Windsor Castle is one of the most recognisable sites in England. Built in the 11th century just after the Norman invasion of England, it has inspired castles across the world and has been the hub of the English and British monarchy for centuries. The castle is the longest-occupied palace in the whole of Europe, the largest inhabited castle in the world, and continues to be a working palace today. So, let’s explore the thousand-year history of this fantastic building.
Windsor Castle was first built within ten years of the invasion of William the Conqueror in 1066. William undertook a huge castle building programme after he took the throne to secure his hold on power (read more about this here), and this included building a ring of defensive castles in a 20 mile radius around London, of which Windsor was one. Windsor Castle was built close to the River Thames but also near an old Saxon settlement and palace that had been popular with previous kings of England. Because of this, Windsor castle was not used as a royal residence, but was very much a defensive fortification formed of a wooden castle keep on top of a motte.
It was not until the reign of Henry I that Windsor Castle was used as a place for the royal family to live. In 1110, Henry stayed at the castle for his own protection and found that he enjoyed the building. It started to be used for important events – such as hosting his marriage to Adeliza of Louvain in 1121 – but it was not long before the castle substantially collapsed due to subsidence of the motte. Henry ensured that timber piles were driven into the ground to support the buildings, and the wooden keep was replaced with a stone one. The work was continued by his grandson, Henry II, who made huge changes to Windsor Castle between 1165 and 1179. More of the wooden defences were replaced with stone, buildings were relocated to reduce the pressure on the mound and prevent further subsidence, and the royal accommodation was remodelled and improved.
In the next century, successive kings continued to make their mark on the castle. King John made further improvements to the royal apartments, but the castle’s defensive role came to prominence during the revolt of the English barons against John, with Windsor being his base of negotiations in the lead up to the Magna Carta. John’s son, Henry III, rebuilt some of the walls in stone, created a new gatehouse and erected three new towers on the site. Henry again improved the royal accommodation at Windsor, spending over 20 years building a luxurious palace in one of the sections of the complex for his wife and children, as well as another set of buildings in another section for his own use. He also built a 21m-long chapel at the castle which was the grandest that he built for his own use during his reign. It was during this programme of building that the castle complex was effectively split into two sections, with the Upper Ward being reserved for the private use of the Royal Family, whilst the Lower Ward was intended for public-facing duties.
King Edward III was born at the castle in 1312, and his 50-year reign saw Windsor Castle grow in importance and prominence. In 1344, Edward was at Windsor with his court when he announced that he was going to found an Order of the Round Table based on that of King Arthur’s, and he ordered the construction of a huge round tower to be the base of the Order. It was 200 feet wide, but it was never finished and eventually the stone was reclaimed for other building work on the site. However, a few years later Edward was once again at Windsor when he founded the Order of the Garter, the most prestigious order of knighthood in the country. Windsor Castle has been the headquarters of the Order ever since, and every year a Garter feast was to be held at Windsor in April on St George’s Day.
Although the castle had been heavily invested in by his predecessors, Edward decided he too needed to invest huge sums of money to make Windsor Castle a worthy base for the Order. He rebuilt huge sections of the castle between 1350 and his death in 1377, spending £51,000 on the works. This was the largest amount spent by any English monarch up to this point on a single building operation. Edward’s new castle was filled with luxurious lodgings for his family and his court, an impressive new chapel and great hall, new gatehouses and towers as well as England’s earliest weight-driven mechanical clock. Such was the luxury of the new castle that King John II of France was held there during his imprisonment by the English.
The defensive aspect of Windsor Castle once again became important during the Wars of the Roses, a civil war which raged in England in the latter half of the 15th century. When Edward IV captured Queen Margaret of Anjou, she was held for a time at Windsor Castle, although the castle itself was not besieged during the fighting. When Edward secured his reign, he revived the Order of the Garter to add to his own splendour and prestige. He invested money to build a new chapel named after St George in 1475, and this chapel still stands today as one of the focal points of the complex.
During the Tudor period, Windsor Castle continued to be a favoured residence of the monarchy. Henry VII finished the roof of St George’s Chapel, repaired and remodelled several buildings, and also created a new tower to use as his personal apartments. Windsor’s prominence was shown as it began to be used far more regularly for hosting important international diplomatic visits. Henry VIII spent much time at the castle during his youth, exercising, singing, dancing, and playing music there. He continued the tradition of the yearly Garter Feasts which became ever more extravagant, reflecting the growing wealth and power of the Tudor regime. Although Windsor was now an extremely sumptuous, luxurious royal palace, the many defensive walls and towers continued to be of importance to the security of the Royal Family, and Henry used Windsor as a secure military base during the uprising known as the Pilgrimage of Grace in 1536.
Elizabeth I also greatly favoured Windsor, spending a lot of time at the castle particularly during times of crisis. She ordered the purchase of 10 brass cannons to increase the defensive aspect of the castle, and repaired many of the structures. She built an outdoor banqueting house and some decorative terraces, refitted the chapel, and built a new bridge and gallery range, spending more money at Windsor than any of her other palaces. However, the lack of space at the castle in comparison to other English royal palaces began to cause some difficulties which continued into the 17th century.
