Originally founded as one of a chain of fortresses to encircle and control London in the wake of the Norman invasion, Windsor Castle later became the headquarters of the Edward III’s chivalric Order of the Garter. The castle evolved into a major Royal residence, a function that continues today, and is currently the largest occupied castle in the world.
Windsor Castle was one of a series of fortifications raised by William I to encircle London in the immediate aftermath of the Saxon defeat at the Battle of Hastings (1066). Situated on the River Thames, Windsor was particularly important in this network for it enabled control of communication with Oxford and the west. The initial fortification was an earth and timber motte-and-bailey structure constructed on top of a chalk bluff that overlooked the river. Set apart from the former Saxon settlement of Old Windsor, which included a stone hall used by Edward the Confessor, it is likely the new castle was built upon a site that was undeveloped forest. Within a few years of the castle being constructed it became apparent that more space was needed and therefore a second bailey was added to the east of the motte. By 1095 the castle was deemed adequate to hold a high status prisoner - Robert de Mowbray, Earl of Northumbria was confined within the new fortification following his failed rebellion against William II.
Henry I, younger son of William I, was the first Norman monarch to make extensive use of Windsor Castle which, by the 1120s, was in a poor state of repair. In particular the motte was suffering from subsidence so was rebuilt with a new shell Keep, built of stone, replacing the former wooden tower. The structure was clearly sufficiently grand for it was at Windsor Castle in 1133 where Henry hosted David I of Scotland. At this meeting both the Scottish King and key magnates swore to recognise Henry’s daughter, Matilda, as heir to the English throne. Despite such pledges, upon Henry’s death in 1135, the country descended into civil war – the Anarchy – between rival claimants for the throne. The succession was finally settled by the Treaty of Wallingford (1153) which acknowledged King Stephen as ruler for life but who was to be succeeded by Matilda’s son, Henry Plantagenet. As guarantee Windsor Castle (along with the Tower of London) were handed over to Richard de Lucy to be held in trust for Henry.
King Stephen died in 1154 and Matilda’s son came to the throne as Henry II. His priority was restoration of Royal power which had been eroded through decades of civil war. This included substantial castle building activities and Windsor was upgraded as part of this scheme. Between 1165 and 1179 the stone Keep (which was already suffering from further subsidence) was rebuilt whilst the timber palisade around the Upper Bailey was replaced with a stone curtain wall augmented with square towers, probably not dissimilar to that seen at Dover Castle.
Henry died in 1189 and was succeeded by King Richard I. He spent much of his early reign abroad engaged on the Third Crusade. His younger brother, Prince John, attempted a coup in 1193 in which he seized Windsor Castle. Forces loyal to the King - led by Walter de Coutances, Archbishop of Rouen - besieged the castle and recaptured it after which it was entrusted to Queen Eleanor. However, when Richard was killed in 1199, John became King acquiring Windsor in the process.
John seems to have favoured Windsor as a residence. However, his inept rule alienated his barons and by early 1215 the country was on the brink of civil war. In June the same year John rode from Windsor during the negotiations that led to the sealing of Magna Carta on 15 June 1215 at nearby Runnymede. That document, which at the time was effectively an attempted peace treaty between the Barons and the King, failed to prevent civil war (the first Barons’ War). The rebels invited Prince Louis of France to overthrow King John and he besieged Windsor Castle between June and September 1216. The castle held out aided by its large garrison of foreign mercenaries and a spirited defence by its constable, Engelard de Cigogné.
With the death of King John in October 1216, the Barons’ War was defused as there was little appetite amongst the magnates to fight his nine-year-old successor, Henry III. During the subsequent peace upgrades were made to the castle including rebuilding the Lower Bailey in stone and adding what would later become known as the Curfew, Garter and Salisbury towers. Henry also upgraded the accommodation adding a substantial palace for his Queen, Eleanor of Provence, within the Upper Bailey.
The use of Windsor declined during the reigns of Edward I and his son, perhaps due to a devastating fire that gutted the castle's Great Hall in 1296. However Edward III was born there in 1312 and, following his accession, he invested heavily in the site. In particular he commenced construction of a vast Round Tower designed as the centrepiece of his new Order of the Garter; a chivalric organisation modelled on the legend of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table. The building was never finished but Windsor remained the organisation’s headquarters and accordingly received extensive Royal funding making it the most expensive and valuable secular building in medieval England. This massive statement of Royal power was employed to good effect when Windsor was used as the prison for King John II of France after his capture at the Battle of Poitiers (1357).
The proximity to London, including the ease of access via the River Thames, meant Windsor continued to be used as a Royal residence. Upgrades to St George's Chapel, both by Richard II and Edward IV, also saw it become a place of Royal burial. Its defences remained credible though with various monarchs using it as a place of strength including Henry VIII, during the Pilgrimage of Grace, and Elizabeth I.
