Windsor marks the start of the Royal Thames. Our Royals through the ages have preferred to live away from the city. In earlier times this was primarily to avoid the diseases and smells of the capital, although the facilities for hunting in the countryside no doubt also played a considerable part. It was the River Thames that provided their escape route from London.
Moving about in those days involved transporting a huge retinue of household staff, courtiers, musicians and assorted hangers-on and it was far easier and a lot more comfortable to transport everyone by river. Windsor was as far upstream as they ventured, and seems to have been the most popular. The pathway will take me past other Royal Palaces of Hampton Court, Richmond and Kew, but here, directly in front of me, perched defiantly on its hill and imposing its authority across all it surveys is the magnificent Windsor Castle.
Windsor Castle is one of the oldest and largest inhabited castles in the world. It has stood here for over 900 years. The edifice before me is the result of our rulers through the ages “getting the builders in” to add their own particular legacy.
William the Conqueror was the first to recognise the current site. Edward the Confessor had a castle three miles downstream at what was then known as Windsor, but William built his castle in what was then the manor of Clewer. The castle was known as Windsor Castle and appears with that name in the Domesday Book. Later the two settlements were renamed Old Windsor and New Windsor but the “New” tag fell out of use and it simply became Windsor.
The original castle was built of wood, and was the typical Norman “Motte and Bailey” style. This consisted of a hill; (either natural or artificial) called the “Motte” on which the central tower, or keep, was built. The “Bailey” was the courtyard area formed by the outer walls. The central tower was at the top of the hill, and the castle walls are more or less where we see them today.
In the 1170’s Henry II rebuilt the central tower and walls in stone, and also added what are now the Royal Apartments. Although it is known as the “Round Tower”, the central tower is definitely not cylindrical. It is not your eyes playing you up, it really is not round. It is more of a lumpy oval that can be clearly seen on any of the plans of the castle grounds.
The next major changes were instigated by Edward III. He had founded the “Knights of the Garter” in 1348 and he added the St.George's Hall for the use of the members of the Order. The Hall is decorated with the coats of arms of past and present members of the Order.
The magnificent St.George’s Chapel is one of the finest examples of medieval architecture in the world. It is more of a miniature cathedral than a chapel. Ten former kings lie buried in the chapel: Edward IV, Henry VI, Henry VIII, Charles I, George III, George IV, William IV, Edward VII, George V and George VI.
Oliver Cromwell captured Windsor Castle early on in the dispute, shortly after the Battle of Edgehill in 1642. This became a Parliamentary stronghold and headquarters for the New Model Army.
After the Restoration of the Monarchy in 1660 Charles II set out to develop the castle into a showpiece. The Palace of Versailles was being constructed at the same time and Charles was determined not to be outdone. The new State Apartments were constructed, and no expense was spared with elaborate murals, ceilings and decorative carvings. The paintings purchased for decoration developed into the present “Royal Collection” that now contains over 7,000 paintings, 40,000 watercolours and drawings, and around 150,000 prints. That is not to mention all of the furniture, ceramics and other works of art.
The next major development came with George IV in the 1820’s. The principal architect was Sir Jeffry Wyatville who refashioned the exterior appearance in Gothic style with the addition of turrets and towers.
Victoria and Albert spent much of their time at Windsor. They had a somewhat easier journey to London than their predecessors for now they had the railway to get them there and back again. It was during Victoria’s reign that the castle was first opened up to the public.
In 1861 Albert died of typhoid while at Windsor Castle. Victoria had a mausoleum built at Frogmore in the nearby Windsor Home Park.
The last major development at Windsor Castle came about by accident. On 20th November 1992 a fire started in the Private Chapel. It is believed to have been caused by a hot spotlight igniting a curtain. The resulting blaze took fifteen hours to extinguish with over one and a half million gallons of water pumped out of the Thames in order to douse the flames. Over 20% of the castle area was affected, causing damage to over one hundred rooms.
The restoration process took five years and was the largest historic building project undertaken in the 20th century. The final cost was £37 million. Quite amazingly this was some £3 million under the original budget.
Romney Lock, Windsor
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