The Upper Bailey
After providing a commentary on royal and political history all the way back to Norman times, Windsor Castle remains today the largest, and one of the last great palaces still occupied by its royal family. In the words of A.L. Rowse: "The kings have departed from the palace-monastery of the Escorial; the Emperors have gone from the Hofburg and Schonbrunn, from Kremlin and Winter Palace; the Louvre and Versailles are museums, the Tuileries is no more" (Windsor Castle in the History of the Nation P 12). Of course there are some who believe that palaces like Windsor have no place in modern society, and views of that nature are nothing new. Seventeenth century puritans deposed the monarchy, and thought that Windsor should go with it. The castle was only saved by a single vote in Parliament. But it did survive, and in continuing as a royal palace Windsor Castle is an almost unique survivor.
The Round Tower
Windsor Castle was founded by William The Conqueror as part of a ring of defences around London. The first castle was a motte and bailey fortification, which consisted of a wooden fort built on top of a high mound. William the Conqueror's youngest son, Henry I was the first monarch to build a residence within the Upper Bailey, where the royal residence remains today. Following the reign of King Stephen, Henry I's grandson took over as Henry II. He made the castle stronger, surrounding it with stone walls which can still be seen on the west side from Thames Street. In 1172 Henry II built the Round Tower, the famous central tower, built on the mound where William the Conqueror's original wooden fort once stood. Henry II's son, Richard then succeeded to the throne. Richard I, or "Lionheart", spent most of his reign on crusades and had little time for Windsor, but his brother Jean, who became King John in 1199 spent much time at the castle. John is one of the most controversial and misunderstood of English monarchs, with many stories about his evil ways, some of them related to Windsor, simply being made up by chronicler Roger of Wendover. John fought a constant struggle against the barons of England, who felt that John's focus on meritocracy was undermining their traditional power. The barons' efforts to keep the king in line culminated in John being forced to attend a meeting at Runnymede, a riverside meadow near Windsor. During the week of 15th to 23rd of June 1215 John would leave Windsor Castle and ride the few miles to Runnymede. Here negotiations led to the signing of a document known as the Magna Carta, which detailed a series of laws to which John had to abide. The Magna Carta is often described as a milestone in the history of law. When John failed to abide by the Magna Carta, Windsor Castle was besieged for three months. Eventually John fled towards Cambridge, lost his crown jewels in the Wash, and died of dysentery a few days later at Newark.
John was succeeded by his son, Henry III. This man loved to leave his mark in architecture. As well as rebuilding Westminster Abbey to give its present day appearance, at Windsor he built much of the western wall and the round towers overlooking Thames Street. Windsor was the scene of important episodes in the struggle between Henry III and England's powerful barons. The barons were led by the king's brother-in-law, Simon de Montfort, and some historians see de Montfort as Parliament's founder. De Montfort attempted to conduct government through a group of powerful nobles, and insisted that government and king should themselves be subject to law. The barons gained control of Windsor in 1263. French support enabled Henry's son Edward to reoccupy Windsor that autumn. The following year Henry was defeated at the Battle of Lewes, and once again Windsor fell into the hands of the barons. In August 1265 the pendulum swung again when Henry and Edward defeated the barons at the Battle of Evesham. Ordinances re-establishing peace were issued at Windsor.
Albert Memorial Chapel
Henry III's son, Edward I was a powerful and ruthless king, who brought an end to the battle for authority with the barons. Then following the short and shambolic reign of his son Edward II, Edward I's grandson Edward III brought stability to England, and a fresh grandeur to Windsor Castle. He built St George's Chapel as the home of the Order of the Garter, an award offered to men who had given great service to England. The present Albert Memorial Chapel probably sits on the same foundations as Edward III's original building. Beyond the Albert Memorial Chapel stands the present St George's Chapel where Order of the Garter ceremonies still take place.
Edward lost his son, the Black Prince, to illness, and following Edward III's death the throne passed to his grandson, ten year old Richard II. Richard faced down the Peasants Revolt in 1381, but quickly lost his authority. He was replaced by Henry Bollingbroke, Henry IV, another grandson of Edward III. Richard's supporters planned to hit back at the usurper by capturing Henry IV as he enjoyed celebratory feasting at Windsor. An informer tipped Henry off, so that he was in London when rebels burst into the castle. This event sealed Richard's fate. He was a prisoner in Pontefract Castle, and was probably murdered there in February 1400.
St George's Chapel
The next great period of building at Windsor took place towards the end of the fifteenth century. Edward IV built the present St George's Chapel. Unfortunately Edward IV died in 1483 before his two sons could grow to adulthood. His brother Richard locked the two boys in the Tower of London, the order given from Windsor. They were never seen again. England turned against Richard, who was killed at Bosworth Field in August 1485, by his successor Henry Tudor - Henry VII.
Henry VII finished building Edward IV's chapel. His son, Henry VIII was very fond of Windsor, and what is now the castle's main gate was built on his orders. He spent the early part of his reign enjoying himself at Windsor, while Cardinal Wolsey got on with the hard work of government. When Henry decided to marry Anne Boleyn he left Windsor in July 1531, without saying goodbye to his wife Catherine of Aragon. The following month Catherine was ordered to leave the castle. Of course Anne's turn came to fall out of favour with Henry. She was executed on trumped up charges and was buried at Windsor. Henry himself was buried at the castle.
