We were leaving London today and heading northwest for a stay in the Cotswolds. There was some talk early in the planning stages of the trip of renting a few cars and driving ourselves around the sceptered isle. However, the whole everything-on-the-other-side aspect of traffic and steering wheels would have undoubtedly resulted in getting lost/separated, damaged vehicles and property, possible injuries, and harsh accusations of incompetence from local drivers and pedestrians. So we decided the safest bet was to rent a van that could transport the eleven of us and hire a local driver. Pricey as it may seem on the surface, we figured we were saving money on foreign lawsuits in the long run.
Our driver, Sebastian, sported a look best described as “Russian mob,” but seemed friendly enough as he loaded our approximately 11,000 pieces of luggage while dragging on his ever-present cigarette.
There were two sightseeing stops on the way, and the first one came after traveling west for less than an hour: Windsor Castle, which had been much in the news due to the royal wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle taking place there about four weeks previously.
Windsor is the largest occupied castle in the world, and the oldest in continual use. Like the Tower of London, Windsor Castle was begun by William the Conqueror in the late 1000s as one of a series of defensive forts ringing London and its environs. It was a wooden keep at first, replaced with stone by William’s immediate successors. The reign of Henry II (1154-89) saw extensive upgrades. Work was continued by Henry’s bumbling youngest son, King John, who holed up in Windsor Castle when his own nobles revolted against him. This resulted in him signing the Magna Carta in 1215, which, in theory, was the first set of limitations placed on monarchical power by a monarch’s subjects. (Future monarchs felt free to ignore it for the next several centuries.)
The reign of Edward III (1327-77), who was born at Windsor, saw the most notable expansions and improvements to Windsor Castle since its original construction, although it didn’t go smoothly. The Black Plague wiped out much of the labor force, and the series of dynastic conflicts known as the Hundred Years’ War diverted funds and manpower. The result, however, was impressive — Windsor became the largest and most comfortable of the royal residences, and was “the most expensive secular building project of the entire Middle Ages in England.”
Later in Windsor history, King George III went famously insane, as portrayed on stage and film, and spent the last twenty years of his life raving away deep within the castle, sporting a Howard Hughesian long white beard. Queen Victoria’s beloved consort, Prince Albert, died in the castle’s Blue Room in 1861, and the grieving royal widow insisted on the room being kept just as it was when he was alive, right down to the servants changing the linens and keeping the water pitcher full.
Windsor had become a popular royal “second residence” away from London for its heavy defenses when needed, its luxurious apartments, and its extensive grounds stretching through a beautiful woodland setting. The rambling expansiveness and general footprint of the castle was established at this point, but the towering battlements and turrets now visible for miles around date from extensive rebuilding during the 18th and 19th centuries.
The day was mostly clear, with a refreshingly crisp breeze blowing away memories of humid London. As we walked up the path toward the castle, we spotted the Queen’s royal standard fluttering above the Round Tower, meaning the monarch was in residence, although it was highly unlikely we would bump into her. Everyone knows about her preference for Windsor over Buckingham, and she was still lingering there a month after her grandson’s big wedding.
We made our way around the Round Tower to the north terrace and entrance to the State Apartments, which were open to the public, but no photography was allowed. The State Apartments are mostly Georgian/Victorian in origin, and were severely damaged in a 1992 fire. Most of the furniture and artwork was saved, but the rooms themselves required extensive restoration, which was mostly completed within a year. (One of Windsor’s most popular features, Queen Mary’s Doll House, was closed the day we were there, along with St. George’s Hall and Waterloo Chamber.)
The State Apartments are entered through the arched Grand Staircase, overlooked by a marble statue of George VI, the current monarch’s father and the stammering hero of The King’s Speech. The statue was flanked by an impressive collection of weapons and armor. The Grand Vestibule beyond is also kind of a military mini-museum. On display is the fatal bullet dug out of Admiral Nelson. (The coat it passed through is in the National Maritime Museum, remember?) We then passed through suites of rooms dedicated for the use of the king, and a separate suite for the queen.
Every room in the State Apartments has a different architectural style — Classical, Gothic, Rococo, etc. — although they are so lavishly wallpapered or damasked and hung with dozens of works of art I couldn’t really notice the differing details of the actual construction. As the name implies, these rooms were once living quarters, but living quarters designed for use during state business, so they retained an element of “publicness.” People were coming and going all the time, even in the “King’s Bedchamber.” (In the time of Henry VIII, visitors were warned against leaving their dirty dishes “upon the King’s bed, for fear of hurting the King’s rich counterpoints.”) The royal family’s truly private living quarters were — and still are — elsewhere in the castle.
We then headed down the path into the Lower Ward to St. George’s Chapel, the primary burial place for the royal family once Westminster Abbey was full to bursting. The late-Gothic chapel’s construction was begun in 1475, and completed in 1528. St. George is the patron saint of England, despite the fact that he was a third century Greek-born Roman soldier who never saw England (he spent much of his life in what is now Turkey), and he never certainly never slew a dragon (dragons aren’t real).
The interior is very reminiscent of Westminster Abbey, although on a much smaller scale. There is one stained glass window from the medieval era, the rest is Victorian. The wooden seats of the quire are English oak, originally felled in the nearby forest. The 75-foot high vaulted ceiling is lined with colorful heraldic banners. In the floor of the quire is the tomb of Henry VIII.
As his weight skyrocketed and his health declined, Henry VIII planned an elaborate exterior mausoleum for himself and his already-dead (of natural causes) favorite wife Jane Seymour on Windsor’s grounds. Once he expired, his remains were placed in a temporary vault in the floor of St. George’s Chapel. Since his overbearing regal presence was no longer around the crack the whip, no one was really motivated to complete (or even begin, really) the mausoleum, and the temporary vault became permanent. The vault was cracked open a hundred years later, and the body of executed Charles I — his head sewn back on — was plopped in the vault on top of Henry and Jane. A stillborn infant of Queen Anne was tossed in for good measure fifty years after that. The vault in the quire became a kind of macabre utility drawer.
Elsewhere in the chapel, you can pay your respects to George III, our old foe from the Revolution. He is also entombed in the floor, in a spot highly susceptible to Americans dancing a little patriotic jig. (A shame, really. Apart from the bad timing of being king in 1776, and the later mental illness, George III was one Britain’s more capable and sensible monarchs. He was laughed at behind his back by his courtiers for remaining faithful to his wife and not taking one or more mistresses.)
Queen Victoria and Prince Albert are buried in a large mausoleum on the adjacent (and much more private) Frogmore Estate grounds.
The newest addition to the St. George’s interior is the George VI Memorial Chapel, completed in 1969 in honor of the king who had died seventeen years earlier. George VI’s remains were moved here, and he is buried alongside his wife, Elizabeth (the “Queen Mother” who died in 2002 at the age of 101), and his daughter, Princess Margaret. Space is reserved for the current queen and her consort, Prince Philip.
One of the most attractive features of Windsor Castle is the one that we didn’t have time to explore — the 5000 acres of Windsor Great Park to the south of the castle. Full of ancient oaks, deer, and rambling paths and creeks, this expanse of broadleaf woodland is connected to the castle by the Long Walk. The only interruption to the idyll is jets coming in for a landing at Heathrow Airport, which is practically in Windsor’s backyard.