Here to return to
AS it appears from the railway train, Windsor’s round tower rising above the trees behind Slough becomes too familiar for comment. Straining our eyes, perhaps, to see if the standard hangs above it as a sign that the royal family is in residence, we think vaguely of the castle as a palace; a place like Hampton Court, that should be worth visiting some day. We are not like the French, who have to regard Belfort, or Toul, or Verdun, as forts commanding a pass, a river, or a road. For nearly five centuries England has been an unfortified country, and, theoretically at least, the Government would surrender at once to an enemy who succeeded in crushing the naval defence. So we have no reason to think of Windsor as “commanding “the railway; and if we approach London from the west, crossing the river at Staines, there is no thought in our minds of the garrison at Windsor giving us protection.
But anyone who undertakes the tedious journey to London by river receives another impression. By the time Oxford, Wallingford, and Reading have been passed, the Thames has become no longer the scene for a day’s leisurely outing, but a highway, with Windsor towering above the river, the key to London at the end of the road.
William the Conqueror, the first ruler since the Romans to subordinate the whole of England to a unified strategic plan, was faced with the problem of safeguarding the two great approaches to London from the west — the one, that system of Roman roads that ends in Oxford Street, and the other the Thames. In his blockade of London, William himself went as far north as Wallingford before crossing the river. Subsequently, as the defender of London, he could find neither at the Goring Gap nor at Staines a position within easy reach of London which offered a natural defence in command of both road and river. But Windsor had these advantages: its site commanded the Thames, and was within two hours’ march of Staines and Maidenhead, and a long day’s march of his capital. There was a bluff overlooking a bend in the river and surmounted by a mound, which had possibly been already fortified by the Romans and under the Heptarchy. And at Old Windsor, not far away, was the royal “vill” of the Saxon kings.
By the time of Edward the Confessor the military value of the riverside manor was so little appreciated that he had granted it “to Christ and the Abbey of St. Peter at Westminster.” William at once resumed possession, giving the monks in ex change various manors, including “St. Patrick’s Isle,” which we know as Battersea. Nominally, perhaps, he intended it as a hunting-lodge, but, in fact, he threw up earthworks there which made the place as strong as any of the period.
The present shape of Windsor is an oblong enclosure forming three wards, of which the mound in the middle crowned by the keep and a ditch with a small enclosure around it makes the centre ward. Some have said that the Conqueror merely palisaded the mound and the eastern ward after the usual pattern of a Norman mound-and-bailey castle. More probably he gave it at once its present form; in fact, both Nottingham and Arundel are examples that the early Norman builders did not always limit themselves to one ward. At first, however, there were probably no stone defences, but ditch, earthen rampart, and a continuous stockade made these for a time unnecessary. In the eastern, or upper ward, were the royal lodgings.
For a time the Norman kings continued to use the Confessor’s “vill” at Old Windsor as a royal residence. There is no mention in the chronicles of New Windsor until Henry of Huntingdon tells us that Henry I in 1110 held his court in that place “which he himself had built,” and in 1121 he married in the castle chapel his second Queen, Adela of Louvain. In other words, Henry probably did something to make Windsor particularly his own. He began, most likely, to replace the wooden defences with stone, although it is curious that the rebel Robert de Mowbray should have been imprisoned there by Rufus after the siege of Bamburgh, if there were no permanent buildings already erected.
Under Henry II a casual reference here and there in the chronicles is replaced by definite entries in the royal accounts. He was a great builder at Windsor, for he raised the Great Tower in stone, constructed four towers on the eastern curtain, and four on the south side which he connected with curtain walls; and, in addition to this, he rebuilt the royal lodgings in the upper ward, which he enclosed with a wall. Henry III brought the work of fortification to its highest point, but he also erected more magnificent buildings within the wards, so that if to-day we find Windsor a palace, we feel that it has become so without violation of its early military traditions. Matthew of Westminster, describing how Prince Edward, son of Henry III, filled Windsor with troops, spoke of the fortress-palace appropriately as “that very flourishing castle than which, at that time, there was not another more splendid within the bounds of Europe.”