During the Civil War the Royalist control of Oxford led Parliament to fear that the King would advance along the River Thames towards London. Windsor Castle was taken under Parliamentary control by John Venn (whose men ransacked St George's Chapel). Despite an (unsuccessful) attempt by Prince Rupert to take the castle in November 1642, it remained in parliament's hands until the end of the war. Charles I, in custody after the war, was held at Windsor briefly in 1647 and in early 1649. After his execution, on 30 January 1649, his body was laid to rest in St George's Chapel.
By the time of the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660, Windsor Castle was in a poor state of repair and had suffered extensively from looters, squatters and general abandonment. Charles II commenced a series of upgrades, many influenced by the lavish designs he had witnessed during his exile in the court of Louis XIV of France, and also appointed Prince Rupert as Constable in 1668. Charles used Windsor as his residence whilst council meetings were held at nearby Hampton Court Palace.
The castle underwent a significant revision under George III who commissioned the architect James Wyatt to remodel portions of the Upper Ward in the Gothic style. The castle would later become his prison as he drifted into madness and was, from 1810, confined in the State Apartments of Windsor Castle.
Extensive (and expensive) stylisation of the castle was conducted on behalf of George IV between 1824 and 1840 under the direction of Jeffry Wyatville. A gothic theme defined the new changes and it was at this time that the Round Tower was heightened and crafted into its current appearance. Several of the medieval towers were also significantly rebuilt as part of the works. Further upgrades - including further rebuilding of the Curfew, Garter and Salisbury towers – were made during the reign of Queen Victoria. It was also during her reign, with the growing importance of the British Empire coupled with the Queen's dislike of Buckingham Palace, that Windsor was regularly used to host key State visits. Despite this, modernisation of the castle (including fitting of electricity throughout the apartments and central heating) didn’t occur until the reigns of Edward VII and George V. By the outbreak of World War I, Windsor Castle had become the primary residence of the British monarchy and nothing illustrated this more than in 1917 when, with anti-German feeling running high, George V changed the name of his dynasty from Saxe-Coburg and Gotha to the House of Windsor.
During World War II Windsor Castle continued in use as the primary residence of the Royals. Despite propaganda reporting the King and Queen lived in Buckingham Palace throughout the Blitz, sharing the danger with the citizens, they actually lived in Windsor Castle albeit visiting the beleaguered city daily. Various areas within the castle were reinforced to make them bombproof.
Windsor Castle was devastated by a fire that started on 20 November 1992 as a result of an electric spotlight causing a curtain to ignite. The Staterooms in the Upper Ward were gutted and the fabric of much of the castle was damaged by both the fire and water used to extinguish it. A tabloid led campaign argued the Queen should pay for the repairs but, ultimately, it was funded by a partial opening of Buckingham Palace to the public. Work took five years to complete and today, as for the last nine hundred years, the castle remains a Royal residence and is the largest inhabited castle in the world.
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Windsor Castle is a major tourist attraction (allegedly the most visited castle in the UK). Remains from multiple periods can be seen but much of what is visible today dates from a major rebuilding in the nineteenth century. St George’s Chapel, burial place of numerous English monarchs, is within the grounds.
Windsor Castle. The castle occupies the high ground.
Windsor Castle Layout. The castle was originally built with a single bailey - what is today the Lower Ward - but by the early twelfth century had been expanded to include the Upper Ward. Over the subsequent centuries the castle retained this configuration despite substantial rebuilding of its internal structures.
Round Tower. The famous gothic style Round Tower was built by James Wyatt on behalf of George III in the eighteenth century replacing the medieval shell keep. The motte on which it sits formed part of the original Norman fortification but, due to subsidence, was rebuilt on multiple occasions in the twelfth century.
Upper Ward Entrance Castle. The Victorian entrance into the Upper Ward.
Henry VIII Gate. The Henry VIII gate was the main access into the Lower Ward. It was heavily modified during the Victorian era.
Curfew Tower. The Curfew Tower was started by Henry III and rebuilt on multiple occasions. The current appearance dates from the reign of Queen Victoria.
Norman Gateway. This gate provided access into the Upper Ward. The arch is original.
St George’s Chapel. The following English/British monarchs are buried in St George’s Chapel, Windsor:
- Henry VI (re-interned from Chertsey Abbey by Richard III), d.1471
- Edward IV, d.1483
- Henry VIII, d.1547
- Charles I, d.1649
- George III, d.1820
- George IV, d.1830
- William IV, d.1837
- Edward VII, d.1910
- George V, d.1936
- George VI, d.1952
In addition Queen Victoria and Edward VIII are buried nearby in Windsor Home Park.
Victoria Reigns. The castle may boast a long and distinguished history but the vast bulk of what is visible today is much newer - predominantly nineteenth century.
Windsor Castle is a major tourist attraction and accordingly very well sign-posted. There are multiple parking facilities (pay and display) within immediate vicinity of the site. One option is shown below.
Car Parking Option