Having recently done a post about Alnwick – the Windsor of the North I thought it might be a good time to do a post about Windsor itself.
The town, as you would expect, is dominated by its famous castle, and although it’s the main reason visitors come here, I want to add a bit more information about the town, and perhaps throw in a few snippets of useless information as well.
The first bit of information about the town – and also the first bit of useless information – is the fact that it is part of the Royal Borough of Windsor and Maidenhead. Even though it’s located just 23 miles or so from Charing Cross, Windsor is not in Greater London, but in the County of Berkshire.
The ‘Royal’ prefix is added to towns and boroughs that have, for various reasons, been granted royal status by one of the country’s monarchs, and there are a total of eight places in the UK that have this distinction – four towns and four boroughs. The towns are Leamington Spa, Tunbridge Wells and Wootton Bassett in England, and Caernarfon in Wales. Of the boroughs, three are in London – Kensington and Chelsea, Greenwich and Kingston-upon-Thames. The fourth is Windsor and Maidenhead.
I’m afraid my expertise in useless knowledge doesn’t extend as far as knowing why somewhere like Kingston is Upon Thames, and Windsor isn’t, but I can assure you that Windsor does lie alongside the River Thames.
If you arrive in Windsor by train, then it’s worth knowing that there are two railway stations, and if you’re travelling from London, then South Western Railway operates a direct service from Waterloo to Windsor and Eton Riverside, and the Great Western Railway runs trains from Paddington to Slough, where you need to change for the shuttle service to Windsor and Eton Central.
Those of you who aren’t familiar with the locality may be wondering why the stations are called Windsor and Eton and not Windsor and Maidenhead, and the answer is quite simple: Maidenhead is about 9 miles away and has its own railway station, while Eton is on the opposite bank of the river and easily reached by the pedestrian Windsor Bridge. Eton is well-known for its famous college, and the 2-mile circular Eton Walkway Trail is worth considering if you have enough time.
I’ve only ever arrived at Windsor and Eton Central which is virtually across the road from the castle, and right in the centre of town. It also serves as a shopping centre called Windsor Royal Shopping, which was obviously conceived to encourage tourists to open their wallets and purses before leaving. To be fair though, it does make for a welcome arrival and departure point, which can’t be said for all railway stations.
Before you ask, I would suggest that you visit the castle first before doing anything else, as without doubt, it has to be your main priority. That said, if you have time, it’s worth popping into the 17th century Guildhall which also doubles up as a wedding venue. It’s where Prince Charles married Camilla Parker Bowles in April 2005 and where Elton John married David Furnish in December 2014, making it one of the first same sex marriages in England.
If you prefer to know the origins and history of Windsor rather than who married who, then you might be interested to learn that the Guildhall is also home to the Windsor and Royal Borough Museum. You might also be interested to learn that what we think of as Windsor today was originally an Anglo-Saxon settlement situated 3 miles downstream from Windsor Bridge.
Excavations have revealed that the site (called Windelsora) was inhabited as far back as the 7th century. Royal connections existed from at least the 9th century and there is documentary evidence to show that Edward the Confessor had a palace here prior to the Norman Conquest.
The arrival of William the Conqueror instigated a chain of fortifications around London, and at Windsor he chose a naturally defensive site above the river to build his Motte and Bailey Castle. In the 12th century, to differentiate the two settlements, the town that grew up around William’s castle became known as New Windsor and Windelsora became Old Windsor.
New Windsor has had its fair share of ups and downs over the centuries, from being one of the country’s wealthiest towns one minute to poverty stricken the next. Although Queen Victoria’s decision to use the castle as a residence prompted an upsurge of interest in the town, it also had the unfortunate side-effect of wholesale redevelopment and destruction of Windsor’s medieval core. Consequently, what we see today are mostly streets that date from the mid to late 19th century.
For well over 900 years, the history of Windsor as a town has been inextricably linked with that of the castle: Ever since William I finished building it in 1086 the castle has been used as a royal residence, and a total of thirty-nine monarchs have lived here.
The Plantagenet family succeeded the Normans as rulers of England, and during the 14th century Edward III spent a vast sum of money transforming the Norman fortification into a castle fit for a king. The Wars of the Roses saw the Tudor dynasty take over, and even though Henry VIII had 60 houses and palaces at the time of his death, he chose to be buried in Windsor Castle. You won’t find a grand tomb of him here because it was never finished, and he was buried in the vaults of St. George’s Chapel alongside his third wife, Jane Seymour.
