Windsor Castle Through the Ages: Embodiment of 1,000 Years of British History
Windsor Castle, located in Berkshire, England has always had close ties to the British royal family. Originally built in the 11th century AD, the castle has seen numerous renovations over the years. Today, it represents not just the British royal family, but nearly a millennium of English and architectural history. More than a mere royal residence, the castle has its own, fascinating history.
The Beginnings of Windsor Castle
Windsor Castle can be found in its namesake town of Windsor, in Berkshire, southern England, around 20 miles (32 kilometers) west of London. Its first iteration was built by William the Conqueror in 1070 AD as a motte and bailey castle.
A motte and bailey is a European form of fortification that consists of a wooden or stone keep built atop a raised area of land, the motte. The elevated bailey overlooked the Thames River. This location was chosen for two reasons. Firstly, it was conveniently close to London. Second, it was also near a forest, which made it excellent for deer hunting, a favorite royal pastime.
The motte was built by dumping wood and earth on top of a steep natural chalk escarpment or cliff. The motte at Windsor Castle is around 100 feet (30.5 meters) high. The bailey was built using wooden palisades, which were protected by an outer ditch. Windsor Castle featured two baileys, called the Upper and the Lower Wards.
Aerial view of Windsor Castle from the south, with the Round Tower slightly up-left of center, the Upper Ward to the right, and the Lower Ward to the left (Cmglee / CC BY SA 4.0)
A hundred years after the basics of Windsor Castle had been completed, Henry II moved in and began making his own alterations. In 1170, he added a wooden tower to the motte which became known as the Round Tower. He also had private royal apartments built in the Upper Ward and had the Lower Ward filled out with public spaces like the Great Hall, which could be used for ceremonies.
The Round Tower was added by Henry II in the late 12th century (Giogo / CC BY SA 4.0)
King Henry II also decided to work on the castle’s fortifications. The outer curtain wall had been made from wood up to that point, and Henry II began the process of rebuilding it in stone. This upgrade took a long time to complete and wasn’t finished until the reign of Henry III (1216-1272). The latter Henry also added three semi-circular towers to the Lower Ward’s defensive curtain wall.
These added defenses turned out to be a good idea. Windsor Castle came under siege for the first time from 1215 to 1217 during the First Baron’s War, a civil war between England’s major landowners and King John of England. The castle was attacked by the forces of Prince Louis of France, whom the barons wanted to rule England.
The siege on Windsor Castle lasted for two months, but the defenses held strong and the attack was ultimately a failure. Of all the fortifications in southern England, only Windsor Castle and Dover Castle had managed to resist; everything else had fallen to the barons.
After the war ended, the castle needed repairs and further upgrades. Ever larger and more powerful catapults were being used, and so the walls were reinforced to be 24 feet (7.3 meters) thick in spots. Tunnels and sally-ports, a type of reinforced entryway, were also added. These allowed castle defenders to sneak out of the castle and flank potential attackers.
Around the same time, Henry III also completely rebuilt the Lower Ward and a larger chapel was added. Fearing being isolated in the castle for an extended period, Henry also upgraded the royal apartments of the Upper Ward and added two more chapels there.
Following his marriage to Eleanor of Provence, he had a luxurious palace built on the north side of the Upper Ward. All of this work was quite expensive; Henry III had spent more than any of his predecessors on the castle. This would turn out to be par for the course for royals when it came to Windsor Castle. By the time Henry was done with it, Windsor Castle was the primary royal residence.
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Windsor Castle Upper Ward Quadrangle (Diliff / CC BY SA 3.0)
Edward III Heavily Remodeled
Windsor Castle saw its next major refurbishment during the reign of Edward III in the 14th century. The original Round Tower was rebuilt, and a massive two-tower gatehouse was added, called the Norman Gateway, as an intimidating entrance to the Upper Ward.
