Windsor Castle is the oldest and largest occupied castle in the world. It was originally built by William the Conqueror over 1,000 years ago. It is the official residence of Her Majesty the Queen, Elizabeth II. Not only a residence, it is still used for state visits and receptions. It is also home to St. George’s Chapel, home of a number of royal tombs and memorials including Henry VIII.
Windsor Castle is due west of London about 25 miles. It is an easy train ride, bus or car ride from central London. It lies between Oxford and London. Oxford is approximately 45 miles, northwest of Windsor.
I arrived frantically at the castle after being abused by my SatNav (GPS) system. I enjoyed the Roman Baths in Bath in the morning and planned to make the 100 mile trip to Windsor in the same day. I was almost in Southampton on the southern coast before I realized my SatNav must be taking me to a pub in Southampton called Windsor Castle. I reset my SatNav and hoped I could still make it before closing.
Windsor is a beautiful little village, but as always my heart missed a beat when I first saw the castle walls. The castle is much bigger than I imagined and larger than any castle I had seen. It was raining and cold. With less than 20 minutes until the entrance closed I knew I had to rush. I found the first parking lot I could find and dashed for the front entrance. Of course I parked below the Lower Ward and the entrance was up, near the Middle Ward. With camera bag bouncing around my neck, I ran past the large stone walls of the castle in my shorts and t-shirt, soaked from head to toe.
Out of breath, I made it to the entrance with 10 minutes to spare! I bought my ticket, tourist guide and took off. I had plenty of time once inside the castle to see the sights. I was disappointed to learn that St. George’s Chapel, where King Henry VIII was buried, was closed due to time restrictions.
The castle wasn’t like any castle that I had previously visited. Besides being enormous, the architecture was breath-taking. After getting through the entrance the first section you come upon is the Middle Ward. In the center of the ward is the oldest part of the castle, the Round Tower that crowns the motte, or hill, first built by William the Conqueror. The round tower is a century’s old stone tower that overlooks multiple gardens and the motte. Below the Middle Ward is the Lower Ward where St. Geogre’s Chapel is located and Henry VIII’s gate. Through the Norman gate on the far side of the motte is the entrance to the Upper Ward where the State Apartments and Residence Apartments are located.
I took the wrong turn and went through the Norman gate. The guards were changing and I was able to get some pictures of a group of militia coming off the quadrangle, a grass location between the State Apartments and the Residence Apartments, used in the past as a parade ground. Mistakenly I walked into the exit of the State Apartments and was not so gently told I was going the wrong way.
I walked through the Norman gate again and took a right through the west gate to reach the terrace. The view around the castle was beautiful. Once used for hunting, Henry VIII built the terrace to watch the hunt from the castle walls. I correctly entered the castle and found myself in the State Apartments. This is the location where official royal business and dignitaries are entertained. The only thing in England I have seen that rivals it is Chatsworth. The décor was rich in fabric, color, stone, light and architecture. In opulence, it exceeded even Chatsworth. Room after room boasted enormous historical paintings, bronze monuments, marble statues, painted ceilings, hand crafted ceramics, colorful textiles, centuries old furniture, precious metals, hand-made sculptures from famous artists, ancient books and more. There are guides who will answer questions in each room. Visitors can walk from room to room at their own pace.
The resident apartments were not open during my visit so I exited the State Apartments and headed to the Lower Ward where St. George’s Chapel is located. The Upper Ward sits on the highest point of the castle so it is a downhill walk to the Lower Ward. The walk allows the visitor to see the magnitude of the castle. I was able to stop and watch the “showing of the guard”. Having to stand long periods of time outside a small guard-house, it appears as some sort of formal exercise routine which allows the guard to walk back and forth in front of his guard-house several times.
I exited Windsor Castle impressed, but disappointed I didn’t get to see St. George’s Chapel. I was standing outside Henry VIII’s gate when I saw people walking in and heading to the chapel. I asked the guard if the service was open to anyone and he indicated it was. I walked back through the gate, across the Lower Ward and entered St. George’s Chapel. With a small group of people I was escorted to the Chapel choir. We walked past the Nave where I surmised Charles I, Henry VIII, Jane Seymour, Henry V and Queen Mary were buried.
Like most cathedrals and churches, the intricate dark woodwork in the choir is stunning. To my right was the Nave, to my left the chapel, with the choir right in-between the two areas. I have been fortunate indeed to attend services in some of the great Cathedrals in England including Canterbury, Durham and St. Albans. This was no different. The boys’ choir, accompanied by several male adult singers, was heavenly. Towards the end of the service I looked down below my seat on the floor and saw the vault where Henry VIII was buried.
