In Windsor, England, just 20 miles west of Buckingham Palace, lies the largest and longest occupied castle in Europe, Windsor Castle. Windsor Castle has over 1000 rooms, more than 300 fireplaces and houses a substantial portion of the Royal Collection, including furniture, paintings and armor. It is the Queen’s weekend home, where she goes to escape from a hectic London.
And the reigning royalty of the British Isles has occupied the site for more than a millennium.
Windsor as a royal residence dates back to at least Saxon times. Windsor Forest was a favorite hunting ground of the Saxon kings. It was also strategically important because of its location on the River Thames.
After William the Conqueror defeated Harold Godwinson, the last Saxon king, he began building a ring of fortifications around London. His great keep was the Tower of London, but he also built a series of nine motte and bailey castles around London. The castles were no more than 20 miles away from the Tower and no more than 25 miles away from each other – so that help, if needed, was never more than a day’s march away.
Henry I was the first monarch to use the castle as a primary residence. Henry II built extensively at Windsor between 1165 and 1179. He constructed the stone round tower in the middle ward as well as the stone outer walls on the upper ward. Henry III built the stone walls on the lower ward as well as three new towers between 1224 and 1230. He also built one of the first royal chapels at Windsor; that chapel no longer exists but the Albert Memorial Chapel occupies its place and houses the remains of George III, George IV and William IV.
Edward III used Windsor Castle extensively during his reign. He spent a great deal of time and money converting Windsor Castle from a military fortress to a residential castle. Edward IV began St. George’s Chapel, which was completed in 1528. It ranks next to Westminster Abbey as a royal mausoleum and contains the bodies of Henry VI, Edward IV, Henry VIII and Jane Seymour, Charles I, Edward VII, and George V. It also contains the body of the Queen Mother and her husband, King George VI, as well as Princess Margaret.
But there is a great deal more than chapels and stone curtain walls to see at Windsor. George IV, who attained the throne in 1820, immediately set about lavishly refurbishing multiple palaces and castles, including Windsor. Many of today’s most attractive and notable features of Windsor Castle are attributed to him.
One example is the State Apartments. Charles II built the apartments to rival Versailles in France. But it was George IV who built the grand entrance and staircase, as well as the Waterloo Chamber (to commemorate Napoleon’s defeat). Today the State Apartments house some of the most valuable pieces of artwork from the Royal Collection, including pieces by Rembrandt, Rubens and Canaletto.
The Semi-State Rooms were also built by George IV as his private apartments and are some of the most lushly decorated spaces in the entire castle. The November 1992 fire badly damaged the Semi-State Rooms, though most of the contents of the room were saved. Royal Collection pieces in these rooms include items by Sèvres, Knapton and Vulliamy. Today the Queen uses the Semi-State Rooms for official entertaining.
One of the most popular rooms to visit is Queen Mary’s Dolls’ House. British architect Sir Edwin Lutyens worked for three years, from 1921 to 1924, to build this room. The result is arguably the most famous dollhouse in the world. It is a nearly perfect 1:12 scale replica of a 1920s aristocratic home. It includes a library filled to bursting with books from the literary titans of the time, a fully stocked wine cellar and a garden created by Gertrude Jekyll. It even has working electricity, hot and cold running water and operating lifts (elevators).
St. George’s Chapel is not to be missed, for a number of reasons. First and foremost, it is one of the finest examples of Gothic architecture in all of England. It is particularly noted for its stone fan vaulting. Second, it is the home of the Order of the Garter, the senior order of British chivalry, established by Edward III in 1348. Third, it is a royal peculiar, meaning that the chapel is not subject to a bishop or archbishop; it owes its allegiance directly to the Queen. Fourth and finally, it holds the tombs of ten sovereigns, including Henry VIII and Charles I. It is also the planned burial place of Queen Elizabeth II.
Beyond the castle walls, in Home Park, is Frogmore. Frogmore is no longer an occupied royal residence like Windsor, but the royal family frequently uses it for entertaining. Frogmore was a favorite place of Queen Victoria, who visited often during her long widowhood. There are numerous watercolors painted by Queen Victoria and her daughters, Princesses Victoria and Louise, on display. And the lavish mausoleum that Queen Victoria built after Albert’s death from typhoid in 1861 is at Frogmore; they both are buried there.
And these delights barely scratch the surface of all there is to see and do at Windsor Castle. The entire castle complex (Lower Ward, Middle Ward with Round Tower and Upper Ward) covers 13 acres. When you include Home Park and Windsor Great Park, the compound covers more than 5000 acres. Make sure to take the time to approach from the Long Walk for iconic views of the castle. The Changing of the Guard, similar to Buckingham Palace, is a stirring show.
And in 2018, we saw the much-anticipated union of Prince Harry and Markle in St. George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle. The streets of Windsor welcomed the couple in a horse-drawn carriage procession preceding the wedding. Explore the royal pockets of Britain with an Authentic England vacation. All of our itineraries include unique activities and authentic properties. We can work with any budget and can cater activities based on your personal tastes.