfully records his experiences of spitting, removing gum from his eyes, blowing his nose, extracting earwax with an ear-pick, his 'lecherous sweatings', his 'greatest pimple' and his 'buttocks married to his open close stool' during a bout of diarrhoea.

No one can fail to warm to William's attractively voluble enthusiasms; his love for horses and women; his unerring ability to sabotage his own interests. He has attended the court with his father from a young age and already holds the title of a Knight of the Bath. His glamour and his vulnerability are two sides of the same coin: he has all the charming insouciance and panache of a brave young blood ambitious to make his mark at the Stuart court, haunt of the Cavaliers, where success waits for many a well-dressed and well-mounted young man. Yet it may already be guessed that, like his fellow Cavaliers, William suffers from a potentially fatal lack of diligence, sobriety and common sense. He longs to be a serious player at court, but he can ruin a delicate meeting with his 'customary swearing', and one of his friends says that if you tell him a secret 'it might as well be proclaimed at the [market] cross'. His love for the arts in all their guises - and his reputation for chasing women - mean that he is accused of frivolity, of being forever 'fornicating with the Nine Muses, or the Dean of York's daughters'.

Unlike many of his fellow aristocrats, William is a true lover of poetry and music, and is devoted to their craft as well as their art. In different circumstances, he could have lived a pleasantly feckless life in the playhouses and taverns like so many of the writers he admires. He pens poems almost incessantly, processing his daily experiences through verse, and his informal musings, essays and plays all reveal how he sees his world. His love for literature is so great that he is shaping up to be the only aristocrat of his generation who might produce a vast and varied body of work.

It seems that this young man may possess something special: the opportunity to experience a life of power and privilege as he moves between his family's great houses and the heady world of the Stuart court with its masques and music, palaces and stables, coupled with the talent to observe and record it all. But he is young yet, and daunted by the thought of losing his father. This is the day on which he must begin to face up to his responsibilities as the future head of one of England's great families.

William's lifelong passions for horses and weapons were already apparent in his youthful pastimes. He was born in Yorkshire, and is proud of it. His birth in 1593 took place in a manor at Handsworth, near Sheffield, belonging to Gilbert Talbot, seventh Earl of Shrewsbury (1552-1616), his father's stepbrother and greatest friend. William's mother Katherine is Sir Charles's beloved second wife and the daughter of a Northumbrian baron. After William was born, Sir Charles withdrew from his previous involvement in Parliament, because 'being an indulgent Father, he was altogether intent on the Affairs of his Family, and the Education of his Sons'. In particular, his two boys studied horsemanship and swordsmanship, wherein Sir Charles was 'a most ingenious and unparallell'd Master of that Age'. 'I have Practised, and Studyed Horse-manship ever since I was Ten years old,' William writes in later life.

The youthful William was sent to live in the household of Gilbert Talbot, Earl of Shrewsbury. The households of social superiors act as a kind of boarding school for well-born children to learn how to command and provide service properly. Honour rather than stigma comes with personal service to a social superior, and in the seventeenth century about half of England's population work as servants at some point in their lives. The most important courtiers are those who attend the monarch in the bedchamber, and William aspires to becoming a Gentleman of the Bedchamber to the king himself one day.

William was knighted in 1610, at the age of sixteen. Two years later, and just before the family began to build their new house, Bolsover Castle in Derbyshire, his father sent him on a grand tour of Italy to acquire an architectural education. This tour gave William a taste for the new classical style of architecture that is just beginning to manifest itself in a handful of English buildings, but he had already inherited from his father and grandmother a passion for building houses.

