By Simon Woodhouse
Situated on the outskirts of London, Windsor Castle is the largest inhabited castle in the world. It’s also quite old, with the site having originally served as a base for William the Conqueror nearly a thousand years ago. Being made of wood, the structure William built has long since disappeared, but the strategic importance of the area wasn’t lost on subsequent monarchs, many of who oversaw Windsor’s numerous face-lifts and expansions.
In 1154, King Henry II built the first stone wall around the castle, part of which has survived, albeit very changed, until today. Being in such a strategic location – guarding the city of London from the west, the castle often came under attack. King Henry III repaired a substantial amount of damage in 1216, after the building had been besieged and assaulted by disgruntled English barons. Not long after this the Curfew Tower was built, a structure still visible today. For quite a while thereafter the castle didn’t change very much, until in 1350 King Edward III indulged himself. He knocked down everything accept the Curfew Tower, and rebuilt from scratch. Twenty-four years later the job was done, at least for the time being.
St George’s chapel, probably one of the most famous parts of the castle, has been rebuilt and subsequently fallen down again, many times over the years. In 1475, King Edward IV decided to really make a good job of it, and started a gothic style structure so grand it became more like a cathedral than a chapel. Though it fell to Henry VIII to finish the job fifty years later, it was well worth the effort, as the chapel turned out to be a magnificent building.
As different monarchs came and went, the castle’s popularity changed too. Seen as a bleak, unwelcoming place by some kings and queens, it wasn’t until 1660 and the reign of Charles II, that Windsor once again had a face-lift. The Palace of Versailles was also being built around this time, and some of Windsor’s layout was modelled on the French palace. But following Charles II death, the castle fell out of favour once more and slipped into a state of disrepair. Then in 1804, George III needed somewhere to house himself, his wife and their thirteen children, so Windsor became a working castle once more. A few years, later George IV persuaded Parliament to give him 300,000 pounds, which he used to revamp Windsor in the most extensive building programme of the castle’s long history.
Queen Victoria spent a lot of time at Windsor, and used her power and influence to have several public roads rerouted, thus allowing the castle grounds to be used exclusively by the royal family. The current Queen of England, Elizabeth II, uses Windsor as her principle weekend retreat. In 1992, fire severely damaged a large part of the castle, but all the destruction has since been repaired, the funds for which (thirty seven million pounds) came largely from the Queen’s own pocket.
Today Windsor Castle is one of Britain’s leading tourist attractions. Covering thirteen acres, the castle allows visitors to see where past and present monarchs live. The British Royal Family have always been lovers of fine art, and much of their collection can be seen in the State Apartments. Paintings hanging there include works by Rembrandt, Rubens, Canaletto, Gainsborough and a very famous triple portrait of Charles I by Sir Anthony van Dyck. A collection of armor is also on display there. Besides the artwork and the armor, the apartments are magnificent chambers within their own right. A palpable sense of majesty hangs in the air, reinforced by the sort of furniture and decor you’d expect to find in a royal palace. Sumptuous would probably be the best word to describe wants on show.
St George’s Chapel is open to the public six days a week, but closed on Sundays for services to be held. Besides being a truly glorious structure inside and out, the chapel is also the last resting place of ten English monarchs, including Henry the VIII and his third wife Jane Seymour. The chapel is also the chapel of the Most Noble Order of the Garter, Britain’s highest Order of Chivalry. Pomp and ceremony still play a part in everyday life at Windsor, with the Changing of the Guard taking place at 11am every day, accept on Sundays.
Besides the apartments and the chapel, the castle itself makes for an impressive spectacle, both from within its walls, and outside in the grounds. For an excellent photo opportunity, the Long Walk that leads up to the castle from the south is a must. Created as part of Charles II restoration work, the approach is three miles long and lined with Chestnut trees. The castle dominates the skyline at the end of the Long Walk, and this gives the visitor a truly impressive perspective of its grandness.
Even people not particularly interested in British history will still enjoy a visit to Windsor Castle. The atmosphere inside and out is one of majesty. It’s almost as if the building’s history is a tangible thing in its own right, something that can be felt as well as seen. And knowing just a fraction of the castle’s past makes any visit that much more enjoyable.