Windsor Castle stands on a chalk outcrop overlooking the Thames and from whatever direction it is approached, it raises magical in outline above the surrounding countryside. Seen from a distance it is beautiful beyond imagination, for it is all perfectly in proportion and the delicate flying buttresses of St George’s Chapel give a graceful relief from the rugged solidity of the Round Tower and the Royal Apartments. Viewed from close by, the effect is less satisfactory, because the extensive Gothic restoration and alterations carried out in the early nineteenth century by Sir Jeffry Wyatville still bear an air of newness that may well delude the visitor into believing that Windsor is but an imitation of an ancient fortress. How false this impression is can only be revealed by a study of the castle’s long and fascinating history.
The Saxons had a palace at Windsor, but it was two miles lower down the river. William the Conqueror took the palace for his own, appreciating to the full the pleasures of the chase in the nearby forest. But as an invader his primary concern was security and he selected the hill above the river near his palace as a site for a stronghold that would guard the approaches to London from the west. When its construction began is not known, but it is probable that the date coincides with the building of the Tower of London (1078), for Windsor Castle is mentioned in the Domesday Book of 1084 as occupying half a hide of land in the parish of Clewer. Half a hide might mean anything between twenty and sixty acres; the castle at present covers some thirteen acres, but the additional land recorded in the Domesday Book was doubtless needed to clear the approaches.
The form of the original fortress is unknown, but it was probably similar to the present layout of the castle with an upper and a lower bailey and a central artificial chalk mound. This mound, on which the Round Tower now stands, is fifty feet high and measures almost a hundred yards in diameter at the base. Provided with a well, which is still to be seen beneath a bedroom floor in the Round Tower, is formed a secure keep to which a beleaguered garrison might retreat for a last stand. Such buildings as existed were undoubtedly made of timber from the forest, for not trace remains of any stone building of the Conqueror’s time. It was indeed a purely military establishment and did not became a royal abode until 1110 when Henry I moved there from Old Windsor as being a safer place for one whose claim to the throne was of doubtful validity.
Of the buildings he raised, no identifiable remains exist and the earliest architectural features of Windsor Castle date from the reign of Henry II, who replaced most of the wooden palisade with a stone wall, guarded at intervals with square turrets, still to be seen, through in an altered form, in the Royal Apartments next to the East Terrace. It was Henry II also who first constructed a stone keep on the mound, the odd shape of which caused the Round Tower to be anything but circular, through its irregularity is seldom noticed.
In 1189, shortly after Henry II’s death, the castle suffered its first siege when the English barons, commanded first by the Archbishop of Rouen and subsequently by the militant Bishop of Salisbury, attacked Prince John’s army of Welshmen who had taken refuge in the castle. The Welsh took fright and fled; they were pursued and “put to worthy execution”, but John himself escaped to France. Later, as King, he stayed at Windsor during the humiliating week, 15-23 June 1215, when he was forced to sign Magna Carta at Runnymede some two miles away. The following year the barons again besieged the castle, this time without success, through their siege engines did severe damage to the defenses, especially in the Lower Ward, where there was still a timber palisade. Henry III at once set about the task of repairing the damage and of strengthening the defenses by building the western curtain wall. After some old houses had been cleared away from in front of it in 1852, much of this old wall was restored, but many traces of Henry III’s work are still plainly visible in the rough-hewn heath stones close to the Curfew Tower which rises high above Thames Street.
The Curfew Tower was built in 1227 and contains some of the earliest untouched masonry in the castle. The exterior is severely uniform, having been refaced in 1863 by the French architect, Salvin, who added a sharply pointed roof in the style of his native castles to minimize damage from the rain. The Tower contains relics of an old gaol with a pair of stocks in excellent working order; the interior walls were built of chalk, the only material available locally, and one of the old dungeons contains the beginnings of a tunnel through which a prisoner hoped to escape only to be defeated by the thickness of the masonry. Under the tower there are also the remains of a Sally Port (one of three in the castle) intended to form a secret entrance and exit in time of siege. The upper part of the tower contains the castle bells, brought there in 1478 and erected on massive timbers still nobly doing their work. A flight of steep, uneven stairs leads up to where stands the fascinating movement of the clock made in 1689 by John Davis, a native of Windsor. The clock, restored but substantially original, is of great ingenuity and solid workmanship; apart from moving the hands with admirable precision and striking the hours like any normal clock, it plays a psalm tune, St David’s, every three hours, rings some merry peals and then goes through it all twice again for good measure.
The next royal builder of note was Edward III and it was an auspicious day for Windsor when he was born in castle on 28th November 1312, for it was he who founded the Order of the Garter with Windsor as its temporal and spiritual home. The origin of the Order is obscure, but it must have been created in either 1347 or 1348 after the king’s triumphant return from France. The popular account is supported by a written source as early as the reign of Henry VII when the chronicler states that King Edward picked up from the ground a garter which had come adrift from the queen “or some paramowre”; amid the ribald comments of the noblemen the king said quietly: “Sirs the time shall shortly come when we shall attribute much honor unto such a garter”. The churlish nobles rebuked, Edward instituted the Order of the Garter with its apt and reproachful motto: Honi soit qui mal y pense.
It seems that at first the Order was only intended to form two teams for jousting, with the Sovereign leading one and the Prince of Wales the other. But Edward’s intentions quickly became more serious, for on 6th August 1348, he founded the priestly College of St George with a Custos and twenty-five Canons. In addition there were to be twenty-six Poor Knights who were to attend mass daily as a substitute for the Companions of the Order. This institution survives today, through on a more modest scale; there is a Dean and three Canons and three Minor Canons and the Poor Knights, now thirteen in number and less bluntly styled Military Knights, are retired officers of distinction.