2009 Castles of England Windsor Castle

Windsor Castle


Windsor Castle in Windsor, Berkshire dates back to the time of William the Conqueror and is the largest inhabited castle in the world. It is one of the principal official residences of the British monarch and Queen Elizabeth II uses it for both state and private entertaining. Over the last 900 years the Kings and Queens who have made the castle their base have influenced its construction and the way it has been shaped into the building it is today. William the Conqueror built the first wooden castle between 1070 to 1086AD and it is on this spot where the present day castle is centred. This wooden castle was subsequently rebuilt in stone, growing in importance over the years with Henry II constructing the Round Tower and the original stone outer wall. The Round Tower divides the castle into two sections which are known as wards. The Lower Ward houses St. George’s Chapel and the Upper Ward contains the private Royal Appartments and formal state rooms, including St George’s Hall. Surrounding the castle is an area known as Home Park which is made up of parkland, two working farms and also several estate cottages. Frogmore estate, Frogmore House and Gardens lie in the estate and are open to the public on certain days of the year.

On 13th November 1312 King Edward III was born in the castle and in 1350 he began a rebuilding programme whereby he demolished most of the existing castle with the exception of the Curfew Tower. William Wykeham was put in charge of rebuilding and designing the new castle. The Round Tower which Henry II had built was replaced by the present keep with fortifications also being strengthened. The Norman Gate, a large gate at the foot of the Round Tower was also constructed at this time. The Order of the Garter, whose ceremony still takes place in St George’s Chapel every year, was established by King Edward III in 1348 and five years later the Aerary Porch was built. During the reign of Richard II in 1390 St George’s chapel was found to be on the verge of collapse so restoration work was undertaken by the Clerk of The King’s Works, Geoffrey Chaucer but fifty years after this was done the chapel was once more in ruins. King Edward VI  (1461-1483) then began the construction of St. George’s Chapel as it stands today. Henry VII, had some of the original St. George’s chapel demolished to make way for the Lady Chapel which he subsequently abandoned. With the end of the Wars of the Roses and a more stable political climate the need for strong fortification was less pronounced and as a result the castle and its future development were based more on the considerations of style and comfort.

After the outbreak of Bubonic plague in London, Elizabeth I and her court left for Windsor Castle in 1563 where she had a gallows erected and ordered anybody who came from London to be executed. Elizabeth I was followed by James I who was then followed by his son Charles I. During the English Civil War when Charles was deposed the castle then became the headquarters of Oliver Cromwell’s New Model Army. Cromwell’s Parliamentarians took control of Windsor Castle under the control of Colonel John Venn. Prince Rupert of the Rhine attempted to take back the town and castle a few days later but although he battered the town, the castle remained in the hands of Venn who was its Governor until 1645. The castle suffered badly under the Parliamentarians with its treaures being looted by an underpaid garrison. It remained a military headquarters and a prison for more important Royalists with Charles I being imprisoned there before he was executed in 1649. After this Britain was ruled by Cromwell until the Monarchy was restored in 1660. Charles’ body was taken back to Windsor in the middle of the night and burried in the vault in St. George’s Chapel, next to the coffins of Henry VIII and his wife Jane Seymour.

Following the restoration of the monarchy in 1660 there was then a period of great change at Windsor Castle. Charles II, inspired by the construction of Versailles in France, restored and refurnished the castle after the damage inflicted upon it during the civil war. He laid out the avenue known as the Long Walk which runs south from the castle measuring 5 km (3 miles) long and 75 metres (240 ft) wide and now has chestnut trees and planes planted on either side. Charles also commissioned the architect Hugh May to rebuild the Royal Appartments and St George’s Hall. These new appartments replaced the original Plantagenet buildings with the cube-like Star Building and their interiors were decorated with ceilings by Antonio Verrio and carving by Grinling Gibbons. Tapestries and paintings were also added to the furnishins of these rooms and form the core of what is known as the Royal Collection. Three out of an original twenty similarly decorated rooms survive unchanged, namely the Queens’s Presence Chamber and the Queen’s Audience Chamber, both designed for Charles II’s wife Catherine of Braganza and the King’s Dining Room.