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The Norman Gate at left, built by Edward III and remodeled in the 19th century (Public Domain)
Edward then spent a fortune making the castle more comfortable. The Upper Ward was remodeled around three courts in the gothic style. The Lower Ward was expanded and given extra accommodation, so that it could house Edward's new chivalric order, the Most Noble Order of the Garter. The Lower Ward’s chapel was renamed Saint George's Chapel, in line with the new order’s patron saint. Crenellations, the rectangular indentations seen atop medieval castle walls, were also added to the defenses, but these were only ornamental.
All in all, the upgrades to Windsor Castle cost Edward III around £50,000, more than £70 million today. This was over one and a half times his usual annual income. At that point, the castle had become “the most expensive secular building project of the entire Middle Ages in England”.
St. George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle (Aurelien Guichard / CC BY SA 2.0)
Windsor Castle as a Status Symbol
Windsor Castle’s popularity with the English monarchy continued into the 15th Century. It was seized by Henry IV during the coup of 1399, and in 1417, Henry V used it to host a visit from the Holy Roman Emperor, a massive diplomatic success.
By the middle of the 15th century, things were becoming increasingly tense. The country was divided between the factions of the Lancastrians and the Yorkists. When those tensions boiled over, they resulted in the War of the Roses from 1455 to 1485. The Windsor Castle didn’t play much of a role during the war; battles were primarily pitched and took place far away from major castles.
However, various prisoners were kept at Windsor Castle throughout the 15th century. James I of Scotland was captured at sea in 1405 and held in one of the towers for eleven years. When Edward IV seized power in 1461, he captured Henry VI’s wife, Margaret of Anjou, and held her at the castle.
Rather than being used as a fortification, Windsor Castle was used as a status symbol during this period. When Edward IV took back control of the castle, one of the first things he did was hold a massive feast at the castle to signal his return. Then in 1475, he began work on a new grand chapel, which resulted in several of the older buildings being demolished. His message was clear: my new dynasty is here to stay.
When Henry VII came to power in the late 15th century, he did much the same. He used Windsor Castle to show he wasn’t going anywhere. He held a massive feast for the Order of the Garter at the castle and carried on work on the various chapels.
Windsor Castle during the English Civil War
Windsor Castle was originally built on land owned by a Norman noble. The monarchy didn’t buy the land until 1546. As it turned out, that move led to dire consequences for the castle.
The English Civil War raged from 1642 to 1651. It was a war between Charles I and the Royalists on one side, and the Parliamentarians, also called the Roundheads, on the other. The war revolved around the issue of who should govern England, and whether it should be an absolute monarchy or not.
It was a particularly bloody, nasty war, and when the Parliamentarians won in 1651, one of their first targets was Windsor Castle. The castle represented everything they hated about the decadent, arrogant monarchy. The fact that it was royal property meant they were free to loot Saint George’s Chapel and the royal apartments without hindrance.
To add insult to injury, the Upper Ward, the former home of the royals, was used as a prison for royalists and the Windsor Great Park, the castle’s beautiful crown jewel, was sold off in parcels.
View of Windsor Castle from Windsor Great Park (Qatsi / CC BY NC ND 2.0)
The monarchy was restored in 1660, but years of civil war combined with Parliamentarian rule had left Windsor Castle in a poor state. For quite some time, it had been occupied by squatters. Charles II (r. 1660-1695) was determined to return the castle to its former glory.
In 1668, Charles put one of his few surviving relatives, Prince Rupert, in charge of the castle, making him Constable of Windsor Castle. Rupert was tasked with restoring Windsor Castle to its former glory. The castle's defenses were repaired, as was the Round Tower. Attempts were also made at restocking Windsor Great Park with deer brought in from Germany.
Charles was a big fan of Louis XIV’s style and copied it extensively. In the Upper Ward, he had new apartments built in the lavish baroque style. These have been described as "the most extravagantly Baroque interiors ever executed in England”. He also had a 2.5 mile (4 kilometer) long walk lined with elms and paved, so that he could admire the castle from a distance. All of this work was paid for by the increased royal revenues coming from Ireland during the 1670s.