Henry was buried next to Jane Seymour his favorite wife. Just over a century later, they were joined by Charles I, who had been deposited in the same vault after his execution at the hands of Oliver Cromwell. Neither Henry VIII or Charles I were given a memorial slab until the 19th century! Henry’s dreams of being buried in a colossal monument tomb were never realized. The monument he believed he was to be buried in was originally made for Cardinal Wolsey. Once an important advisor to Henry VIII, he was unable to convince the pope to allow Henry to divorce. He fell from the good graces of Henry who then took over Wolsey’s main residence, Hampton Court, which became a residence of Henry’s. The black granite tomb is now the final resting place for Britain’s most famous military figure, Duke of Wellington, who defeated Napoleon at Waterloo. The Duke’s tomb and granite resting place can be found in the Crypt at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. It seems that even his Protestant descendants may have been embarrassed by Henry VIII, their tyrannical ancestor.
After the service I was tired and looking forward to the ride home. Seeing the Roman Baths and Windsor Castle in the same day made for a great trip. I arrived at the parking lot to find a large note on my windshield telling me not to try and move my car. I remembered in my hurry I forgot to pay for parking before I left. My right front wheel had been clamped. I called the number to pay the fine and was told it was £120, or $180. In my haste to get to the castle, I forgot to pay a £5 fee which resulted in a £120 fine. I knew I had been taken by a shark. I could see the workers walking to other cars seeing if the people who did pay were a minute over their limit. If so, their car was clamped. No matter what country you are in there are always people willing to take advantage of you. I paid the fine and did my best to not let it ruin my day.
The Background and History
First built by William the Conqueror in the eleventh century, Windsor Castle has been the home of 39 monarchs. It is the oldest royal residence to be in continuous use on the British Isles. It remains one of Queen Elizabeth’s official residences. She resides there at Easter and when the annual Garter Service (highest order of Knights) is held in June at St. George’s Chapel. The castle is used as an alternative for Buckingham Palace for ceremonial visits from foreign heads of state. Royal weddings, baptisms and birthday celebrations have been held at Windsor Castle for centuries.
The castle is divided into three main areas known as wards: 1) the Lower Ward which is the most public, 2) the Middle Ward which is recognized by the Norman motte (mound or hill) on which the Round Tower sits and 3) the Upper Ward which is reached by the Norman Gate. The Upper Ward contains the state apartments and the royal apartments. The apartments are arranged around a large open area called the Quadrangle which is sometimes used as a parade ground.
Windsor Castle occupies 26 acres of land. It is an enormous castle. In the Upper Ward alone there are 925 rooms of which 225 are bedrooms. State banquets are held in St. George’s Hall which can accommodate up to 160 people! The state apartments have been open for public viewing since the 1840’s and, during winter months, some semi-private apartments are occasionally open for public viewing.
Admission fees to the cancel go to maintain the Royal Collection which includes royal palaces, royal residences and the royal art collection. The revenue generated by Windsor Castle goes into the Royal Collection Trust, a charity that exists to preserve the collection and make it as accessible as possible. A portion of the money collected at Windsor Castle each year goes to maintain the castle and to run the College of St. George.
More than 160 people actually live within the castle including the Constable and Governor, the Dean of Windsor, the Canons of the College of St. George and the military knights. There are 200 people who work at the castle. During the time when Windsor Castle becomes the official residence of the Queen, the number swells. People who work at the castle include a clockmaker, porter, housekeeper, maintenance staff, grooms and coachmen, furniture restorers, choristers, priests, police and military personnel, a flagman, a warden and other Windsor staff who serve the public, librarians, curators, bookbinders, conservators and archivists.
As it appears today, the castle is a result of almost 1,000 years of development but four monarchs have had the most influence:
1. William the Conqueror originally founded the castle
2. Edward III who rebuilt it in a magnificent Gothic style and built the royal apartments
3. Charles II who transformed the Upper Ward into a Baroque Palace
4. George IV who restored the exterior to conform to the romantic ideals of the castle architecture
Four years after defeating King Harold in the Battle of Hastings, William the Conqueror began building Windsor Castle. It took 16 years to build it. The castle was originally built as one of a chain of fortifications around London. It is built upon and occupies the only natural defense in this part of the Thames River Valley. The original castle architecture of the Norman was calaled “Bailey and Motte”. The motte was a mound or hill on which a Keep, or tower, was built and surrounded by a fenced area called the Bailey. The only castle that remains of the original fortifications around London built by William the Conqueror, Windsor contained two baileys; the Upper and Lower Wards.
