Introduction to the Castle
Windsor Castle is one of the Queen's official homes. The castle was founded by William the Conqueror (1066-87) and has served as a royal castle for 39 monarchs.
Two times during the year—Easter and June—the castle becomes the official residence of the Queen. The castle is a weekend “home from home” for the Queen and Prince Phillip. It is also used to receive ceremonial visits from foreign heads of state as an alternative to Buckingham Palace. Special events sometimes take place in the state apartments, such as charitable organizations events and the Windsor Festival.
Within the castle walls are 26 acres of grounds divided into lower, middle, and upper wards. Over 160 people live within the grounds. The King Henry VIII gate leads into the lower ward where a curfew tower, garter tower, Salisbury tower, horseshoe cloister, military knights’ lodgings, Mary Tudor tower, Albert Memorial chapel and 14th century St George’s chapel are located. Here also is the guard room and the parade ground where visitors can watch the changing of the guard at 11am daily.
Moving further through the grounds into the middle ward brings the visitor to the round tower, 215 feet above the level of the River Thames atop its Norman motte, the magazine tower near the entrance from the north terrace, the King Henry III tower, the Saxon tower, the Store tower, the Winchester tower, the Norman gate, and St George’s gate (where today’s tour visitors enter). The constable and governor of the tower lives at the base of the round tower.
The upper ward is the location of the state and royal apartments sited around a quadrangle. There are 951 rooms, 225 of which are bedrooms, in the upper ward. The King George IV tower and King John’s tower are next to the state entrance to the state apartments.
History of the Castle
Windsor Castle has been much changed over the centuries since first built by William the Conqueror to help defend London. It began as an earth motte with a keep and two baileys—what are called the upper and lower wards today. The grounds outside the castle (Windsor Great Park is the surviving remnant) were a royal hunting forest when the castle was built.
Henry I had rooms in the castle in 1110 but it was his grandson Henry II who built a state residence in the lower ward and a family home in the upper ward. He also had the outer timber walls replaced with stone ones, rebuilt the round towers, and added towers to the outer walls. Henry III continued adding towers.
Edward III (king from 1327-77) was enamoured of the gothic style of architecture and proceeded to rebuild Windsor to reflect that. During this time the College of St George (1352) had new buildings; an inner gatehouse with cylindrical towers was constructed; royal apartments were built around inner courts with domestic offices below, and large windows and entrance towers were added to rooms. The chapel had a name change to St George to reflect its association with the new organization, the Order of the Garter. It is now known as the Albert Memorial Chapel.
Edward IV (king from 1461-83) added a gallery to the royal chambers and modernised them. He also began the building of what is now St George’s Chapel. Henry VII added the west range of the state apartments in 1500. Henry VIII added the Henry VIII gate (visitors leave the grounds through it) and the north terrace of the upper ward.
Much repair was done during the reign of Elizabeth I (1158-1603) especially to the royal chapel and the north terrace. Elizabeth also had a long gallery added (now part of the royal library). After the civil war Charles II oversaw much restoration work at the castle and turned the state apartments into baroque rooms. Tall windows were added to the former defensive walls, and a new range of royal lodgings took over part of the north walls (called the Star building).
The new royal lodgings followed the established pattern of a guard chamber, a presence chamber, a privy chamber, a withdrawing room, a great bedchamber, a little bedchamber, and a closet. Antonio Verrio painted 23 ceilings and the walls of the staircases in these apartments. A new St George’s hall had a floor of black and white marble and a carved and gilded throne of state. Grinling Gibbons was hired to carve limewood in the state apartments which also were decorated with tapestries and works of art.
George III changed some of the décor in the state apartments’ to the neoclassical style. He also restored external parts of the state apartments and had a grand staircase added. George IV had the round tower made taller, added towers and battlements and new masonry to the exterior. He also added a gallery (called the Grand Corridor) to allow for better traffic flow between the private apartments. A new staircase and grand entrance, the Waterloo Chamber, and an extension of St George’s Hall were undertaken at the same time. Modern furnishings were brought in along with tapestries and other decorative pieces and paintings.
