Heritage > British Castles

Windsor Castle


Seen from the train for the first time Windsor Castle is an unforgettable sight - a mirage of towers and battlements, of pinnacles and crenellations - one of the world's most spectacular sky-lines. Sometimes it stands out clearly defined in the sharp summer sunlight, at others it seems to float above swirling autumnal mists high above the earth. Only from the air can one see the enormous extent of the whole place which sprawls haphazardly like some great medieval walled city. Within its ramparts will be found masonry and styles from practically every century since the Normans, but it is to King George IV and his architect that we owe the incomparably romantic appearance of the Castle as it is today.

The name of Windsor is synonymous with royalty. The place itself has had royal associations since Saxon times and 'Windsor' is the name which was adopted by the present dynasty as its surname. Windsor Castle is the largest inhabited castle in the world and has been the seat of our sovereigns longer than any other royal residence still in use. Its story is also the story of our monarchy through all its many vicissitudes over nine centuries.

Anglo-Saxon kings were possessed of the manor of 'Windesor' and had a royal palace there. This was not on the site of the present Castle, but at what is now known as Old Windsor. It was not until William I that the present Castle was started. It was a natural place for a fortified building - a substantial outcrop of chalk overlooking the Thames and not far from London. Historians are fairly certain that a Castle was erected on this site by William I, although no mention is made of it in chronicles of the time. It would have been the obvious thing to do, the place being of great strategic value as the only strong point between London and Wallingford and guarding the vitally important waterway to London, a few miles to the east. William and his immediate successors soon abandoned the old royal palace some two miles to the south east in favour of the new Castle. The building's distinguished history had begun.

The Castle at Windsor is of classic motte and bailey form. The motte, or mound (man-made), was where the strongest part of the castle would be constructed. This was known as the keep and was a final bolt-hole if the rest of the castle fell. At Windsor it is the Round Tower. The castle walls, or bailey, enclosed open spaces called wards and at Windsor there are three wards - Upper Ward, Middle Ward and Lower Ward. Today, to the north and east of the Upper Ward and outside the actual walls of the Castle are terraces commanding magnificent views.

Under the Norman kings, notably Henry II, the fortress grew in size and sophistication and during the troubled reign of John it underwent two sieges. In 1216, after signing Magna Carta, the disgruntled King went back on all he had promised, having persuaded the Pope to absolve him from his oath and excommunicate the barons present at Runnymede. The barons took up arms against him and called Prince Louis, son of King Philip of France, to take the Throne, much as William of Orange and the Elector of Hanover were invited to do centuries later.

Louis landed and laid siege to castles held for the King including Windsor. In spite of the fact that much of the outer fortifications were then still of timber, the Castle withstood this second siege successfully for three months.

The structure had nevertheless been badly damaged and it fell to Henry III to rebuild and extensively improve it. The King also built a Chapel and dedicated it to Edward the Confessor. Its site is now occupied by the Albert Memorial Chapel. Much of Henry's work was swept away by Edward III but his name is perpetuated in the tower overlooking Castle Hill. It was during this reign that the basic plan of the Castle as it is today took shape. Two new chapels had been completed in the 1240s. Building went on apace under Edward I, slacked off under his son but during the reign of Edward III a new era opened for Windsor Castle.

Edward was born in the Castle in 1312 and was known as 'Edward of Windsor'. He was crowned in 1326 and in the year following his coronation he ordered a survey of the building.

This document has survived and from it we learn much about the building at that time, including the existence of four drawbridges.

In 1343 Edward III held a tournament at Windsor - a splendid affair attended by many royal personages and the nobility, with much feasting. An eye-witness account states that there was '.... an indescribable host of people about to delight in so great a solemnity'. We read that there was a plentiful supply of food and drink and '.... among the lords and ladies, dances were not lacking, embraces and kissings alternately commingling'. A good time, evidently, was had by all and the event foreshadowed equally brilliant capers held here by George III and George IV. During these jollifications Edward III had the idea of a renewed Arthurian brotherhood of the Round Table and actually began to build a 'round table' within the Castle - a circular roofed building. It was never completed and no-one is sure where it stood. The King changed his mind and instead of a Round Table Brotherhood, founded the Order of the Garter in 1348. Of this noble Order and its concept so closely associated with Windsor since its inception large volumes could be written, and indeed have been written, but it is not within the scope of this short booklet to enlarge on it.

In 1356 the important post of Surveyor of the King's Works was taken over by William of Wykeham (1324-1404). He was also Surveyor to other royal castles but his work at Windsor was by far the most important and much of it remains to this day. A contemporary chronicler writing about the year 1359 says: 'Our Lord the King at the instance of William Wikham, clerk, caused many excellent buildings in the Castle of Windsor to be thrown down and others more fair and sumptuous to be set up'. Among these new buildings were the Royal Lodgings in the Upper Ward. As William of Wykeham, who was born a peasant, went on to become Bishop of Winchester, Chancellor of England and founder of New College Oxford, his work at Windsor is often forgotten but he kept careful accounts which have survived and we know many details even down to the quantity of nails and tiles and how much they cost.

A substantial relic of Edward III's improvements is the misnamed Norman Gate between the Middle and Upper Wards.

