England’s Windsor Castle has evolved from a simple motte-and-bailey castle built primary as a military base to the large and beautiful fortress and grounds that have been home to the British Monarchy for almost 1,000 years.
Windsor Castle stands high above the River Thames at Windsor. William the Conqueror chose the site. He wanted a stronghold from which to guard the western approach to London—a day’s march away. Windsor Castle is the largest and oldest inhabited castle in the world.
Built out of wood and mud for its first hundred years, the structure was rebuilt using stone by King Henry II about 1170. Historians view the end of the War of the Roses and the ascension of the Yorkist King Edward IV in 1461 as a turning point for Windsor Castle.
It was Edward who ordered construction of the St. George’s Chapel within the castle grounds. St. George’s Chapel, the final resting place of ten British monarchs, is one of the finest examples of medieval architecture in England.
Windsor’s transformation from fortress to palace had begun, although the change to comfortable palace would take several hundred years. Different monarchs added and expanded a hodgepodge of castle buildings over the centuries. Architect Sir Jeffry Wyatville saw Windsor as one unit, and brought symmetry and uniformity to the buildings within the castle walls.
Hired during the reign of King George IV, the architect’s design tricks included raising the height of some towers to match others, giving the Round Tower its now-distinctive stone crown, and doubling the length of St. George’s Hall. Wyatville’s work began in 1824 and was completed by 1840.
Windsor’s most recent building renovations were needed to restore the castle after a fire in November 1992 damaged more than 100 rooms in the north-east wing. More than 200 firefighters fought the blaze as Queen Elizabeth and Prince Andrew helped staff members move and save some of the priceless art treasures housed in the palace.
The restoration, which cost $59.2 million and took five years to complete, relied on workers skilled in traditional building methods. Cognizant of the castle’s historical importance, workers used authentic materials as much as possible during the rebuilding.
An official royal residence, Windsor Castle serves as the weekend home for the Royal Family. You’ll know that the Queen is in residence when the Royal Standard is flying over the castle. The castle is often the setting for formal dinners and events, including The Order of the Garter ceremony. The Order of the Garter, Britain’s highest chivalric order, was established in 1348 by King Edward III.
Each June, the members of the Order don their ceremonial vestments (the designs for some go back centuries) and plumed hats and assemble for a service at St. George’s Chapel, where the banners of the members, or knights, are hung.
Visitors to Windsor Castle should allow at least two hours for their visit. While walking through Windsor’s State Apartments—formal rooms used for official gatherings and functions—be sure to take the time to look at some of the displayed treasures from the Royal Collection.
Paintings by da Vinci, Rembrandt, and Rubens (to name a few) and sculptures, tapestries, and armor adorn the rooms. Barbie’s Dream House has nothing on Queen Mary’s Dolls’ House. Designed by the architect Sir Edwin Lutyens and built on a scale of 12 to 1, the dolls’ house includes working lights and running water. More than 1,500 craftsmen participated in the house’s construction and furnishing.
If your visit takes place during the winter months, you can also view George IV’s private apartments, called the Semi-State Rooms. You are not allowed to take photographs inside any of the buildings including St. George’s Chapel which is closed on Sundays, although worshippers are permitted to attend Sunday services. Evensong takes place daily in the late afternoon.
For those not willing to deal with the crowds in front of Buckingham Palace in London, Windsor Castle has its own Changing of the Guard ceremony at 11 a.m. Check the web site, as the ceremony’s schedule—daily or alternate days—changes with the seasons.
by Katie Calvert