Windsor Castle is the oldest occupied castle in the world and is among one of the oldest castles in the world. Every weekend when in London, Her Majesty The Queen and His Royal Highness The Duke Of Edinburgh reside there as their country home. Many people regard Windsor as Her Majesty’s favourite residence, second only possibly to Sandringham House, her winter retreat.
Windsor’s history goes right back to the foundation of the English Monarchy, right back to William The Conqueror. Surprisingly, even though the origins of the castle go right back to the 1070s, the castle as you see it now is essentially a Georgian/Victorian Castle. Over just under 1,000 years the castle has been adapted, redeveloped, remodelled and restored to the extent that, although the castle is recognisable as a gothic piece of architecture and the ideas incorporated into the castle are essentially gothic, a lot of the face of the castle is based on Georgian, Victorian and some New Elizabethan work to the facade.
Work started on what was to become Windsor Castle in the decade after King William I conquered England. William’s tactics for castle placement were very clever. He built Windsor a distance of what would have been a day’s march from London and the next castle so that in a crisis or during battle, he could easily reform for combat. Also, Windsor was in a good location next to the River Thames, which at the time was a vital transport link through London.
In fact, Windsor’s entire purpose originally was not to house Kings and Queens in palatial splendour, it wasn’t even to house Kings at all – it was just a fortress. In fact, until the reign of Henry I, that’s all it was. Before, Monarchs preferred to use the Palace in Old Windsor that was originally Edward The Confessor’s.
Henry II came to the throne in 1154 and built extensively at Windsor between 1165 and 1179. Henry replaced the wooden palisade surrounding the upper ward with a stone wall interspersed with square towers and built the first King’s Gate. The first stone keep was suffering from subsidence, and cracks were beginning to appear in the stonework of the south side.
From there, Monarchs continued to develop Windsor Castle. Edward III was born in Windsor Castle and went on to form and base what is now the highest order of Chivalry in the United Kingdom there – The Most Noble Order Of The Garter.
Edward III decided to rebuild Windsor Castle, in particular Henry III’s palace, in an attempt to construct a castle that would be symbolic of royal power and chivalry. Edward was influenced both by the military successes of Edward I and by the decline of royal authority under his father, Edward II, and aimed to produce an innovative, “self-consciously aesthetic, muscled, martial architecture”.
In total, Edward III spent over £51,000 on renovating the Castle (around £22,000,000 in today’s money ($35,475,000 USD)), a staggering amount of money.
The castle was and still is a royal favourite. For Henry VIII, the castle was more like a giant playground. Sources show that he enjoyed Windsor as a young man, “exercising himself daily in shooting, singing, dancing, wrestling, casting of the bar, playing at the recorders, flute, virginals, in setting of songs and making of ballads”. King Henry rebuilt the principal castle gateway in about 1510 and constructed a tennis court at the base of the motte in the Upper Ward.
George I took little interest in Windsor Castle, preferring his other palaces at St James’s, Hampton Court and Kensington. George II rarely used Windsor either, preferring Hampton Court. Many of the apartments in the Upper Ward were given out as “grace and favour” privileges for the use of prominent widows or other friends of the Crown. The Duke of Cumberland made the most use of the property in his role as the Ranger of Windsor Great Park. By the 1740s, Windsor Castle had become an early tourist attraction; wealthier visitors who could afford to pay the castle keeper could enter, see curiosities such as the castle’s narwhal horn, and by the 1750s buy the first guidebooks to Windsor, produced by George Bickham in 1753 and Joseph Pote in 1755. This is considered the start of tourism of Royal Palaces.
In a strange twist from hereon in, the third King George took a liking to Windsor, as a result of disliking Hampton Court and decided to move into Queen’s lodge. Initially the atmosphere at the castle remained very informal, with local children playing games inside the Upper and Lower Wards, and the royal family frequently seen as they walked around the grounds. As time went by, however, access for visitors became more limited.
Queen Victoria and Prince Albert went on to make Windsor Castle their principal royal residence, despite Queen Victoria complaining early in her reign that the castle was “dull and tiresome” and “prison-like”, and preferring Osborne and Balmoral as holiday residences.
Prince Albert died in the Blue Room of Windsor Castle in 1861. Queen Victoria insisted on Albert’s clothes being laid out every day and put the castle into a state of mourning for many years. Towards the end of her reign plays, operas and other entertainments slowly began to be held at the castle again, accommodating both the Queen’s desire for entertainment and her reluctance to be seen in public.
Edward VII came to the throne in 1901 and immediately set about modernising Windsor Castle with “enthusiasm and zest”. Many of the rooms in the Upper Ward were de-cluttered and redecorated for the first time in many years, with Edward “peering into cabinets; ransacking drawers; clearing rooms formerly used by the Prince Consort and not touched since his death; dispatching case-loads of relics and ornaments to a special room in the Round Tower. George V continued a process of more gradual modernisation, assisted by Queen Mary, who had a strong interest in furniture and decoration.
On the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939 the castle was readied for war-time conditions. Many of the staff from Buckingham Palace were moved to Windsor for safety, security was tightened and windows were blacked-out. During WW2, the then Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret were moved to Windsor for safety, with the possibility of them being moved to Canada ruled out and Buckingham Palace considered too dangerous. In fact, although it’s reported the King and Queen remained in Buckingham Palace full-time, this is not so! In evenings, the King and Queen drove out of central London to retire to the safety of Windsor.
When we come to the reign of our current Queen, Elizabeth II (who, incidentally, is the 40th monarch since William The Conqueror to take the throne) some changes were made to the state apartments, which had been unoccupied mostly since Queen Mary. Other than that, repairs were minimal, as was development, that is, until The Windsor Castle Fire.
On 20th November 1992, a lamp caught a curtain in the Private Chapel at Windsor on fire. This originally small fire spread rapidly throughout the castle, more or less gutting 9 of the principal state apartments. Fire-fighters applied water to contain the blaze, whilst castle staff attempted to rescue the precious artworks from the castle. In the end, repairs to the castle were said to have cost over £40 million.
Nowadays, Windsor Castle remains a principle residence of the Monarch and is often used for state functions, in place of Buckingham Palace. It is also a tourist hotspot, with tourist numbers almost going into the millions some years!