After Charles II’s death in 1685 and with certain monarchs preferring to live in other palaces the castle fell slowly into neglect. William and Mary (1689-1702) enlarged and transformed Hampton Court Palace into a huge modern palace and later on Queen Anne lived in a small house close to the walls of the castle. When King George III and his 13 children required somewhere to stay the only royal residence large enough was Windsor castle and only then was the castle fully inhabited again. The work which Charles II had carried out was in line with the contemporary, more classical style of architecure popular at the time and which George thought was not suitable for an ancient castle. He consequently had many of Charles II’s windows redesigned and given a pointed Gothic arch which went some way to restoring the castle’s original medieval appearance. It was during this period when in 1811 the castle was once more a place of royal confinement with King George III, then permanently deranged, being kept there for his own safety.

During the reign of King George IV between 1820 and 1830 the castle underwent a massive change when the King managed to persuade Parliament to allow him £300,000 for restoration. The architect Jeffry Wyatville was chosen and work began in 1824 and included a complete remodelling of the Upper Ward, private appartments, Round Tower and the exterior facade of the South Wing. Wyatville viewed the castle as one composition and was particularly keen on imposing symmetry which he carried out by raising the heights of certain towers to match others, refacing the Upper Ward in a Gothic style  to match the other medieval buildings which included St. George’s Chapel. The Round Tower having always been a short building was then taken to greater heights by Wyatville who built a hollow stone crown on top of it which increased its height by 33 feet (10m) and gave the castle the seemingly medieval appearance it has up to this day. The inside of the castle was similarly redecorated in the Gothic style to match the exterior with St. George’s Hall being doubled in length. At the time of King George IV’s death most of the work remained unfinished but it was virtually completed by the time Wyatville died in 1840.

Queen Victoria and Prince Albert made Windsor Castle their principal royal residence but most of the changes they made were to the surrounding parklands  rather than to the buildings. The “Windsor Castle and Town Approaches Act”, passed by Parliament in 1848, allowed the Royal Family to enclose a large
area of parkland which formed the private “Home Park” and had no public roads passing through it. After Prince Albert’s death in 1861, Queen Victoria retreated to the castle for privacy, seldom visiting Buckingham Palace again, and Windsor then became her principal home. The prince’s rooms were kept exactly as they had been at the time of his death but further resoration was nevertheless allowed to happen with Anthony Salvin creating the Grand Staircase in the State Appartments in 1866. This great stone staircase in Gothic style leads up to a double height hall, decorated by arms and armour including the suit of armour worn by King Henry VIII made in 1540. Salvin also added the conical roof to the Curfew Tower at this time.

After the accession of King Edward VII in 1901 the castle often remained empty for long periods as the new King, like previous monarchs, preferred his other homes elsewhere. He would visit for Ascot week and at Easter and he laid out the castle’s golf course. George V (1910-1936) also preferred to live elsewhere
but his wife Queen Mary, as a great connoisseur of the arts, furnished the state rooms with new works of art and also changed the way the castle was used giving rise to new more comfortable bedrooms and modern bathrooms. During the First World War the Royal Family felt the need to change their dynastic name from
the German “House of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha” and so took their new name from the castle and became the “House of Windsor”. George VI came to the throne in 1936 after the abdication of his brother Edward VIII. Edward had broadcast his abdication speech to the British Empire from the castle but during his reign he had preferred to live at his home Fort Belvedere in Windsor Great Park. George VI and his wife Queen Elizabeth I preferred their original Windsor home, Royal Lodge. With the outbreak of World War II in 1939 the castle took on its role of royal fortress again and the King and Queen (with their two children, Princess Elizabeth and Princess Margaret) lived in the castle for their own safety. The King and Queen drove to London daily and would come back to Windsor to sleep, although for the purposes of propaganda and morale it was stated that the king was still living full-time at Buckingham Palace.

In 1952 when Queen Elizabeth II came to the throne she decided to make Windsor her main weekend retreat. The private appartments were renovated and modernised after which the Queen, Prince Philip and their children took up residence. On 20th November 1992 there was a fire which began in the Queen’s private chapel and then quickly spread. It raged for 15 hours and nine of the principal state rooms were destroyed with over 100 more severely damaged. The restoration work took five years to complete with 70% of it funded by the opening to the public for the first time of the state rooms of Buckingham Palace. More recently the Queen has used the castle as a royal palace as well as her weekend home and it is now used as often for state banquets and official entertaining as Buckingham Palace. Under the Queen’s tenure of the castle much has been done to restore and maintain the fabric of the building as well as turn it into one of Britain’s major tourist attractions.

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