Windsor is, of course, best known for its castle, home of the British Monarchy for almost a thousand years, and the largest inhabited castle in the World. It has been suggested that it was built on the site of a Celtic camp where King Arthur or one of his subordinates lived as the town is mentioned a couple of times in Arthurian literature. Legend says the Round Table stood atop the motte of the Round Tower. William the Conqueror picked the site (which was then in the parish of Clewer) for a defensive wooden motte and bailey castle, soon after 1066. It wasn't until a couple of generations later that it replaced Old Windsor as a Royal Palace as well. It was totally rebuilt in stone during the 12th and 13th century when the castle became more popular with the English Kings.
With such an obvious centre for Royal patronage and trade, the settlement of Windsor (meaning "Winch-furnished-Riverbank" - transferred from Old Windsor) quickly grew up between the Castle and the Thames. Its right to hold a Market, dating from before 1261, reveals the place's status as an early town. At this date, it is recorded that the townsfolk guarded their privileges so jealously that they attacked several Reading merchants who were trying to muscle in on their territory. The poor men from Reading were physically assaulted and had their goods trampled in the mud! Free Borough Status was not officially granted until 1277, however. As well as advantages though, this charter brought unwanted residents to the town: for the County Gaol was set up in Windsor. The townsfolk objected, but to no avail until 1309 when there was a gaol-brake and several prisoners sought sanctuary in the parish churchyard! They were captured by force of arms and either killed in the skirmish or hanged soon afterward. King Edward II later decided it prudent to remove the gaol to Reading. In the 13th century the town also had a thriving Jewish community. They were forced out by officialdom in 1283, though thankfully this was "without doing them injury".
Once well-known landmarks in Windsor have now long disappeared. The medieval market cross (rather like those still to be seen today in Chichester & Salisbury) was erected at the Castle Gates in 1380. Being at the intersections of several major roads in the town, it was a popular meeting place. Nearby stood the old open-arcaded market-hall in the middle of the High Street. Today’s Guildhall was built in a similar style almost on the same spot in 1687-90, by the castle’s master mason, John Clark, under the direction of Sir Thomas Fitch. Fitch died before it was finished and, in theory, Sir Christopher Wren, took his place. However, despite subsequent claims, he does not seem to have actually been involved at all. Stories of Wren building the hotel named after him also appear to be unfounded, but he was both the son and nephew of a Dean of Windsor and probably visited the town on occasion. In 1829, the columns on the east side of the Guildhall were removed and an extension erected in their place by James Bedborough. An old story tells how the burgesses of Windsor were so worried by this loss of support below the Guildhall’s upper rooms that they insisted he insert some extra columns. Bedborough complied but, to justify his confidence in his original design, he left a gap so the pillars would not reach that which they were supposed to support.
Edward I was the first to make Windsor Castle a real family home. He held his Coronation Feast at the Castle in 1275, with jousting in the surrounding park, and four of his children were born within its walls. The tone changed in King Edward III's reign when many prisoners, including foreign Royalty were held at Windsor:
From 1351, King Edward had his architect, William of Wykeham, Bishop of Winchester, almost totally rebuild Windsor Castle, originally under the watchful eye of the constable, Thomas Foxley, and his assistants, Oliver de Bordeaux and John Brocas. It is said that this rebuilding was inspired by these prisoners who complained about their surroundings and thus encouraged the King to reconstruct his palace - and their ransoms paid for it! Edward also wished a new home for his new knightly Order of the Garter, a Chivalric Order so named after the King's supposed lover dropped her garter at a Windsor Ball. In these years of plague, there were few workmen available and builders were apparently press-ganged into coming to Windsor from all over the country. On completion of the building-work, Edward and William walked through the castle together and the King noticed a Latin inscription carved in the new stonework that he translated as "William made me". The King was incensed, but the wily Bishop quickly explained that it really said, "I was the making of William"!
The Chapel Royal at Windsor Castle was originally built by King Henry III and later enlarged by Edward III, in 1363, as a Canonical Collegiate Chapel. St. George, as the country's new patron saint, was chosen for the dedication. He was neither Norman nor Saxon, so could unite a divided England. In 1416, the Holy Roman Emperor Sigismund visited Windsor to celebrate St. George's feast day at the Royal Chapel dedicated to him. On returning home, he left behind him the saint's heart that he had obtained while on crusade in the Holy Land. It rested in St. George's Chapel, along with his arm, two fingers and part of his skull, and was a great attraction to pilgrims until the reformation. St. George's Chapel also held the Cross of Gneth, a Celtic cross reliquary containing an important relic of the true cross and known as the National Palladium of Wales. Edward I had captured it during his Welsh campaigns in 1282 and taken it to Westminster Abbey and then the Tower. By 1352, it was at Windsor. The Royal Chapel had a large collection of other relics too, many standing within the "table" or reredos of the High Altar. This was made by the master stonemasons of Nottingham for £200. It took 10 carts, 80 horses and 20 men to bring it to Windsor. It contained numerous niches for relics, many with leaves to close them off like little cupboards.