As a result of their obsession, a Cavendish household is set up like a building company, with specialist designers always on the payroll. Every English aristocrat needs an enormous house to accommodate his enormous household, but William desires houses that will outshine those of his most ambitious contemporaries. Living and working so closely together, loyalty and economics apparently weld the Cavendish household into a tight unit, a little world, a microcosm of society. The seventeenth-century architectural writer Sir Henry Wotton (1568-1639) writes that a man's country house is the Theatre of his Hospitality, the Seat of Selfe-fruition, the Comfortablest part of his own Life, the Noblest of his Son's Inheritance, a kind of private Princedom [...] an Epitomie of the whole World.

Yet the Cavendish household is not merely a smooth-running machine focused upon the comfort of its master: conspiracies, sexual intrigue, clandestine marriage and gossip form the unseen side of life in any great seventeenth-century house.

Here lies the nature of William's challenge as he contemplates the possibility of his father's imminent death. As the head of the Cavendish household, he will have great power, but with it the weightiest of responsibilities. It will not be an easy matter for this young man to win the respect of the forty people with whom he shares his home, or to steer a safe course for them through the coming years of peace and war, or to develop a landowner's keen concern for the prosperity of his estates.

In this book, we will watch his progress by entering into the life of his household, walking from room to room and meeting its members as they live through the best and worst of days. The risks and the rewards are high: can this bold young peacock - charming but easily charmed, gallant but reckless, handsome but vain - make a success of his life?

While William strains to hear the low-voiced requests and confessions of his father, many other people beyond the bedchamber door are waiting to hear whether Sir Charles is on the road to recovery. The low hills seen through the abbey's windows are cloaked with the dark and remote Sherwood Forest, which covers many of the Cavendishes' estates in the northern Midlands of England. The abbey itself is a former monastery, converted by William's father into a magnificent - if rambling - mansion. Sir Charles's bedchamber is set within the ancient fabric of the monastery, yet along the twisting passages lies the spacious splendour of the new wing, topped by its round, onion-domed tower that allows access onto a flat, leaded roof for promenading and viewing the water gardens below (Plates 3 and 4).

Monks had once walked along Welbeck's stone cloister and climbed its stone stairs, and Sir Charles has always loved the 'fair vaults' of the Middle Ages. The abbey had belonged to the Premonstratensians, one of the most powerful orders in medieval England. After the Dissolution of the Monasteries, the monks were scattered and their abbey suffered the demolition of its church and two of the ranges around its cloister. The other two ranges survived and passed into the hands of a series of secular owners, and the old abbey was transformed by degrees into an unusual and atmospheric country house surrounded by oaks, pines and yews, 'seated in a botome in a Park, & invironed with Woods, a noble yet melancholy seate'. Sir Charles has added the suite of stately first-floor chambers in the local silvery-grey limestone, employing the airy and more regular contemporary style with its huge windows. A suite like this is a vital possession for any aspiring courtier who wishes, as Sir Charles does, to offer hospitality to the present king, James I, during one of his annual royal progresses around the countryside. These, the grandest rooms in the house, are intended purely for royal use. A royal visit is the greatest possible compliment that a family can receive; father and son are hoping to be chosen for that honour in the next few years.

While William confers with his father, Sir Charles's wife Katherine and her second son Charles are pacing nervously in the Great Chamber of the house. This lofty and recently completed room overlooks the ornamental canal and banqueting houses to the south. It is the family's main living room and a focus for household life. It is here that Katherine spends her days with her waiting gentlewomen, where guests are received and entertained, and where actors or musicians perform. The room is splendidly decorated with tapestries, a wide fireplace, vast windows and a plethora of richly upholstered chairs. Some of the textiles may be recycled from the magnificent velvets and old embroideries used in pre-Reformation priests' vestments. The Great Chamber is only the first link in a chain of interconnected first-floor rooms: beyond it lie the best bed chamber, the dining chamber next to it and the gallery, all in the same spacious style. The furniture and hangings for these rooms are usually kept in storage, being brought out for grand occasions just as the scenery is arranged on a stage before a theatrical performance.


Excerpted from Cavalier by Lucy Worsley Copyright © 2007 by Lucy Worsley . Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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