Back stairs have an unsavory reputation. Questionable access is made to people in power or, perhaps, guests at a house party get up to no good by using back stairs in the middle of the night. I checked in the online OED (Oxford English Dictionary) and, while this reputation existed in the time of Margaret Cavendish, there was another story. The main staircase was sometimes reserved for formal occasions and the back stairs used, not just by staff going about household business, but also by the master and mistress as well as family and friends generally. Such seems to be the case with Cavendish’s play The Presence (1668) in which the the waiting ladies of the Princess meet on orders from her at the back stairs to go down to the Gallery. Cavendish’s play has many autobiographical elements that would place it at the palace of St Germain en Laye near Paris, so Bolsover is probably not the location she had in mind. Still, what worked for stairs at St Germain could just as well have worked at Bolsover.
Bolsover Castle has three sets of back stairs. One set ascends from the kitchens in the cellar to the top of the building, and I’ll call these the main back stairs. The other two only rise one level. Of these other two, one rises from the beer cellar to the Hall and the other from the kitchens to a space between the hall and the Pillar Parlour. I would bet that these two mostly were used by the servants to carry food and to take care of ordinary, “below stairs” household business.
The main back stairs, I would guess, were used by owners and family, but shared with servants who worked in the top two stories. I am not sure that the much larger, but not quite grand, main staircase was reserved for formal occasions, as it is not striking in the manner of the main staircase at Hardwick Hall. Hardwick’s main staircase is today hung with impressive tapestry and may have been known to Margaret Cavendish, who describes such a staircase with shallow steps in The Unnatural Tragedy (1662).
Cavendish also describes a main staircase in her comedy The Convent of Pleasure (1668), suggesting that a staircase is a good place to hang oil paintings. She goes on to say that flower pots should be put on pedestals in the Gallery in the summer, but she does not mention niches like the one pictured above and to the left. So, what would go into such a niche in a main staircase? Typically a niche would have a marble bust, perhaps of a Roman deity or an emperor, though I can imagine seeing flowers in a large vase. The interior of the Convent in Convent of Pleasure is remarkable in that seasonal change is tied to ongoing shifts in decoration. Thus flowers in vases might be replaced in autumn with another item — perhaps something in marble or bronze. Cavendish certainly likes to write about sculpture.
The sign on the Best Bedroom level door to the main back stairs that says “No Entry” is for members of the public, visitors of what is now an English Heritage property. Still, the sign might have been put there, but on the other side of the door, by William Cavendish (husband to Margaret), who owned Bolsover Castle. As you can see, William was able to close off the main back stairs so as to gain privacy when that is what he wanted. I expect that the window had a curtain that could be pulled, again when that is what he wanted. Privacy is a nice to have and to be able to regulate.
“Privacy” as a word and as a concept figures in a big way in the writings of Margaret Cavendish and others of her time. Ladies and gentlemen intent on amorous discourse looked for private places to meet. Indeed, William during his first marriage had a reputation as a ladies’ man and is so depicted in Margaret’s plays. Margaret, of course, was his second wife, and he appears to have settled down as he became older. In any event, he is the Lord Loyalty in the comedy The Presence, and described, perhaps in a gentle tease, as “none of the chastest men.” (The “loyalty” involved was to the King, and William was no rebel.) So, the main back stairs at Bolsover could have been used by him to facilitate assignations, but they were probably more often climbed by friends and business acquaintances who were on their way to his bedroom for routine meetings. Bedrooms were used in this way.
In Margaret’s verse narrative “A Description of Love and Courage” (found in Nature’s Pictures,1656), the male protagonist climbs the main staircase of a nearly deserted but beautifully decorated house that is very much like Bolsover Castle. He then descends “back by another way,” only to chance upon a lady who will become his love. He finds her in a little chamber off of the Gallery, but there is no gallery in Bolsover Castle and so Cavendish may have conflated this building with the palace at St Germain-en-Laye. In the story, backstairs and main stairs are only partly a route to romance. They also allow Cavendish to give her readers a tour of the richly appointed fictional house. Why do so? Margaret had a wonderful imagination. Indeed both she and William treasured what they understood to be the mental faculty of the “phancy.” The floor plans and decoration of the two buildings, quite possibly, were disassembled and reassembled in her mind.