Windsor Castle suffered greatly during the English Civil War which broke out in 1642. Windsor was seized by the Parliamentary forces who, with Puritan leanings, disdained the luxury of the palace and in particular the chapel. St George’s chapel was looted, windows and books were destroyed, and many of the luxurious items left by previous monarchs were taken. By the end of the Civil War, at least 100kg of gold and silver plate had been stolen or destroyed. When the monarchy was restored in 1660, many of the great palaces across the country had been greatly damaged, and it was going to cost a huge amount to repair and modernise all these buildings. Windsor Castle received significant attention from Charles II, and it was the only royal palace he managed to fully modernise. The defences were repaired, the deer park was restocked, and the interiors of the palace were updated into the new fashionable Baroque style. Several buildings were widened to fit with the new style of court protocol, and Windsor was finally big enough to house the entire Court once more.
With the advent of the Georgian period, Windsor Castle dropped from royal favour, with neither George I nor George II taking much interest in staying there. As such, many of the apartments in the private part of the castle were given out to courtiers to use as a sign of royal favour. The castle started to be an early tourist site, with wealthy members of society paying the keeper of the castle for a tour of the grounds and for the privilege of seeing some of the treasures held there. The first guidebook of the castle was published in 1753. Under the reign of George III, Windsor once again became a popular royal residence and the castle and park were again renovated and updated. Slowly, access to the public was restricted to make it a more private home for the Royal Family.
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When George IV came to the throne in 1820, he began a new restoration programme at Windsor Castle, and Parliament granted him a huge £300,000 to do so. The exterior of the Upper Ward was updated to its present appearance, and many rooms in the State Apartments were rebuilt or remodelled. New, taller towers were created to give a grander view. The works took about 20 years and ended up costing over 1 million pounds, the equivalent of well over £800 million today.
During Queen Victoria’s reign, Windsor Castle became a principal royal residence, and Windsor was once again the centre of foreign diplomatic and state visits. Prince Albert died at the castle in 1861, and Queen Victoria had his rooms maintained exactly as they had been at the moment of his death until her own death. The whole castle was kept in mourning for years, and Victoria gained the nickname “the Widow of Windsor” as a result. Victoria also oversaw changes to the surrounding parkland, replanting diseased trees and closing roads which ran through the estate so that she could create a large area of private parkland.
When Edward VII came to the throne, he set about modernising Windsor. Victoria had shunned the use of gas and electric lights, and the castle became known for being cold and draughty. Edward finally cleared rooms that his father had used, and added electric lights and telephone lines as well as central heating to make the palace much nicer to live in. George V and his wife Mary of Teck continued this modernisation programme and also recovered some of the furniture that Edward VII had sold off. Queen Mary’s famous Dolls’ House was placed at Windsor after its completion, and is still held there today.
It was also under George that the staffing at Windsor was increased, and he had around 660 servants working there during his reign. When the Royal Family changed their name during the First World War to sound less German, George decided to take the new name from the castle: since 1917, the Royal Family have been known as the House of Windsor. During the Second World War, most of the staff from Buckingham Palace were moved to Windsor for their safety, but concerns about the significant collections of art at Windsor meant that they were removed from the castle for protection. The Crown Jewels, however, were stored in the basement at Windsor during the war.
When the current queen, Elizabeth II, came to the throne, Windsor became her regular weekend home. The private apartments of the monarch were renovated and modernised, and repairs to the heating and wiring in the Upper Ward began in 1988. However, tragedy struck in 1992 when a major fire broke out at the castle primarily in the Upper Ward. It blazed for 15 hours and caused huge damage – 9 of the principal state rooms were destroyed, and over 100 other rooms were severely damaged. Luckily, work was being done to the Private Chapel and some other rooms at the time, and so many of the rooms closest to the fire had already been emptied to allow the work to be carried out, minimising the items in the collection that were lost. At the peak of the operation they were using 36 pumps discharging 1.5 million gallons of water, and this water caused even more damage to the fabric of the building.
The fire seen blazing in the Upper Ward, and St George’s Hall immediately after the fire.
The fire also caused political issues when the question came to who should pay for the repairs. Windsor Castle and other Crown property was usually maintained and repaired by the British government in exchange for the profits made by the Crown Estate, but the British press and many members of the public believed the Queen should pay for the repairs herself from her private income. In the end, it was agreed that the restoration work would be paid for by opening Buckingham Palace to the public at certain times of the year, and charges were introduced for the public to access the parkland around Windsor. The repairs were completed in 1997 to a cost of £37 million.
Today, Windsor Castle is still occupied by the Queen and her staff. Around 500 people live and work in the castle, and state banquets are often held there. Ceremonies still take place at the castle, including the Garter ceremony, and much of the Royal Collection of art is held at the castle. During the Covid pandemic, Elizabeth II and Prince Philip shielded at Windsor Castle, and it was here that Prince Philip died in 2021. His funeral was held at the castle, and he was buried in St George’s Chapel.
Windsor continues to be at the heart of English and British life. It is a castle with a millennium of history that has become a huge tourist attraction and symbol of the monarchy, and continues to be a working palace and castle today. It has often been at the centre of courtly life, and has even given the name to the present Royal Family. The size and grandeur of it has often meant huge expense and difficulty in restoring, modernising, and maintaining it, but it will endure for centuries to come.
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