Windsor Castle returned to the public eye when Prince Harry married Meghan Markle on 19 May 2018. But the castle itself is the star, spanning Norman, gothic, medieval, Tudor, baroque and modern eras and styles. Ceri Jones takes a look at this building so deeply rooted in British history.
Often referred to as Queen Elizabeth II’s weekend home and her favourite of the royal palaces, Windsor Castle stands apart due to its age and origins. It is the oldest and largest occupied castle in the world, sitting on 10.5 hectares of land. Unlike other UK royal residences that were mostly purchased by or gifted to the crown from nobility, Windsor is an ancient structure built for royalty and handed down through generations.
Windsor, carrying the name of the modern British royal family, was built by Frenchman William the Conqueror during his struggle to rule England from across the Channel during 1070-1086. The original design was a rudimentary timber motte and bailey stronghold, providing a tactical position to protect the Thames Valley from invasion, overlooking the surrounding miles and offering local hunting parks.
After his rule, in 1110, Henry I saw its appeal and took up residence – the first English monarch of 39 to do so and the first of many to make their mark. Over the centuries that followed, the castle began to take shape. Henry I constructed royal apartments in timber, which Henry II had rebuilt in stone. Then Henry III, a fan of court culture and richness felt the need for space and produced the quadrangle masonry that made up the foundations of the building today, minus the roundhouse.
Windsor through the ages
Windsor underwent significant changes in the reign of Edward III, between 1357-1377. Edward III remodelled the whole building in the gothic style, added a vast staff kitchen, which is still in place today, and built the infamous undercroft – a medieval structure that served as a cellar, larder and dining hall. This undercroft is one of the oldest surviving parts of Windsor Castle.
Next came the iconic St George’s chapel, started in the reign of Edward IV and completed 50 years later under Henry VIII. The chapel is potent in royal history, being the burial place of ten monarchs and the location of the 2018 royal wedding.
Entering the Tudor era, Henry VIII had now finished the chapel and added an entrance gate and terrace, but little else. By the time of his daughter Elizabeth I’s reign, it needed a great deal of maintenance. The wooden terrace was replaced with stone and long indoor halls were made so Elizabeth I could still take walks during poor weather.
Over the few next centuries, Windsor gained new facets according to the occupier’s tastes – a magnificent library from Elizabeth I, a gallery of paintings from Charles I and a ransacking by Cromwell when it was used as a prison in the English civil war of 1642-1651. But soon it dropped the sombre elements and was re-dressed in the full decadence of the Restoration, when in the 1660s Charles II restored the plundered galleries and chapels, and transformed the sober royal apartments into baroque masterpieces. He also commissioned the 2.64-mile Long Walk to the entrance, so familiar today due to its appearance in television broadcasts.
In George III’s time, he repaired and restored the castle facades and built an inner hall and royal staircase, due to his decision to return court proceedings to Windsor. But later, George IV remodelled the entire castle, destroying the new staircase to create vast, sweeping halls. He also extended the gallery walks, raised the round tower and created the Waterloo Chamber. In just ten years between 1820-1830, George IV changed the entire aesthetic of Windsor Castle, transforming it in to the gothic romantic structure we recognise today.
While Queen Victoria made only modest structural changes, she cemented Windsor as the ceremonial palace of the British monarch by using it as the location for state visits. This necessitated a way to welcome distinguished guests, so the official state entrance door was made.
The people’s palace
Although it was no people’s palace it was rarely used as a residence, so the public could visit Windsor from as early as 1714. By 1825, Queen Victoria formalised entry with tickets and guides, and the volume of daytrippers increased so much that turnstiles had to be installed in 1925, to be replaced with a proper ticket hall to control entrance in 1999.
In 1992, the infamous fire at Windsor Castle, started by a spotlight burning a curtain in Queen Victoria’s chapel, destroyed an enormous portion of the oldest areas of the building, including said chapel, St George’s Hall, the state dining room and the Crimson Drawing Room. It took five years to repair and cost £37m – money refused by Parliament and instead sourced by opening up Buckingham Palace to the paying public.
Windsor, the ancient structure had thereby caused another landmark shift, as over the course of the debate into funding the repairs, the Queen agreed to pay income tax.
Now, the latest renovation works are aimed at improving the functionality of the palace, not for ceremonial or royal residence, but for the public. According to records, more than one and a half million people visit Windsor Castle – and Holyrood Palace in Edinburgh – every year, and its historic value and importance should not be overlooked.
In 2016, The Royal Collection Trust announced a two-year plan to refresh Windsor and Holyrood under the name of the Future Programme. The planned £37m, of which £27m would go to Windsor, was funded entirely by monies from visitor tickets and souvenir purchases, and would take two years to complete. Spurred on by the pressure of Windsor being the venue for Prince Harry’s wedding, exterior work was given priority.
The modern royals
When plans were announced and approved by the Queen, the then-Director of the Royal Collection Trust, Jonathan Marsden, said they were, ‘aimed at making everyone’s experience of the palaces and the royal collections much fuller, more direct and fulfilling’. This would include providing access to a selection of the royal gallery collection, some ceremonial offices and state apartments, and the Edwardian-style doll’s house presented to Queen Mary in 1924 – the world’s largest dolls’ house, which has electric lights, running water and even working lifts.
Also, visitors will be allowed to use the Long Walk, designed by Charles II to re-establish the stateliness of the castle after the civil war, connecting it to the Great Park and hunting grounds via a perfectly straight, elm tree-lined avenue, since replaced with oaks, horse chestnuts and London plane trees. As intended, it presents a stunningly beautiful vista when looking outward, and imposing grandeur when looking in. Naturally, this was for use by royalty and select guests only, and in later years the path was extended to reach the whole way to the castle doors, a grand George IV Gate was added, and a State Tower built to form a ceremonial route, for visitors to enter in elegance but be confined to a specific area. Now, the public will be able to travel this path, and to enter via the grand State Tower entrance, thereby arriving at one of the oldest parts of the building.
‘Future Programme is part of the continuing investment by the charity in the presentation and interpretation of the royal palaces and royal collection,’ Marsden explained. ‘We want to give everyone the best possible start to their visit, […] a proper sense of arrival and let them decide how to go about their visit.
Not only will the masses use the entrance reserved for dignitaries, but they will also be welcomed into the oldest part of the building – the undercroft constructed in Edward III’s reign. ‘This magnificent 14th Century undercroft, where the sovereigns’ household took their meals for centuries, will become the castle’s first café,’ said Marsden. This decision will give the public a far greater insight into the personal lives of the royals – past and present – and create a strong connection the family.
Architect Purcell is leading the works at Windsor Castle, including ensuring step-free access, building a new education centre to provide a space for schools and young children to learn about the royal family and Windsor Castle itself, in a direct and interactive manner. Marsden says this is hoped to ‘interpret the palaces in new ways’, creating new and previously unimaginable ways to make the modern royals more relevant to younger generations, in the manner of a living and breathing museum. Whether that means a cup of tea and scone in Edward III’s dining hall, or attending Sunday service at the chapel where Prince Harry married, the public with get closer than ever to the British royal family.