St George’s Chapel: A Right British Royal Peculiar
St George’s Chapel is part of Windsor Castle, a royal residence of the British monarchy situated in the Royal Borough of Windsor and Maidenhead, Berkshire, England. The chapel attained its present form during the 16th century. The history of St George’s Chapel, however, stretches further back, all the way to the 14th century.
St George’s Chapel is a Royal Peculiar, i.e. a church / parish in the Church of England that belongs directly to the monarch, and not to any diocese, hence not under the jurisdiction of any bishop. In addition, St George’s Chapel serves as the chapel of the Most Noble Order of the Garter. On top of that, many royal weddings, in particular since the 19th century, have taken place at the chapel, and the tombs of many members of the British royal family can be found there.
St. George's Chapel at Windsor Castle, Berkshire, United Kingdom. Source: LAURA /Adobe Stock
Founding of St George’s Chapel
The story of St George’s Chapel traces all the way back to the reign of Henry I, who ruled England during the first half of the 12th century. At that time, there was a royal chapel within Windsor Castle. This chapel is recorded to have been dedicated to Saint Edward the Confessor, one of the national saints of England.
St. George’s Chapel. (Aurelien Guichard/CC BY SA 2.0)
Henry I established a college of eight secular priests, who received their stipends from the king himself, rather than the regular endowments given to clergymen. In the century that followed, the number of these priests grew to 13, and there were four clerks who served them. In the first half of the 14th century, during the reign of Edward II, these 13 priests celebrated Mass daily in the chapel in the park of Windsor. The priests prayed for the souls of the king, his ancestors, and his heirs.
Edward II was succeeded by Edward III in 1327. Soon after his ascension, Edward had these priests and clerks brought into the castle from the park, where they had been based. These priests were now housed in the chapel dedicated to Saint Edward the Confessor. Incidentally, Edward III mentions that he was baptized in that very chapel.
On August 6, 1348, Edward III signed a charter of foundation, thereby establishing two colleges – the College of St Stephen at Westminster Palace and the College of St George at Windsor Castle. This was a sign of the king’s piety and his generosity to the Church. Moreover, in the case of the St George’s Chapel, a chapel within Windsor Castle was definitively endowed to the Church.
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Why Did the King Choose St George?
In line with its patronage by the king, the chapel in honor of Saint Edward the Confessor was to be rebuilt to enhance its magnificence. The new chapel would be dedicated to God, the Virgin Mary, St George, and St Edward the Confessor. The choice of St George may be understood when considering the Edward’s situation at that time. As most would already be aware, St George was a Roman soldier, and therefore a military saint.
During the 1330s, relations between England and France were quickly deteriorating, resulting in the outbreak of the Hundred Years War in 1337, when Edward revived his claim to the French crown. As a military man himself, the king felt a particular closeness with this warrior saint. Incidentally, it is thanks to Edward that St George was recognized as the patron saint of England.
Apart from his martial values, St George was also admired by Edward for his chivalry. In 1348, around the time that the College of St George was founded, Edward established the Most Noble Order of the Garter (more simply known as the Order of the Garter), which is the highest British civil and military honor obtainable.
Unfortunately, the earliest records of the order were destroyed by a fire, making it extremely difficult for historians today to know for certain the Order’s early history. For instance, one theory states that Edward was inspired by Arthurian legends and wished to revive the Knights of the Round Table, hence establishing the Order of the Garter.
The Order of the Garter’s Motto
Another well-known story is told regarding the origins of the Order’s motto, Honi soit qui mal y pense, which is Middle French for ‘Shame to him who thinks evil of it,’ and popularly rendered as ‘Evil to him who evil thinks’. According to this tale, Edward was dancing at a ball, when the one of his partner’s blue garter slipped from her leg, and fell on the floor. When the other courtiers started sniggering, the king is said to have gallantly picked up the garter and returned it to the lady / put it on his own leg, and admonished those who were laughing, saying ‘Honi soit qui mal y pense,’ which became the Order’s motto.
Edward III as head of the Order of the Garter. (Public Domain)
Like many other aspects of the Order’s early history, the identity of the lady is now unclear. Two candidates with the strongest claim are Katharine Grandison, the Countess of Salisbury, and Joan, the Countess of Kent (known also as the ‘Fair Maid of Kent’), and the king’s half-first cousin. Another candidate, suggested during the Tudor period, is the queen herself, Philippa of Hainault.
St George’s Chapel continues to serve as the home for the Order of the Garter. However, Edward IV, who reigned during the 15th century, decided that St George’s Chapel was not sufficiently large and stately for the housing of such a noble chivalric order and therefore decided to have it improved and reconstructed in 1474/5. The new building was to be constructed in the Perpendicular style (known also as Perpendicular Gothic), which is the final phase of the English Gothic architectural style.
St George’s Chapel’s Architecture
The distinct elements of this style include strong vertical lines, very large windows with elaborate tracery, fan vaulting, and hammerbeam roofs. Apart from St George’s Chapel, which is regarded to be one of the finest examples of the Perpendicular style, other monuments built in this style include Kings College Chapel in Cambridge, Winchester Cathedral, and Bath Abbey.
The first phase of the construction was finished in 1483, when the choir and its aisles were completed and roofed. Edward died in that same year. In the next phase, the nave was built, being completed by 1496. The stone vaulting, however, was only finished long after Edward’s death, in 1528, during the reign of Henry VIII.