The location was only ever meant to be temporary, but it became more permanent when he was joined by the headless Stuart king, Charles I after his execution outside the Banqueting House in Whitehall. Parliament’s decision to end the king’s life – and with it the monarchy – led to Civil War, and Windsor became occupied by the Parliamentarians. With the Restoration of the Monarchy in 1660, Charles II used the castle as his main residence, and spent a lot of time and money trying to turn it into a palace that could rival Versailles.
The Gothic appearance of the castle as it looks today is largely due to the Hanoverian king, George IV. The self-indulgent monarch was vain, unreliable and extravagant, and even though the palace he left behind after his death in 1830 is a legacy to be admired, I don’t suppose the British taxpayers were sorry to see the back of him.
Queen Victoria’s presence at Windsor was a golden age for the United Kingdom and its empire, but on her death in 1901, she was to be the last of the Hanoverian dynasty to reign in Britain.
Until Elizabeth II came to the throne, the successor to a female heir would take the father’s dynastic name, and so when Edward VII succeeded his mother, he took Prince Albert’s family name of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha – but the line in Britain was short-lived. On his death in 1910, his son took over as George V, but war with Germany was looming. War finally broke out in 1914, and it brought two of Queen Victoria’s grandchildren – King George V and Kaiser Wilhelm II into direct conflict. By 1917, anti-German sentiment in Britain was so strong that the king was forced to change the German family’s name to something more acceptable – and the name of Windsor was adopted.
The current monarch, Elizabeth Alexandra Mary Windsor, has six homes, each of which is used for different occasions, and Windsor Castle is her country retreat on weekends after she’s finished the weekly duties at Buckingham Palace. Even before the pandemic, the Queen and the late Prince Philip were spending more and more time here rather than in their London home, and if I had the choice, I think I would do the same.
The castle has 951 rooms including 225 bedrooms, and that’s just for starters. More than 160 people live within the precincts and over 200 people work here including grooms and coachmen, police, soldiers, bookbinders, choristers and even a clockmaker – and there’s even more when the Queen is here to perform her official duties.
I’ve waffled on enough about some of the historical background, so I think it’s time to step over the threshold and take a look around the castle itself.
Firstly, I need to point out that, as you would expect, there are strict guidelines on what you can and can’t photograph. In a nutshell, you can photograph around the precincts, but anywhere indoors is out of bounds, which is why, I’m sorry to say, that I haven’t got any pictures to show you of the fabulous State Apartments and St. George’s Chapel.
The Castle’s layout is divided into three principal areas – the Lower, Middle, and Upper Wards – and when you’ve bought your ticket and gone through security, you’ll find yourself walking through the Jubilee Garden and into the Middle Ward.
This area is ranged around the Norman Motte (mound) and crowned by Henry II’s distinctive Round Tower, which houses the Royal Archives and photographs.
Following the recommended route makes perfect sense, and walking through the Norman Gateway will bring you into the Upper Ward.
The Upper Ward is where Her Majesty resides and where guests are entertained in the State Apartments. Needless to say, the Queen’s residence is off-limits, but the State Apartments aren’t.
This is where the extravagance of previous monarchs turned the castle from a fortress into a palace. In 1992 the world, and particularly the Queen, watched in horror as a serious blaze ripped through the apartments.
It’s believed that a spotlight ignited a curtain above the altar in Queen Victoria’s private chapel, and the fire rapidly spread. The magnificent St. George’s Hall, Grand Reception Room and State Dining Room were among many rooms that were badly damaged. It took 200 firefighters 15 hours to bring it under control, and as crazy as it might sound, it could have been worse.
Many works of art had been temporarily put into storage while some rewiring work was being carried out, and many others were evacuated before the fire reached them. In the end, thousands of valuable items were saved and the blaze was restricted to the north-eastern corner of the castle. Even so, it was still a devastating blow, and it forced the Royal Family to open up Buckingham Palace to visitors to help pay for the repairs.
It’s impossible to over-exaggerate the splendour of the State Apartments, but St. George’s Chapel is every bit as magnificent, if not more so, and even though I can’t show you what it looks like inside, I can at least give you some idea of what to expect.
