One of the official residences of Her Majesty the Queen, you’ll know she’s in residence when her royal standard is flying from the castle’s Round Tower. Beyond living at the castle for part of the year, the queen also hosts dignitaries and events there. Part of the castle is open to visitors daily and there is often a special exhibition on display.
The family home of British king and queens for almost 1,000 years, Windsor Castle was originally built by William the Conqueror in 1070 and completed sixteen years later. The site was chosen for its elevation above the River Thames—useful to secure the western approach to London—and the rich hunting grounds nearby.
The structure was originally constructed in timber, but in the late 12th century, Henry II began to replace the outer fortifications with stone. Over the next several centuries, England’s kings and queens made additions, restorations, and full scale redesigns to various parts of the castle.
During the late 14th century, Edward III transformed the castle from a fortification to a royal residence, spending 50,000 pounds over the course of several decades, more than any single medieval English monarch spent on any other single building.
Under Charles II in the late 17th century, the State Apartments were transformed into the most opulent baroque interiors in England. The visual exterior profile of Windsor Castle owes much to George II and George III in the late 18th and early 19th century. Their goal was to provide the castle with an imposing Gothic style.
The State Apartments of the castle contain magnificent pieces of furniture, art, arms and armor reflect its long history. These valuables were threatened when a fire broke out in the Upper Ward of the castle in November 1992. The fire spread quickly and raged for fifteen hours. Nine principal state rooms were destroyed and nearly a hundred more damaged.
Through the valiant efforts of castle staff, many precious pieces of art were salvaged and 200 firefighters managed to contain the blaze. Fire, smoke, and water did extensive damage, but a 37 million pound restoration project over the next five years restored the castle to its pre-fire appearance.
Windsor itself is a lovely town, and the castle remains in view from various venues. I can’t recall the name of the pub where I had lunch in Windsor, but I remember the view of the castle behind us as we dined outdoors on a warm spring day. Most of all, I remember the beautiful queen’s swans gathered on the River Thames.
Her Majesty claims ownership of many of the swans along certain stretches of the river, and each year the ceremony of swan upping involves the rounding up, marking, and releasing of the swan population. Today the practice provides a swan census and check on the health of swans, but the practice dates from the 12th century when swans were a common food source for royalty.
Like many counties in England, Berkshire is rich in castles and elegant country houses. About forty minutes west of Windsor Castle on the M4, you’ll find the lovely Basildon Park. You might recognize it as Netherfield from the 2007 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice. And if you’re willing to drive a bit further west and crave more famous settings, you’ll encounter Highclere Castle, the iconic structure now known around the world as Downton Abbey.
Highclere Castle © Mike Searle and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence
Christy Carlyle is a writer, graphic/web designer, and avid Britophile. She has been lucky enough to live in both England and Ireland and to marry a Scotsman. She writes historical romance and mysteries and blogs about Victorian Britain at Romancing the Victorians.