During the reign of Edward's grandson, Richard II, the main point of interest was the repair of 'our collegiate Chapel of St George' which was 'on the point of falling to the ground'. This was not the present Chapel, of course, but Henry III's earlier building re-dedicated to St George, and the man chosen to supervise the repairs was none other than Geoffrey Chaucer 'Clerk of the King's Work'.

We must skip a few generations during which there was constant, if undramatic alteration and repair as the great building slowly evolved. Henry VI was born in the Castle and during his reign the first known sketch was made of it - a remarkable and accurate drawing of about 1450 now belonging to Eton College. It shows the great extent of the building and in the foreground Henry and his wife are shown in Eton's Chapel which the King had founded. He was also responsible for the building of King's College, Cambridge, though he did not do much to Windsor Castle itself.

The Wars of the Roses prevented much in the way of alteration or improvement but during this time one of the most important events in the history of Windsor took place. Edward IV, the Yorkist, succeeded the Lancastrian Henry VI in 1471 and decided to rebuild the Chapel. The result is the building substantially as we see it today. On his death Edward was buried in his new though uncompleted Chapel at his own command.

St George's was completed by Henry VII and his son Henry VIII. The latter left a dramatic and important feature of the Castle which is still named after him - the great Henry VIII Gateway which is the principal entrance. Henry caused many improvements to be carried out which added to the comfort of the place. He died in Whitehall Palace but was buried in St George's.

Queen Elizabeth I had been on the Throne for some twelve years before she spent any appreciable amount of money on Windsor - her parsimony was well known! Dame Edith Sitwell tells us that her bedroom in the Castle was the room in which King Henry VI had been born and that her bedspread was a tapestry representing the legendary origin of the French fleur-de-lis: an angel presenting Clovis, King of the Franks, with a lily. This tapestry was a prize of war captured by Henry V during his campaign in France.

The Queen, in the end, was responsible for a new chapel, a new gallery (now part of the Royal Library) and for the creation of the North Terrace.

Under the early Stuarts, little building was carried out. On the succession of Charles I a huge schedule of dilapidations and corruption of officialdom was drawn up, but the martyr king had many more pressing problems than to interest himself in the modernisation of Windsor Castle and it was left to his eldest son to take care of that. For Charles I Windsor was to become a melancholy place. During the Civil War it was taken by Parliament and became an important Cromwellian stronghold. Just before his trial the King was taken as a prisoner to the Castle. During his journey there he was received with the warm acclamations of the people so that it looked like a state progression rather than the sad journey of a doomed prisoner. At Farnham women even brought their scrofulous children to be 'touched' by the King.

On arrival at Windsor his former Master of the Horse and friend, the Duke of Hamilton, a pitiable shadow of his former self, knelt in the mud to greet him. The King was given his own room in which a roaring fire had been kindled but it could do nothing to warm the cold hopelessness in his heart. He attended services in St George's and was generally well treated until Friday 18th January 1649 when he was taken from the Castle on his last journey to London for his trial and judicial murder.

The 'fair and fatal King' returned to Windsor in his coffin and during a heavy fall of snow was secretly buried in Henry VIII's vault, his whereabouts remaining secret until, by chance, in the early 19th century workmen discovered the coffin which was opened by George IV's doctor who described how he recognised the face which Van Dyck had painted, incorrupt for a few seconds before it fell to dust.

The Castle remained a military garrison under Cromwell, but little of note was carried out. It was only with the Restoration that another new era dawned in the architectural evolution of this great building.

In 1659 the antiquarian, Elias Ashmole, visited Windsor in preparation of his great work on the Order of the Garter. He was accompanied by the Bohemian artist Wenceslaus Hollar. Between them they left us an important account of the building at that time both in words and pictures. Soon afterwards the newly restored King - Charles II - started an ambitious scheme of modernisation and redecoration of the old State apartments which had not been substantially altered since the days of Edward III. The new apartments were richly refurbished in the latest baroque fashion. Three of these rooms survive much as the King's architect, Hugh May, designed them and they will be described later. W H St John Hope notes that in the detailed accounts for all the work done there is mention of the sum of £10 for 'a marble cistern for the Bathing Roome' and 14 guineas for 'Birdsmeate for the King's Cornish Chaffs' - a reminder of Charles II's love of pets.

During the next three reigns little was done of any note. James II's reign was too short and William III preferred Hampton Court and Kensington Palace. Queen Anne, however, did employ Henry Wise to redesign the gardens. It is worth mentioning that Sir Christopher Wren designed a mausoleum for Charles I which was never built, possibly because the King's body could not be found.

George I, George II and Frederick Prince of Wales did not visit Windsor often but George III loved the palace and filled its huge rooms and draughty corridors with noisy royal siblings. He caused a considerable amount of work to be done on the fabric employing the architect James Wyatt and gave great parties which echoed those given by his predecessor King Edward III so long before. At Windsor King George was always unguarded and moved freely amongst the local people and his employees. Many stories of his idiosyncratic generosities have survived.

As with Charles I, Windsor was to become a kind of prison for George III, but of a different sort. During his madness the old King was confined to the Castle - a poor sightless creature roaming the corridors in a purple dressing gown with unkempt white hair and beard like demented King Lear.

King George IV, to whom with his architect Jeffry Wyatville (nephew of James Wyatt) we owe the present splendid state and appearance of the Castle, deserves a section to himself.

The contributions of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert mainly concern Frogmore.

It is now time to consider those State Apartments which the public are permitted to see.

What colour are you?

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