The masterpiece of early Renaissance architecture that we see at St. George's today, was erected around the original building by Edward IV, in the late 15th century. It was a rival to Eton College Chapel, just over the river, which had been erected by his old enemy and predecessor, Henry VI. It would have been the family Mausoleum of the Yorkist Kings, had they lasted. King Edward commissioned a popular momento-mori as his own memorial, bearing an effigy of his decaying body, but it was never completed. Only the beautiful gates to the niche where he lays remain: a masterpiece of medieval metalwork. Edward's brother, Richard III, had the body of Henry VI transferred to St. George's from Chertsey Abbey when it became clear that the saintly monarch's remains were attracting generous pilgrims. His effigial monument has gone, but there still remains the alms box decorated with the King's initials. A later pilgrim attraction was the body of the 14th century Revd. John Schorne, transferred from North Marston (Bucks). He was famous for having "conjured the Devil into a Boot"!
Adorning the roof of St. George's are seventy-six stone animals known as the Windsor Royal Beasts. They hold wind vanes and coats of arms, and depict fourteen different heraldic animals associated with the Plantagenet & Tudor Royal families:
Henry VII built what is now the Albert Memorial Chapel for his own family before he decided on Westminster instead. Later it was known as Wolsey's Tomb-House for here, for many years, stood the Cardinal's magnificent, yet unfinished, monument. Taken on by Henry VIII as his own for a while, what was left of it was eventually shipped to St. Paul's for use by Lord Nelson. Many other monarchs have seen fit to make St. George's their last resting place: ten kings, seven queens and innumerable princes and princesses.
The religious turmoil of King Henry VIII's reign impacted heavily on Windsor. In 1536, during the Dissolution of the Monasteries, two Windsor men were hanged for their overly catholic beliefs. A local priest was accused of supporting the revolutionary "Pilgrimage of Grace". He was hanged on a tree near Windsor Bridge after implicating a local butcher who then suffered the same fate at the Castle Gate. Local tradition suggests the two bodies were then displayed from the top of the Curfew Tower. Towards the end of Henry's reign, however, it was over-zealous Protestants who were being martyred in the town. Anthony Pearson was a popular local preacher, Henry Filmer a churchwarden and Robert Testwood a lay-clerk at St. George's Chapel. They were but three members of a larger Protestant movement in Windsor who were all rounded up, arrested and publicly burnt to death in a field north of the Castle.
Shakespeare is said to have written his 'Merry Wives of Windsor' at the behest of Queen Elizabeth I who wished to see Sir John Falstaff (from Henry IV) in love. Traditionally it was first performed in the Chapter Library of the castle around 1597. It features many local landmarks. The bard had Falstaff stay at the Garter Inn. Today it is part of the Hart and Garter in the High Street: two inns now combined as one. Shakespeare probably stayed there himself on many occasions. Mistresses Ford and Page were certainly from local families, and the Ford household was said to be one of the buildings demolished from beneath the castle wall almost opposite the Hart and Garter.
King Charles I was not a popular man in Windsor during the years prior to the Civil War. The House of Commons showed concern that he was raising "forces at this time without the consent of Parliament" and there was rioting in the town. The King decided it was prudent to move north. During the War, Parliament placed the castle in the charge of Colonel Venn. Troops were billeted throughout the town by the thousand, and Fairfax and Cromwell were frequent visitors. Royalist prisoners populated the castle. The Colonel initially stabled horses in St. George's Chapel, but was later commanded by parliament to "take care that there be no disorders and disturbances made in the Chapel at Windsor". Despite this, many windows and monuments were smashed and furnishings looted. So much so that after the King's execution, his fellows found it difficult to find a suitable resting place amongst the chaos in the chapel. Much survived destruction, however, as did the castle itself, to be restored and added to during the reigns of Charles II, George III, George IV and Queen Victoria until the building we see today was created. It is hard to believe that, after the Civil War, the building was very nearly pulled down. The bill in parliament was defeated by just one vote!
Curiosities in Windsor include the only blue pillar-box in the country, at the junction of the High Street with St. Albans Street. It denotes an air mail post box: that put up for the first ever air mail service, which commemorated George V's coronation in 1911. Windsor is also from where Berkshire's only native cheese hails: Windsor Red. This is a cheddar impregnated with veins of elderberry wine. Very Tasty.
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