The only serious siege suffered by Windsor was at the hands of the Count de Nevers and the Barons in opposition to John after the signing of the Charter. For three months a large and well-equipped army assaulted the castle, but petraria and battering ram were used in vain until the attempt had to be abandoned. But if its strength was never seriously tried, this was merely a sign of its high reputation. By the situation which it commanded, Windsor exerted a predominant, though passive, influence upon all mediæval campaigns centring around London, and it is significant that Edward I, the greatest of English castle builders, made no improvement in its fortifications.
Edward III, who was born at Windsor, often stayed there, and added much to its tradition as a palace. Influenced by the chivalry of his age, he conceived the idea of gathering a body of knights to his Round Table “in the same manner and condition as the Lord Arthur, formerly King of England, appointed it . . . and he would cherish it according to his power.” For this purpose he proceeded to build a tower in the upper ward to house a great table, and at one time he was spending £100 a week on the work. It was never finished, however, and to-day not a trace remains, for by 1348 Edward’s ideas had undergone a change. He founded instead the Order of the Garter, an order of which the insignia, a garter, and the motto, Honi soit qui mal y pense, inevitably produced a crop of legends.
It was the foundation of the Garter Order which made Edward remodel Henry III’s chapel of St. Edward as a chapel for his knights. This chapel has had a curious history. When Edward IV built the larger and more glorious St. George’s Chapel at its western end, it became a Lady Chapel which Henry VII re-edified, proposing to use it as a shrine for Henry VI and a burial-place for English kings. Instead, he raised the beautiful building bearing his name at Westminster, and in course of time Cardinal Wolsey, once canon of Windsor, was to be found supervising the erection of his own sarcophagus in the chapel, a sarcophagus which to-day covers the body of Nelson in the crypt of St. Paul’s Cathedral. Henry VIII again resumed possession of the Lady Chapel, which seemed to be of ill-omen to those who desired it for a burial-place. His plans for a royal tomb were never completed, and it was left for Queen Victoria to convert it into a Memorial Chapel to the Prince Consort, whose body lies at Frogmore. Beautiful as the exterior of the Albert Memorial Chapel is, it is quite eclipsed by St. George’s Chapel, the glory of Windsor, a master piece in the Perpendicular style, which ranks second only to Westminster Abbey as a treasure-house of English art and architecture. In the stalls and stall plates of the Knights of the Garter it possesses a unique glory, yet it is known hardly to one in every ten of those who love to visit the Abbey. It contains also the bodies of Edward IV, Henry VI, Henry VIII, and Charles I, while the best craftsmen of the late Middle Ages have left, as a legacy, a noble series of screens in wood, iron, stone, and even bronze work which reaches its perfection in the iron gates built for Edward IV’s chantry chapel.
The Kings of England had a tradition to keep up in a palace which was connected with William of Wykeham, who there began his architectural career, and the courtier-poet Geoffrey Chaucer, who was Clerk of the Works, a sinecure which he probably enjoyed more as a courtier than as a poet. The Tudors and Stuarts deserve well enough of the critics, but William and Mary allowed Wren to exercise his taste in surroundings not altogether suited to the architect of the City churches. It is rather surprising that we have to thank George IV for the improvements carried out under the supervision of Sir Jeffrey Wyattville. Not many visitors realize that the Great Tower, originally built in two stories, was carried successfully to its present height only at the beginning of the last century, and we owe to Wyattville the tactful removal of some eighteenth-century incongruities.
Windsor should draw many visitors because it awakens such different interests. Some are drawn by the romance of battlements, some by the ecclesiastical glories of St. George’s Chapel, and some by the splendid furniture, the carvings of Grinling Gibbons, the many paintings of Van Dyck, Rubens, and the great English artists in the State Apartments. However, as the attendance at the National Gallery falls below the attendance at the Zoo, it is not surprising that Windsor’s short distance from London should further discourage our contemporaries, who can amuse themselves at home by all the usual methods which do not call for an appreciation of history, art, or architecture.
There should be, nevertheless, a new interest for Englishmen in a castle whose walls are so largely the work of the Norman kings, now that it has been made the caput honoris of the reigning house. Throughout English history Windsor has been the castle par excellence; and it is in recognition of this that it has become the family seat of the House of Windsor.
WINDSOR CASTLE (THE NORMAN GATE)