Friday, January 8, 2010

Windsor Castle, part 4

In Queen Victoria’s reign Windsor Castle acquired its importance as the home of the British monarchy. The Prince Consort hated London and in his quiet manner persuaded his wife that the freedom of country life was infinitely preferable to the pleasures of the town. The proximity of Windsor to London, especially after the arrival of the railways, made it a convenient place from which to transact the business of the realm. It was at Windsor that Prince Albert died of typhoid fever on 14th December 1861, and plunged Queen Victoria into lifelong grief. After his death a somber atmosphere brooded over the castle and there was constantly a feeling that someone was missing. Indeed, by the queen’s order, the room in which the prince had died was preserved in precisely the same state as on the fatal day, with the medicine beside the bed and fresh water on the washstand daily. It remained so until Edward VII became king and a gayer and freer mode of live was instituted.
Long before he ascended the throne Edward VII had acquired a country residence of his own at Sandringham, and Windsor Castle lost its pride of place to some extent. He did indeed add a modern amenity in the golf course which he laid out at the end of the East Terrace to gratify a taste for the game acquired in middle age, but for the most part Windsor Castle was used for short periods only at Easter and for Ascot Week. King George V continued this arrangement of periodic occupation, but Queen Mary was a chatelaine of genius and her flair for furniture and decorations contributed many improvements to the State and Private Apartments; among these was the abandonment of Charles II’s six-roomed suite for State Visitors with its splendor, but undoubted discomforts and inconvenience, in favor of smaller suites properly modernized. There is still a State Bedroom to be seen by the public at Windsor, but the last royal sleeper in it was King Manoel of Portugal in 1909.
In the Second World War, Windsor resumed its traditional role when it became once more the fortress home of the Royal Family. The immensely thick walls provided a ready retreat from bombs and, being close to London, the king and queen were able to go about their royal duties and still on occasion live with their children in a place of comparative safety. The winters of the war were enlivened by the pantomimes which the princesses staged and acted in the Waterloo Chamber where playbills graced the empty portrait frames; these burlesques were gay in comparison with the theatrical performances given at Queen Victoria’s command by the leading actors of the day.
After the war King George VI and his family resumed residence at Royal Lodge, a secluded house in the Great Park which they greatly loved. Since the accession of Queen Elizabeth II, the Queen Mother has continued to live there and the castle has been brought into frequent use as a royal residence at week-ends, for the Great Park provides splendid opportunities for riding which The Queen and her family enjoy so much. At normal times the household is on a modest scale, but twice during the year the State Apartments cease to be a public museum and are restored to their rightful use when the Court and The Queen’s guests assemble at the castle and Windsor is to be seen in its full glory.
At the foot of the hill to the north of the castle stands a simple monument to the memory of King George V, first Sovereign of the House of Windsor, for it was he who in 1917 by proclamation assumed this English surname.
Queen Elizabeth II has perpetuated the dynasty formed by her grandfather, for on 9th April 1952, she issued a declaration that it was “her will and pleasure that she and her children be styled and known as the House and Family of Windsor”. Had this not been done, she would have taken her husband’s name Mountbatten like any other married woman, but it is fitting that Windsor should be chosen as the surname for the English monarchy, since kings and queens for close on nine centuries have lived there and have loved the castle and the pleasant town beside the Thames.

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