While Windsor Castle has never been first among the many castles and palaces located around London, no other royal residence has withstood the test of time so well. As home to the royal family it has long surpassed its earliest contemporary, the Tower of London. As a country getaway it has outlived the primary residences at Westminster, Whitehall and St. James. And while Buckingham Palace is still the official residence of the monarchy, Windsor Castle has been the royal family’s favorite since the days of Queen Victoria. Located in the green countryside of the Town of Windsor, this fairytale palace seems a thousand miles away from the hectic pace of London. Throngs of tourists visit every day, making Windsor Castle one of the most popular daytrips from London.
Windsor Castle began as little more than a wooden stockade on a low round hill nearly a thousand years ago. Possibly the site of an older Saxon structure, William the Conqueror built the original fortifications here around 1075 AD to guard the western road into London. It remained a garrison and watch point for the Normans for the next few decades, until William’s son Henry I replaced the original wooden fortifications with a stone keep early in the 12th century. It was further expanded into a full-fledged castle and royal residence in the 1170s, when Henry II expanded the outer walls, built the round tower and added apartments for the royal family. By this time Windsor Castle was regularly being used by the monarchy as an out-of-town residence, third in importance only after the Palace of Westminster and the Tower of London.
During the late 12th and early 13th centuries, Windsor Castle became caught up in the struggles surrounding the ascension of King John. It was besieged twice during his John’s reign. The first time took place in 1189, when supporters of King Richard the Lionheart challenged the usurped authority of then-Prince John. The second time took place in 1216, soon after King John was forced to sign the Magna Carta at Runnymeade. Although heavily damaged, Windsor Castle was restored and expanded during the reign of John’s son and successor, Henry III. The oldest remaining sections of the modern-day castle date from this period, including the Curfew Tower.
During the 14th and 15th centuries, the monarchy began spending substantial sums on improvements to Windsor. Edward III established the Order of the Garter at Windsor in the 1348 and built the famous St. George’s Hall for their use. A century later it was joined by the magnificent St. George’s Chapel. Nevertheless, Windsor was regarded still as a fortress first and foremost, and frequently used during the War of the Roses, and later during the Tudor period, as a safe haven for the royal family. Unfortunately for the Stuarts, Windsor proved less secure than originally thought. The Castle was seized by Oliver Cromwell and the Roundheads in 1642, and was used as their headquarters until the restoration of the monarchy in 1660.
After the restoration, Charles II decided rebuild Windsor Castle in grand style, turning it into a modern palatial showpiece. All of the damage done during the civil war was repaired, and the old royal apartments were converted into a stunning baroque palace. The castle landscaping was also overhauled, adding the tree-lined Long Walk and the Windsor Great Park. Later additions and improvements during the 18th and 19th century completed the work of transforming Windsor into one of the world’s most beautiful castles. It became the favorite residents of the Saxe-Coburgs, and during World War I, when anti-German sentiment was at its height, George V adopted the name of Windsor as the new royal house. A major fire damaged large portions of Windsor Castle in 1992, followed by five years of substantial restoration work. It is rumored that Prince Charles may formally move the royal court from Buckingham Palace to Windsor Castle upon his future ascension to the throne.
Windsor Castle is roughly divided into three sections: the Round Tower, the Lower Ward and the Upper Ward. Although the Round Tower, the castle’s centerpiece, has been rebuilt and restored numerous times, it still occupies the original hill chosen by William the Conqueror nearly a millennium ago. Along with the Norman Gate, the Round Tower separates the Lower Ward from the upper Ward. The Lower Ward, at the bottom of the hill and closest to the town, boasts some of the oldest precincts of the Castle, including the Curfew Tower at Windsor’s extreme western end. The main entrance to the Lower Ward is through the King Henry VIII Gate. The centerpiece of the Lower Ward is St. George’s Chapel, the castle’s private cathedral. Ten monarchs from the 15th through the 20th centuries, including Henry VIII, are buried inside.
The Upper Ward, at the top of the hill, is the location of the palace proper. Three large wings surround an open courtyard. The state rooms are located in the north wing, while private apartments occupy the east and south wings. The Long Walk descends from the South Wing beyond the palace to the Windsor Great Park. Among the many highlights of the Upper Ward are the Grand Vestibule, the Queen’s Audience Chamber, and St. George’s Hall. The halls and rooms which were destroyed in the 1992 fire were all located in the Upper Ward wings. However, the repairs were done with such attention to detail that the damaged areas appear little different than they did two decades ago.
Windsor Castle is located in the City of Windsor, approximately 27 miles west of Central London. It is open to the public every day of the year except for December 25 & 26. From March to October the Castle is open from 9:45am-5:15pm; and from November to February from 9:45am-4:15pm. Portions of Windsor Castle may be periodically closed for state or royal family use. Admission is L13.50 for adults and L7.50 for children (discounts for students and senior citizens; under five free). Web: http://www.windsor.gov.uk/things-to-do/windsor-castle-p43983(official site).
The area immediately in and around London is home to literally dozens of spectacular castles and palaces. Many of the major sites are treated separately in this work, including the Tower of London, the other major pre-Tudor royal residence extent in the area. Most of the other great royal residence palaces around London date from later periods.