The architecture of St George’s Chapel is greatly admired, and praised for its fine workmanship. As an example, the chapel’s stone roof, which is elliptical in shape, is supported by rib and groin vaults that are beautiful and elegant. In addition, a different device is seen on every part of the ceiling. These include the arms of various English kings, including Edward the Confessor (his attributed arms), Edward III, and Henry VIII, as well as those of the noble families, including Stafford, Hastings, and Beaufort. Apart from these, there are also the arms of England and France quarterly, the Holy Cross, the rose, unicorn, dragon, fleur de lis, etc. Needless to say, these designs were intricately and perfectly made.
Inside St George’s Chapel. (Josep Renalias/CC BY SA 3.0)
The Chapel’s Choir
The choir is another good example of the excellent workmanship that went into the creation of St George’s Chapel. As mentioned earlier, the choir was constructed during the reign of Edward III. During the reign of later English kings, namely Edward IV and Henry VII, the choir was greatly ornamented.
The choir is located on the west end of the chapel, and is set apart from the rest of the chapel, for the purpose of the more immediate service of God. In addition, the choir is closely connected to the Order of the Garter. The choir served as a repository of honor of the Order and it was in this part of St George’s Chapel that the Knights of the Garter were installed.
The association of the choir with the Order is also evident in the stalls of the knights companions, which are on each side of the choir. The mantle, helmet, crest, and sword of each knight is set over the stall on a canopy. A banner or arms of each knight, blazoned in silk, is placed over the canopy. Finally, on the back of stalls, the titles of the knights, along with their arms, are engraved and blazoned on copper.
Portrait of Henry, Duke of Lancaster, a Knight Founder of the Order of the Garter, wearing a blue Garter mantle over plate armour and surcoat with his arms. A framed tablet displays painted arms of successors in his Garter stall at St. George's Chapel, Windsor. (British Library)
Of course, the Monarch (known as the ‘Sovereign of the Garter’) and the Prince of Wales (known as the ‘Royal Knight Companion of the Garter’) have their stalls in the chapel’s choir as well. The former’s is located on the right hand of the west / principal entrance into the choir, while the latter’s is located on the left side of the entrance. The stall of the Prince’s is not unlike those of the other knight’s companions, since, according to the statutes of institution, members of the Order are supposed to be companions and colleagues of equal honor and power.
This does not apply, however, to the Sovereign, whose stall is different from the other members of the Order. The Sovereign’s stall is easily distinguished from the others by the fact that its banner is much larger than the rest, made of rich velvet, and has a mantling of gold brocade. At the center of this stall are the arms of the Sovereign, encircled with laurel, and crowned with the royal diadem. These three elements are surrounded by the fleur-de-lis and the star of the Order. The Sovereign’s stall was covered with purple velvet and cloth of gold.
Today, the purple has been replaced with blue. It also had a canopy (a new one was erected by Henry Emlyn in 1788), as well has purple curtains and cushions, both of which were trimmed with broad gold fringe. Today, however, the curtains and cushions are of blue velvet, with a gold fringe.
The stained-glass windows of St George’s Chapel are also worth mentioning. On the west end of the chapel is a huge window composed of 80 compartments, each of which being 1.8 m (6 feet) high and 43 cm (1.4 feet) wide. The compartments contain diverse figures, including English kings, such as Edward IV and Henry VIII, Biblical kings, such as Solomon, and saints, such as St Peter.
Inside St George's Chapel, Windsor Castle, Berkshire. (Jack Pease/CC BY 2.0)
The arms of the college, which consists of St George’s Cross encompassed with a garter, can be seen in many of the compartments. Additionally, the arms of the Bishops of London and Bristol are depicted in the compartments. The stained-glass windows were also used to show the chapel’s connection with the Order of the Garter. The arms of the Sovereign and the knights companions are displayed on two windows near the altar, one on the north and the other on the south.
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Notable Weddings in the Chapel
St George’s Chapel is not merely a monument, but a place where royal ceremonies, especially weddings and burials, have been taking place. Over the years, from the reign of Queen Victoria onwards in particular, royal weddings have been held at St George’s Chapel. The most recent of these was the wedding of Lady Gabriella Windsor (the daughter of Prince and Princess Michael of Kent) and Thomas Kingston, on May 18, 2019.
Other members of the royal family who had their weddings in St George’s Chapel include Edward, Prince of Wales, and Princess Alexandra of Denmark (later Edward VII and Queen Alexandra respectively) in 1863, Prince Leopold, Duke of Albany (Queen Victoria’s youngest son) and Princess Helena of Waldeck and Pyrmont in 1882, and Prince Harry, Duke of Sussex, and Meghan Markle in 2018.
Engraved illustration from Harper's Weekly newspaper of the wedding of the Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII) and Alexandra of Denmark. (Public Domain)
Who is Buried in St George’s Chapel?
Apart from that, St George’s Chapel has also witnessed numerous royal funerals and burials, and ranks next to Westminster Abbey as a royal mausoleum. St George’s Chapel is the final resting place of a number of English monarchs, including Edward IV, Henry VI, and Edward VII, whose tombs are located at the altar, Henry VIII and Charles I, interred in the choir, and George IV and William IV, interred in the royal vault. Apart from monarchs, many members of the royal family were buried in St George’s Chapel.
These include the wives of Edward IV and Edward VII, Elizabeth Woodville and Alexandra of Denmark, respectively, both buried at the altar, and Jane Seymour, the third wife of Henry VIII, interred in the choir. Furthermore, certain nobles, such as William, 1st Baron of Hastings, and Charles Brandon, 1st Duke of Suffolk, and even foreign royals, such as George V of Hanover, were allowed to be buried in St George’s Chapel.
Top image: St George’s Chapel. Credit: Andrew Abbott / Creative Commons
By Wu Mingren
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