Castle of the Week 10 – Windsor

Windsor Castle in Berkshire, England, has been an official residence of the Royal Family for the last 900 years and is the only royal castle that has been in continuous occupation since the middle ages. It is the largest inhabited castle in the world covering nearly 13 acres. Various sovereigns have added to it over the years and its curtain wall with towers and gates extends over half a mile in a rough figure-of eight pattern. In 1917 George V declared that his family and descendants would take the surname Windsor as he was so fond of it.

In 1070, William the Conqueror started to build the castle. The site was chosen with great care; on a chalk outcrop rising about 100 feet above the river Thames on the edge of Saxon hunting grounds. It was a day’s march from the Tower of London and one of a ring of nine castles that he built around London, Windsor guarding the western approaches to the capital. It was a motte with two baileys, one on each side, and an aerial view still shows this under the more recent stonework. It was almost certainly built of wood and earth. This is the castle which is in the game – the information here covers its whole history.

Henry I began to convert the castle to stone by erecting a stone shell round the top of the mound. Henry II liked Windsor and treated it as his home, planting a herb garden and possibly a vineyard. However he also extended and strengthened it to improve its defences. He built a large oval great tower inside the shell wall with walls about 5 foot thick and about 35 feet high. Inside the tower wooden buildings leant up against the walls leaving a square courtyard in the middle and some of this original timberwork can still be seen today. He began the basic curtain wall and also built two separate blocks of royal apartments, one in the lower ward to entertain his court and the other in the upper ward for his family’s private use.

King John took over the castle in 1194 when he was rebelling against his brother, Richard I, absent while fighting the Crusades. Nobles loyal to the king besieged the castle but failed to take it. It was also besieged in 1216 when John was fighting the barons. The castle withstood the siege but it was extensively damaged.

The castle was revamped by Edward the III in the 14th century, spending more than £50,000. He transformied the lower ward into the new college of St George and began work on the new gothic palace in the upper ward. By this time the castle was a palace rather than a military structure. Little more was altered during the medieval period and, despite later alterations, this is basically the castle that can be seen today.

St. George’s Chapel was started by Edward IV in 1475 and completed by Henry VII in 1528 when the beautiful fan vaulted ceiling was finished. It is one of the finest examples of late medieval architecture and is more than 230 feet long. On the outside there are hundreds of gargoyles, pinnacles and buttresses, and on the inside two tiers of huge windows. Many royal weddings have taken place here and it is the burial place of 10 monarchs including Henry VIII, Charles I, Victoria and George VI. It is also the home of the Order of the Garter, England’s highest Order of Chivalry.

Henry VII and his grand-daughter, Elizabeth I remodelled the state apartments, Henry VIII built the entrance gate to the lower ward which still bears his name and Mary I built the lodgings at the south of the lower ward.

The castle was taken by Parliament during the English Civil War in the mid 17th Century and was used as a prison. The restoration of Charles II in 1660 brought Windsor Castle back as a Royal Palace. In 1673 the interior of the castle was refitted with rich Baroque trimmings while leaving the castellated exterior virtually unchanged. He employed Grinling Gibbons to make many wood carvings and Antonio Verrio for ceiling paintings.

The early Hanoverian kings preferred Hampton Court Palace to Windsor. George III came back to Windsor and opened the upper ward State Apartments to the public for the first time. During George IV’s reign, the castle’s outline was enhanced by raising the Round Tower to 65 feet, constructing additional towers and battlements and building the King George IV Gateway at a cost of a million pounds.

When Queen Victoria came to the throne, Windsor Castle once again became the principal palace. Heads of State from throughout Europe, many of whom were the Queen’s relations, often visited Windsor and the State Rooms were again used for their original purpose. Her beloved Prince Albert died there in 1861.

Sadly, the castle has more recently been in the news for the fire on 20 November 1992. It began in the Private Chapel after a spotlight had been in contact with a curtain for a long period and it ignited the material. It quickly spread through the wooden ceiling panels and raged out of control for hours. It took 15 hours and a million and a half gallons of water to put out the blaze. Nine principal rooms and over 100 other rooms over an area of 9,000 square metres were damaged or destroyed by the fire, approximately one-fifth of the castle area. The next five years were spent restoring the castle to its former glory using the finest craftsmen, resulting in the greatest historic building project to have been undertaken in England in the 20th century.

It was decided that the damaged rooms would be completely restored while the destroyed rooms would be rebuilt to new designs. After five years’ intensive work the restoration of Windsor Castle was completed six months ahead of schedule on 20 November 1997 at a cost of £37 million (US $59.2 million), £3 million below budget. To mark the completion The Queen and The Duke of Edinburgh held a ‘thank you’ reception in the restored rooms on 14 November 1997 for 1,500 contractors and on 20 November they celebrated their Golden Wedding Anniversary with a ball.

Today, Windsor Castle can still be visited with many highlights including the State Apartments and Queen Mary’s Dolls’ House.

The State Apartments are extensive suites of rooms at the heart of the palace, furnished with treasures from the Royal Collection including paintings by Holbein, Rubens, Van Dyck and Lawrence, fine tapestries and porcelain, sculpture and armour. St.George’s Hall is the room in which the Queen holds State Banquets and receptions. There are small intimate rooms such as Charles II’s Apartments & the vast Waterloo Chamber which was built to commemorate the 1815 victory.

Queen Mary’s Dolls’ House is a palace in miniature, possibly the most famous dolls’ house in the world. Designed by the architect Sir Edwin Lutyens in 1921 for Queen Mary, the wife of George V, and built to a scale of 1:12 by master craftsmen, everything in the house is a perfect copy of its full-size equivalent including the working lights illuminating the finely decorated state rooms, the servants’ quarters and the garages, running water, a working lift and miniature books in the library written by authors of the day; not to mention the genuine vintage wine in miniature bottles in the wine cellar. Most of the miniature contents were made by the manufacturers of the full sized article. It took 3 years to complete.

Written by GillB. Photos courtesy of Castles of the World
Note: This excludes the picture of the fire for which we could not find a provenance.