By Jonathan Reed
Video supplied by Royal Collection Trust©
Photography supplied by Reed Gallery, Royal Collection Trust©
Described as a building with two identities; an historic fortress which has stood for near 1000 years, and the opulent home of the Monarch; Windsor Castle has been a physical insignia of majesty, strength, history, heritage and stability. Its place in British society and consciousness has been a constant reminder of our evolving Monarchy and their prestige. Windsor allows us to pull back the curtain on the Sovereign’s way of life, delving into history, whilst also looking to the future. This wonderful castle is constant, enveloping Britain’s identity, reminding us who we once were, who we are, and what we will always be.
After the Battle of Hastings left William, Duke of Normandy in possession of the English throne, he set about constructing castles across every part of the country. Unlike to the rebelling Normans, these structures were not just utilised for military and administrative purposes, they were also highly symbolic.
Windsor Castle was born from these elements. Scouring the landscape of Old Windsor, the former Duke of Normandy, now William The Conqueror, settled on a site both close to the River Thames and a forest ideal for hunting. It was here where the first castle was constructed, set high on a large manmade mound, known as a motte. A simple wooden keep, it was one of the largest ever built in England, and remarkably still survives today.
As time passed by, this keep would become a home to Monarchy within the reign of Henry I in 1110. Constructing a group of stone buildings, known as the King’s Houses, they stood in what is now the Upper Ward. From here onwards Windsor Castle would begin its consistent transformation from fortress, to a castle befitting kings and queens.
This transformative process would see Windsor become the staple of allegiance to the Monarchy, as it was here in 1346 Edward III established an Order befitting his kingship. Inspired by tales of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, Edward envisaged a fraternity of elite knights; warriors who could support his ambition in reclaiming the French Crown itself.
His first attempt at founding an Order of the Round Table was a failure, but after the successful battle of Crecy in August 1346, he formed The Order of the Garter. Awarded to those loyal to the King and his heir, The Black Prince, more importantly it was seen as a symbol of Edward’s claim to the French Crown. So much so, that the Order’s motto Honi soit quimal y pense (‘shame on him who thinks evil of it), is reference to the King’s claim and condemns all those who question it.
The Garter is the oldest and most senior order of chivalry in Britain and even today many of its traditions continue. The Queen is Sovereign of the Order, there is the Companionship of 26, including the Prince of Wales, and many other senior members of the Royal Family are also Knights, including the Duke of Cambridge. Unlike in the past, today the annual Garter Day procession takes place in June, with the Queen and the rest of the Order wearing the distinctive Garter robes.
Whilst the Order of the Garter is a symbol of Windsor Castle’s relevance to those loyal to the Monarch, it also serves as a pilgrimage to those loyal to God Himself.
The College of St George and St George’s Chapel has been integral in the relationship between Monarchy and faith. Founded, again in 1346, the Chapel we see today was finally completed under the reign of Henry VIII in 1528. Due to the College’s special status as a royal foundation it was spared during the Reformation, ensuring that St George’s Chapel remains today, not only as a place of daily worship, but as the sovereign fabric of Windsor.
Within these sacred walls are just some of those who have been draped in that fabric. The Queen’s grandparents, George V and Queen Mary rest within the nave. Her parents, George VI and Queen Elizabeth, The Queen Mother are buried within the King George VI Memorial Chapel alongside her sister Princess Margaret. But perhaps the Chapel’s most famous resident could easily go unnoticed.
Within the ornate quire, situated against the chequered marble floor, sits the unassuming tomb of England’s most speculated and infamous king – Henry VIII. The Monarch who famously married six wives, beheading two in the process, rests within a vault alongside his greatest love, Jane Seymour. Interred within the same tomb is the only British Monarch ever to be executed, Charles I and an infant of Queen Anne.
Walking through the quire, it is a surreal realisation that the man who came to steer the power and relevance of the Sovereign in a whole new direction by creating the Church of England, would be buried in such a modest tomb. Mainly due to the numerous changes to Henry’s will, and a lack of funding for his original grand shrine, the King who murdered two Queens was never awarded the burial he so confidently deemed he deserved.
But like so much of Windsor Castle, St George’s Chapel proudly displays its impressive history whilst paving the way for the future. In 2018, it was here where the royal weddings of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex and Princess Eugenie and Jack Brooksbank took place. Beneath the magnificent stone fan-vaulting of the quire added by Henry VII, the continuing presence of the Monarchy was consecrated, and similarly to the wedding of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge at Westminster Abbey, invited a whole new generation into the royal fold.
Those generations, in their millions, descend on Windsor Castle every year. Some hope that when The Queen is in residence, they may just capture a glimpse of Britain’s longest serving Monarch. Others marvel at the sumptuous architecture and splendid interior design. In 1992, however, Windsor’s lavishness faced a threat unlike any in its vast and enduring history.
On the morning of 20 November, a spotlight ignited a fire which spread across one of the curtains in the Private Chapel. The alarm was raised immediately with the emergency services arriving shortly afterward. Sadly, it was much too late. Due to the ferocious speed of the blaze through the roof voids, the fire had grown out of control. What had originally been an operation to dowse the fire quickly shifted to controlling the flames. This resulted in much of the castle being destroyed and after 15 hours of a tyrannical inferno, a total of 115 rooms were affected and £35 million worth of damage had been inflicted.
Amongst the charred remains of her beloved home, The Queen was described as “devastated”, and with one nightmare after another, she would famously pronounce 1992 as her “annus horribilis”. Once the true extent of the damage had been surveyed, work began on the restoration process. This would include the ‘equivalent restoration’ of the Green Drawing Room, the Crimson Dining Room, the Grand Reception Room, the State Dining Room and the Octagon Dining Room. Finishing almost a year before schedule and symbolically on The Queen and Prince Phillip’s Golden Wedding anniversary, five years to the date of the fire, Windsor Castle was restored, ready for a new era of glory.
Some have stated that the horrifying inferno of 1992 was the darkest part of the Queen’s reign, but in hindsight, it demonstrated the enduring power of her beloved castle. Windsor, quite literally, rose from the ashes restored, renewed and greatly revered.
Today, Windsor castle looks vastly different from the wooden keep that sat atop a motte within the reign of William The Conqueror almost a thousand years ago. Since its inception, this royal home has transformed into an indominable backdrop set against a quintessential British landscape. Yet what Windsor represents is more than just the oldest and largest inhabited castle in the world. It denotes a constantly changing Monarchy, one which adapts and transforms with the times.
Windsor reminds you that Monarchy and The Queen are two different entities. Kings and queens come and go, but Sovereignty; the Monarch remains constant. They walk parallel to one another, but never cross paths. This revered castle embodies this notion. It has existed through 41 kings and queens as a symbol, not of their legacies or failures, but of their reigns.
Buckingham Palace, the headquarters of the Monarchy; the place where the sovereign wheel smoothly continues to turn; it is easy to see the palace as the Royal Family’s brain. Every decision, manoeuvre, announcement stems from behind those black iron gates. But if Buckingham Palace is the brain, then Windsor Castle is the Monarchy’s heart, constantly beating, ensuring that the symbolic emblems of the Royal Family remain as integral to Britain’s history, heritage and most importantly, future.
Thanks to the Royal Collection Trust and all the wonderful staff at Windsor Castle for helping organise our visit!