Poor Knight's Lodging (foreground)
Much of the religious crisis that followed Henry VIII's death was played out at Windsor. Henry VIII had introduced Protestantism to England, and the struggle between this new religion and Catholicism was a bitter one. Henry's Protestant young son Edward VI had to flee to Windsor Castle to find protection from coalitions forming against him. Edward VI was to die young, and after a confused attempt to put Protestant Lady Jane Grey on the throne, Henry VIII's Catholic daughter Mary became queen, and did her ruthless best to turn the country back to Catholicism. At Windsor she built the Poor Knight's Lodging, which survives today. On Mary's death her Protestant half sister became Elizabeth I. Elizabeth had spent her early years at Windsor being tutored by Roger Ascham. His famous book The School Master was written at the castle. It followed a conversation about two boys who had run away from nearby Eton College to avoid a beating. Ascham didn't think that beating pupils was a good way to enthuse them about learning, and wrote The School Master on this subject. Elizabeth, Ascham's royal pupil, liked Windsor and spent more money on it than any other palace. The work she commissioned can still be seen in the building now used as the Royal Library.
Sometime between 1598 and 1601 Shakespeare wrote The Merry Wives of Windsor. Elizabeth is said to have requested a play where Falstaff would fall in love. The play has many scenes at Windsor...
Search Windsor Castle, elves within and without
Strew good luck, ouphs, on every sacred room
That it may stand till perpetual doom
In a state as wholesome as in state 'tis fit
Worthy the owner, and the owner it
Elizabeth famously died without an heir. As a result Scottish king James Stuart took the throne of England as James I. The Stuarts did little for Windsor, but decisive events continued to take place here. James's son Charles I retreated to Windsor after he failed to arrest the five leaders of parliamentary opposition to his rule. The Civil War was about to begin. Charles left Windsor and would never return as a free man. Windsor became a Parliamentary headquarters. Charles spent his last week before execution at Windsor, and he was buried there. During Parliament's rule that followed, many of the country's great palaces were destroyed. Basing House, Theobalds, Raglan Castle, and Nonesuch Palace all disappeared. Other palaces such as Corfe Castle were reduced to a state of ruin. Windsor was saved by a single vote in Parliament. The castle was used as a prison, but survived until Charles II was restored to the throne in 1660. A statue of Charles II now stands in the Middle Ward.
When Charles II died in 1685, his son James succeeded as James II. Unfortunately James was Catholic, a fact the establishment of England was unable to accept. In 1688 the Protestant Dutch aristocrat William of Orange was invited to invade England by Parliament. Following his unopposed invasion William of Orange reached Windsor on 14th December 1688. It was during his ten days at Windsor that the decisive events of his succession took place. James had tried to escape to France, but was stopped by fishermen at Faversham. He was returned to Windsor and confined in the Round Tower. The country's leaders converged on the castle, and William's position was assured. James left once more, and this time measures were taken to make sure his journey out of the country was uninterrupted.
Queen Anne, who succeeded William in 1702, loved Windsor and spent much time there. Jonathon Swift, writer of Gulliver's Travels was hired as a writer of propaganda for Anne's government. Swift lived and worked in Windsor Castle, and dreamt of taking on some kind of church position that would allow him to stay in his quarters overlooking Eton and the Thames. He wrote a humorous poem about his longing:
My Lord would carry on the jest
And down to Windsor takes his guest.
Swift much admires the place and air,
And longs to be a canon there,
In summer round the park to ride,
In winter - never to reside.
A canon! that's a place too mean:
No, Doctor, you shall be a Dead,
Two dozen canons round your stall,
And you the tyrant o'er them all
After Anne's death the castle entered a long period of decline, but was rescued by George III, and his son George IV. It was during the reign of George IV 1820 - 1830 that Windsor Castle took on the appearance we see today. Jeffrey Wyatville was hired, and he changed the facades, added height to the towers, and raised the Round Tower by thirty feet to give a strong central focus. The fanciful roofscape of towers and turrets is Wyatville's work. From the reign of Queen Victoria onwards, Windsor was reconfirmed as a major royal residence. It was from Windsor Castle, an ancient symbol of royal stability, that Edward VIII broadcast his abdication speech in December 1936. During a similar period of royal crisis in the scandal blighted year of 1992, it was a major fire at Windsor Castle which seemed to symbolise the royal family's woes. But the royal family, and Windsor, survived that crisis, and the castle today continues as Elizabeth II's principle residence.
So that is the story of the last great palace. One of the continuing functions of Britain's royal family is to provide a sense of continuity. Windsor Castle encapsulates this role like no other royal building in Britain.
Opening Times: Please use contact details below.
Directions: From the M4 take exit 6. From the M3 take exit 3. Green Line operates a daily coach service from Victoria Coach Station, London. Click here for an interactive road and satellite map centred on Windsor Castle.
Access: Most areas are accessible to wheelchair users. Wheelchairs can be borrowed free of charge from the Visitor Centre. Audio tours are available. Telephone in advance to arrange assistance by a warden.
infoline: 01753 831118
telephone: 020 7766 7304