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The Conqueror’s castle at Windsor

Posted in Castles, Historical articles, History, Royalty on Wednesday, 7 September 2011

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This edited article about castles originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 808 published on 9 July 1977.

Windsor Castle, picture, image, illustration

A pictorial history of Windsor Castle by C L Doughty

Riding through the forests of Windsor, William the Conqueror decided it would make an ideal royal hunting ground. But instead, he finally decided to put part of the area to a more practical use.

During the days of the early Norman castles in Britain, the method of building these fortresses was to construct a wooden building on the crest of an artificially constructed mound of earth. Windsor castle, it seems, was something of an exception.

William had first been attracted to the local forest as a hunting ground and obtained the land by exchange from Westminster Abbey, to which Edward the Confessor had given it. Thereafter the castle became what it still remains, a residence of the English sovereigns.

The Conqueror replaced the primitive wooden enclosure by a stone circuit wall, but the first complete round tower was built by Henry III about 1272, while Edward III had it wholly reconstructed on a more massive scale about 1344, to form a meeting place for his newly established order of the Knights of the Garter. He selected this spot according to legend quoted by the ancient chronicler, Froissart, because it was the summit of the mound where King Arthur used to sit surrounded by the Knights of the Round Table. The more obvious reason for it being sited where it is that it was not only suitable from a foundation point of view, but was also high above the River Thames. Its natural chalk mound made it ideal to take the huge weight of stone imposed upon it. Also a stone structure, as opposed to the usual wood one, made it resistant to fire.

Although today’s structure is considerably repaired and refaced, the foundations and main structure probably date from around 1075.

Since those early days the castle has always been occupied, and during the long passage of time there have been many changes.

The most extensive modifications of the keep area were carried out by Henry II in 1175. The structures in those parts of the first early shell of the Conqueror’s time were already elaborate enough to be used as a royal residence. Henry I had held his court there and also used it to celebrate his wedding. Henry II, however, decided to keep the original structure merely as a base for a new tower.

As the castle grew, it could be said that it followed the whims of its royal occupants. During Henry III’s reign it was described as the most flourishing and beautiful castle in the whole of Europe.

Edward, who was born in the castle in 1312, and was known as Edward Windsor, carried out many civil projects within the castle, including housing for canons and other officials, including those who formed part of the newly formed institution of the Order of the Garter.

Within the next 100 years, the Knights of the Garter were given as their traditional place of worship, the splendid St. George’s Chapel. This building was begun by Edward IV, in 1477, and took over 50 years to complete.

The main Tudor contribution to the castle was the main entrance to the castle on which building was begun in 1510 by Henry VIII, whose name it still bears.

A chapel which had been built by Henry III was given to Cardinal Wolsey as a present by Henry VIII, and for a long time it was known as ‘Wolsey’s tomb house.’ Wolsey engaged a Florentine sculptor to make him a costly tomb of marble and gilt bronze, with a recumbent effigy at the top. The rich bronze of this tomb was eventually torn off and melted by order of the Parliamentarians in 1642, and the metal sold for the then large sum of £600. In 1805, the black marble sarcophagus, stripped of its bronze ornaments, was moved from Windsor and used as a monument on Nelson’s grave in the crypt of St. Paul’s. Though Wolsey’s tomb-house was roofed in and used for mass by James II, the chapel was never fully completed until more recent years, when it was fitted as a memorial to Albert, the Prince Consort.

Another chapel, that of the Chapel of St. George, is one of the finest examples of Perpendicular architecture in England. It ranks next to Westminster Abbey as a royal mausoleum, though no king was buried there before Edward IV, who left directions in his will that a splendid tomb was to be erected with an effigy of himself in silver. Unfortunately nothing remains of this, except part of the wrought iron grille, which surrounded the tomb. The next sovereign to be buried there was Henry VIII, who directed that his body should be laid beside that of Jane Seymour. The tomb was never completed, and what existed of its metal work was probably melted down by the Commonwealth. Certainly, no trace of it remains. Charles I was buried here without service in 1649. Above the dark oak stalls hang the historic insignia of the Knights of the Garter, their swords, helmets and banners. On the stalls themselves appear a remarkable series of enamelled brass plates commemorating the knights of the order.

In 1685, Charles II constructed the ‘Long Walk’, the famous 3 mile walk. This splendid avenue which was completed by William III leads from George IV’s gate on the south side of the castle straight into the heart of the great park.

There were then few changes until George IV had the castle modernized in the 1820’s. A million pounds was spent, and vast improvements were carried out, which raised enormously the level of the domestic comforts. Additional storeys were also constructed to house more servants.

It was a million pounds wisely spent, as it happened, because to this day very little money has had to be spent on its further upkeep.

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