It was Queen Victoria who opened the state apartments to the public (1848). The royal mews and riding school were finished during her reign. A private chapel was added to the state apartments. King Edward VII’s main contribution was removing much Victorian clutter and modernising the private apartments, adding bathrooms and central heating.
Tour of the Castle and Grounds
The visitor today, after entering the grounds into the middle ward and walking up the north terrace enters the state apartments through the undercroft. Here on display is Queen Mary’s dolls’ house. It’s not a child’s dollhouse but one designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens to reflect an aristocratic London home. It has running water and electricity along with thousands of handmade objects. Also in this area is the drawings gallery, designed by James Wyatt. Temporary displays from the royal collection of drawings are on display. Next to the gallery is the china museum with among others, a Worcester dessert service, Royal Copenhagen china, an Etruscan service, Staffordshire and Coalport china, and a Sevres service.
The grand staircase, once an internal courtyard, has a glazed gothic lantern roof. Arms and armour are on display. The grand vestibule shows off the plaster fan-vaulted roof designed by James Wyatt for George III. A statue of Queen Victoria along with gifts given to her and collections of George IV are on view.
The Waterloo Chamber is a large room built to celebrate the defeat of Napoleon. It was once an open courtyard. Here are limewood panels carved by Grinling Gibbons, cut glass gasoliers, a raking clerestory roof, and a two ton seamless Indian carpet.
The state apartments are the next rooms on the tour. The King’s drawing room has a large bay window and a Siena marble chimneypiece. Paintings adorn the walls. Furniture includes Boulle marquetry and lacquer cabinets, a giltwood writing table, a 1730 clock and much more. Sculpture and porcelain are on display. The King’s bedchamber, used for formal ceremonies, has crimson silk wall hangings that replaced 17th century panelling, a marble fireplace once at Buckingham Palace, paintings and French and English furniture. The King’s dressing room was used as a private bedroom then later as a dressing room. The walls are hung with a collection of northern Renaissance paintings. The plaster ceiling in the King’s closet was added for William IV in 1833. The room has a collection of Italian Renaissance paintings.
The Queen’s drawing room was once hung with tapestry and had a painted ceiling. In 1834 the ceiling was plastered over. Tudor and Stuart royal portraits hang on the walls. The furniture is mostly English with a marquetry bureau and cabinet, carved and gilded gesso side chairs, and a giltwood pier table. A collection of Chinese porcelain is in the room.
The King’s dressing room, between the Queen’s and King’s apartments, was the dining room of Charles II. The painted ceiling by Verrio has survived remodelling and redecorating that covered over his ceilings in other rooms. Limewood carvings by Gibbons are also found in this room. In the room are French ebony and Boulle marquetry furniture, English ebony and Boulle pieces, Chinese jade carvings, and antique clocks. Brussels tapestries and Chinese porcelain add to the décor.
The Queen’s ballroom built for dancing had its painted ceiling covered with plaster and its oak panelling removed. Large glass chandeliers were added by Queen Victoria. Paintings hanging on the walls are by Sir Anthony Van Dyck while the furniture is a mix of English and French and late 17th century silver furniture. The Queen’s presence chamber, used as a visitors’ waiting room, and the Queen’s audience chamber still have their painted ceilings, panelling, and Gibbon’s carvings. Furniture includes Chinese lacquer cabinets, a Flemish ebony cabinet, English giltwood pier tables, and other pieces. There are three Gobelins tapestry panels on the wall and a collection of Japanese Imari porcelain vases along with French, Delft and Chinese pieces.
The Queen’s guard chamber, once the entrance to the Queen’s apartments, was enlarged with a bay. There are display cases with arms and armour collected by George IV. In the room are thrones, sculpture, and metalwork. St George’s hall, 30 x 185 feet, once had Gibbons carvings and Verrio murals and ceilings, all of which were removed by George IV. In 1992 the ceiling, roof and east end were destroyed by fire. A hammerbeam roof was installed in the restoration. Panels around the hall are inscribed with the names of knights. Paintings, sculpture, and furniture decorate the room. This room is used for state banquets as there is room for the 175 foot long dining table that seats 162 people.