In 1348, following his famous victory at the Battle of Crecy and the capture of Calais, Edward III (who was born in Windsor Castle), rewarded his companions in battle with the accolade of an order of chivalry which he called the Order of the Garter. His son, the Prince of Wales (the Black Prince) and twenty-four other knights received the honour, and is still recognised by the monarch today – not for what was achieved on the battlefield, but to those who have made a special contribution to the nation in public service. It is the highest order of knighthood in the country and is only surpassed in recognition by the Victoria Cross and George Cross. No more than twenty-four living members plus the monarch and Prince of Wales can hold the honour at any one time.
At the same time as he founded the Order of the Garter, Edward also began transforming the Lower Ward with the founding of the religious College of St. George.
The new college was attached to the existing Chapel of Edward the Confessor (which had been built by Henry III a hundred years earlier), and in honour of St. George, who he regarded as a man of great courage, Edward renamed the chapel St. George’s. The chapel then became the spiritual home of the Order of the Garter – and St. George became the patron saint of England.
The chapel as it appears today, from the outside at least, is largely the work of Edward IV; but if you’re a lover of the Perpendicular Gothic style of architecture as much as I am, you really will be in heaven when you go inside and see Henry VII’s fan vaulting.
Anyone interested in visiting royal tombs will head for Westminster Abbey, but St. George’s Chapel also has a fair few as well. Apart from Henry VIII and Charles I who I’ve already mentioned, Henry VI, Edward IV, George III, George IV, William IV and Edward VII are also buried here, and of course so are members of the House of Windsor – George V, George VI and his wife (the Queen Mother), Elizabeth II’s sister, Princess Margaret and the Queen’s husband, the Duke of Edinburgh, who was buried here on 17th April. There are at least another thirty royals also buried here.
Another thing you shouldn’t miss is King Edward III’s sword, which he supposedly used in battle. It’s a staggering 6ft 8” long (just over 2 metres) and think I would have a job to lift it, let alone use it on a battlefield.
Leaving St. George’s Chapel takes us past the ornate Albert Memorial Chapel. Originally built as a chapel for Henry III in the 13th century and substantially altered by Henry VII, the tomb in the centre is not, as you might expect, that of Queen Victoria’s consort, but of Edward VII’s eldest son. Leaving the castle is through the King Henry VIII Gate.
Both Prince Albert and Queen Victoria are actually buried in the Royal Mausoleum at Frogmore, part of the castle’s private 655-acre Home Park Estate. The mausoleum is located within the Royal Burial Ground, which was established when the Royal Vault at St. George’s Chapel started to run out of space. Edward VIII, who abdicated so that he could marry the American socialite Wallis Simpson, is buried here along with his wife, as are many other lesser-known members of the royal family.
Except for a limited number of days a year, Frogmore is normally off-limits, but Home Park is only one part of the 2,000 hectare Windsor Great Park, most of which is open to the general public.
The Great Park actually pre-dates the Norman Conquest, and for many years was used by successive monarchs for hunting deer, and there are still around 500 that roam around the deer park near to the end of the Long Walk.
The Long Walk was created by Charles II and is a 2 ½ mile long avenue of London Plane and Horse Chestnut trees that stretches from the castle into the Great Park. I’ve never had enough time or inclination to do the walk, but it’s worth finding your way down to the bottom of Pak Street to where the Long Walk starts, and where there is a good view of the Castle’s George IV Gate in the Upper Ward. Perhaps more to the point by now, is the fact that the Two Brewers pub is a smashing little place to take the weight off your feet for a while.
This was never going to be a short post, but it’s nowhere near as long as it could be. The British monarchy has always divided opinion, but it’s still here: The only time that it wasn’t was during the eleven years of Commonwealth rule in the 17th century, but even Oliver Cromwell didn’t want to see the monarchy abolished – he just wanted the king to change his ways.
Elizabeth II has now reigned for more than 69 years and is our longest serving monarch. Since she’s been on the throne, there have been 14 prime ministers from opposite ends of the political spectrum, and she has been a steady and stabilizing influence when the country has needed it most, even though she’s had her own problems to contend with.
The pictures below of the Garter Tower show that I was in Windsor when the Queen turned 90, but she’s now 95 – and even she can’t last forever. However, she’s just one monarch out of forty-one that have reigned since William I – and that’s nearly a thousand years ago. How long a king or queen will be head of state in the British constitution is anybody’s guess, but I’ve a feeling that as long as Windsor Castle survives, then so will the monarchy.