When first built, the Castle was walled in timber. Henry II began to replace the outer fortifications in stone in the late twelfth century. The outer walls had a number of square towers. His grandson Henry III added D-shaped towers which are still in use.
Edward III was known as the Warrior King for his lengthy wars in France during the 100 Years War. He spent a significant sum of money turning Windsor Castle from a fortress to a Gothic palace. The architecture reflects Edward III’s ideal of a Christian, chivalric monarchy.
Work first began in the Lower Ward including new buildings for the College of St. George founded in 1348. The chapel was built 100 years earlier by Henry III and originally dedicated to Edward the Confessor. It was Edward III who first associated the Castle and the College with St. George, the patron saint of the new Order of the Garter.
Reconstruction of the Upper Ward began in 1537 under the direction of William of Wykeham, Bishop of Winchester. His new buildings for Edward III took the architecture of the Castle to a new level, beyond what was necessary for purely defensive purposes.
Tournaments were one aspect of the regular gatherings of Edward III’s court at Windsor. Wardrobe accounts testify to the creation of the most elaborate costumes and crests, including one worn by the King in 1339 containing 3,000 peacock feathers. The helms and banners of today’s Knights of the Garter descend from these origins.
At the time Henry VIII died in 1547, he owned 6 houses and palaces. Travelling between residences with his household, they were made ready in advance of his arrival, but stood empty the rest of the year. In 1522, Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor, was received at Windsor Castle in order to conclude the alliance against France.
Henry VIII built the gate that bears his name at the bottom of the Lower Ward, through which visitors leave the grounds. He also built the north terrace along the north side of the external walls of the Upper Ward. The terrace was built to allow the King to watch the hunt in the park below. Henry VIII was buried in St. George’s Chapel, alongside his third and favorite wife, Jane Seymour who died shortly after the birth of the future King Edward VI.
The Civil War
In 1642, conflict broke out between the monarchy and Parliament. Many of the palaces were under the control of the Parliament which often resulted in their destruction or sale. The Parliamentarian forces were told to take “special care” of Windsor Castle. Despite these instructions, the treasury of St. George’s Chapel was ransacked and some of its monuments desecrated. It was later used by Oliver Cromwell as his headquarters. It also served as a prison for captured Royalist officers. Charles I returned to Windsor but as a prisoner. After his execution, his body was buried in the Chapel of St. George in the vault occupied by Henry VIII.
When Charles II was reinstated as the monarch in 1660, the clergy returned to St. George’s and the houses in the Lower Ward were rid of squatters. He wanted to reinstate Windsor Castle as his principle non-metropolitan palace. He saw it as an important part of re-establishing the monarchy. Charles hired Hugh May, who had been exiled to Holland, to supervise the modernization of the castle. The transformation of Windsor was influenced by his cousin Louis XIV, as he was on an unprecedented building and artistic campaign at Versailles and the Louvre.
Future monarchs chose other royal palaces over Windsor as their main residence or places for royal activities. William III chose to expand Hampton Court Palace and Kensington Palace. However, under George III Windsor once again became the center of court life.
The castle and the empire enjoyed a golden age under Queen Victoria. It was used as a rural retreat, a place to entertain and a location that provided a setting for some of Prince Albert’s interests, including hunting. The Queen spent a large portion of her time here raising her family. Dignitaries and visitors from all over the world visited the castle including Buffalo Bill, King Louis-Philippe of France, Tsar Nicholas I of Russia as well as Emperor Napoleon III, the heir of the British greatest French rival, Napoleon Bonaparte.
Queen Victoria first opened the State Apartments to the public in 1840. An average of 60,000 people a year passed through the rooms each year. In 1842, the railway was built between London and Windsor. The Queen herself began to use the train for her journeys to and from the capital.
At the height of German bombardments in 1940, while the King and Queen resolutely remained at Buckingham Palace, the princesses, Elizabeth and Margaret, lived at Windsor where their parents joined them each weekend. The wartime bombing raids left Windsor remarkably unscathed. Fifty years later a far greater catastrophe occurred. A fire broke out in the Queen’s chapel from a spotlight. 200 firefighters fought for nearly 15 hours before gaining control but extensive damage was done to the northeast section of the castle. Restoration began immediately to protect the castle from the elements. Large sections of the area that were damaged most by the fire had been emptied of their contents due to electrical rewiring that was in process saving important relics, paintings and monuments from the Royal Collection.
Category Rating: Must See
Overall Rating: #1
Comments: Windsor Castle is a beautiful castle and palace. It has more history and more historical artifacts than any other historical site I visited in the London area with the exception of the Tower of London and Westminster Abbey. It is a Must See!