The octagonal lantern lobby was made after the 1992 fire where a private chapel once was. It is in the modern gothic style with oak used in the construction of columns and balustrade. British marbles were used to create an inlaid floor with the badge and motto of the Garter. A display case shows off English silver gilt vessels and dishes.
Visitors to the castle during the winter months have the added attraction of being able to tour the semi-state apartments, created in the 1820s for George IV in the opulent late Georgian style. Queen Elizabeth II uses them for entertaining. These rooms consist of the green drawing room, the crimson drawing room, the state dining room, the octagon dining room, the china corridor, the grand reception room, and the garter throne room.
The green drawing room is a long room with a bay window. On show are display cases with a Sevres porcelain dining service ordered by Louis XVI. The crimson drawing room is the main one of the set. It was badly damaged in the 1992 fire. Restoration copied George IV’s original ideas. A black marble fireplace that survived the fire was reinstated. Portraits hang on the walls. Morel and Seddon furniture is used in the room along with a French empire candelabra and clock.
The state dining room was also totally damaged by the 1992 fire. It was restored in the gothic design. Rosewood furniture was mostly designed by A.W.N. Pugin c 1827. The octagon dining room is a small room used by members of the Queen’s household. The china corridor has display cases of china that include Chinese and Japanese porcelain dating from the 17th and early 18th centuries as well as English and continental dining services.
The grand reception room is in the rococo revival style with 18th century French panelling. There was damage to this room in the 1992 fire. The chandeliers were restored and now hang in the room. Also surviving was the original parquet floor. Tapestries and sculpture provide room decoration. The garter throne room is the investiture room for knights and ladies of the Order of the Garter. The insignia and collar of the Order of the Garter is shown off in the ceiling plaster design. The 17th century wainscot dado and cornice still exist but the Gibbons carvings were taken down and reused in other rooms. In the room are an Indian ivory chair of state and footstool presented to Queen Victoria in 1851, giltwood gothic style armchairs designed for the palace of Westminster, giltwood pier tables and stools, and the state portrait of Queen Elizabeth II dating from 1954-6.
St George’s chapel, in the Perpendicular style, in the lower ward was begun in 1475. By 1484 the east end or choir was finished with a wooden roof. The splendid stone fan-vaulted roof was put in place on completion of the nave. It wasn’t until 1528 that the chapel was completed. The 36 foot high west window uses some early 16th century glass. There are four chantry chapels in the nave. The exterior of the chapel is in Oxfordshire limestone. Royal tombs and memorials are found in the interior. These include memorials to King George V and Queen Mary, Princess Charlotte, King George VI, Princess Margaret, and the Queen Mother. Misericords are located on the 15th century quire stalls. Banners of the knights of the Garter hang over the choir stalls. In the chapel are Edward III’s long sword and a 1480 alms box. Visitors can attend any of the three daily services.
The Albert Memorial chapel dates from the 15th century and was highly decorated by George Gilbert Scott so Queen Victoria could commemorate Prince Albert. The vaulted ceiling has a gold mosaic, inlaid marble panels and a marble effigy of Prince Albert, as well as a sculpture on the tomb of the Duke of Clarence and Avondale (oldest son of King Edward VII)
Windsor Park lies outside the castle walls.
Tel. 020 7321 2233
Open: March-Oct, Mon-Sat, 9.45am-5.15pm; Nov-Feb, 9.45am-4.15pm; closed various days and when Queen in residence; always phone first
Windsor is reached by boat, rail, road from London; when arriving at Heathrow Airport by taxi is the easiest alternative
The official visitor website for short breaks and days out in The Royal Borough of Windsor and Maidenhead is Windsor Government. You can request a copy of the Visitor Guide online or call the Royal Windsor Information Centre on 0 1753 743 907.
Note: We recommend purchasing the official souvenir guide to get the most out of your visit. The details are most interesting and the photos are superb.
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