Windsor Castle may be best seen from the Long Walk Charles II created, a 2.5 mile public footpath through Windsor Great Park. (JackPeasePhotography / CC BY 2.0)
Windsor Castle Fell Out of Favor during the 18th Century
Windsor Castle became less popular with the royal family during the 18th century. George I much preferred other palaces, such as St. James’s, Hampton Court, and Kensington Castle. His successor, George II, felt the same way. During this period, many of the apartments in the Upper Ward were given out as privileges to various friends of the crown and nobles.
By the 1740s, the castle had become somewhat of a tourist attraction. Wealthy visitors could pay the castle keeper and look around the castle. The first guidebooks became available in the 1750s. As time progressed, the cost of entry became lower and eventually, even the general public could visit the property. As this all happened the State Apartments of the Upper Ward began to deteriorate.
Windsor Castle was saved by King George III. He moved the royal family back into the Upper Ward and began the expensive process of restoring and renovating the castle. At first, visitors were still welcome at the castle, but over time access was limited and the castle returned to its old formal ways.
Windsor Castle from the Thames River, painting by Johannes Vorstermans, 1690 (Public Domain)
King George III spent a fortune transforming the exterior of the castle, restyling it in the Gothic style, and adding new battlements and turrets. On the inside, conservation work was undertaken to salvage as much as possible. The work cost around £150,000 (over £100 million today).
In 1788, George became ill during a dinner that was being held at the castle. He was diagnosed as suffering from madness and over the next twenty years, he suffered from several bouts. Eventually, the same palace he had spent a fortune renovating became his prison. From 1810 onwards, the king was confined to the State Apartments for his safety.
His son, George IV, followed in his father's footsteps. He somehow convinced Parliament to give him £300,000 (£245 million today) to further renovate the castle. The Round Tower was given an extra floor and the private apartments were rebuilt in the neo-Gothic style. The castle’s current main entrance, the George IV Gate, was also added.
Windsor Castle was pretty much complete by the time Queen Victoria moved there in 1835. She spent more time at the castle than any of her other residences, earning her the nickname the “Widow of Windsor” after the death of Prince Albert. It is believed part of her love for Windsor Castle stemmed from the fact that she had first met Albert there in 1839.
Windsor Castle in Modern History
When WWI broke out in 1914, the British royal family realized they had a serious problem. They were of German descent, not ideal when their country was busy fighting the Germans. The decision was made to downplay the royal family’s links to the Germans. Their name was changed from the House of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha to something more quintessentially British sounding: Windsor. Remarkably, Windsor Castle itself survived both world wars largely unscathed.
In December 1936, King Edward VIII made his abdication speech from Windsor Castle. He became titled the Duke of Windsor, and his partner was made Duchess of Windsor. Upon their deaths, both were buried in the royal tombs at the castle.
Tragically, a major fire swept through Windsor Castle in 1992. Starting in the Private Chapel, which was being renovated at the time, the fire quickly spread through nine principal state rooms and damaged a hundred others. The fire lasted for over 15 hours and took more than two hundred firefighters to put out. The castle had received heavy smoke, fire, and water damage, with 20% of the castle damaged or destroyed. Thankfully, many of the rooms had been emptied for renovation, meaning many of the priceless valuables stored at the castle were safe.
A public debate ensued as to who should foot the bill for repairs. Traditionally, it was the government's responsibility to pay for repairs, but the British press argued that the queen herself should pay. A compromise was reached where the government would pay, on the condition that Buckingham Palace be made open to the public at select times of the year.
Repairs and restoration work were completed by the end of 1997. Today, Windsor Castle covers roughly thirteen acres of land and was the official residence of Queen Elizabeth II until her death in 2022. During her reign, it was the largest inhabited castle in the world.
What the future holds for Windsor Castle is uncertain. Throughout the centuries, its popularity with various royals has waxed and waned. With the death of Elizabeth II, the future of the very British monarchy itself is up in the air. It is likely that, just like the castle it takes its name from, the British royal family will go through a period of renovation and reinvention.
Top Image: Windsor Castle from the Long Walk at sunset. Source: Diliff / CC BY SA 3.0
By Robbie Mitchell
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