Windsor Castle and Runnymede

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Windsor Castle and Runnymede

NB. You will not have a local guide and you may neither guide nor brief groups within the Castle complex. Therefore all your commentary, orientation and explanations of what to see must be done before entering the castle. There are staff on hand in every room of the State Apartments to help the group with any questions and also staff posted at strategic points of St. George's Chapel for the same purpose. Windsor Castle becomes very crowded very quickly no matter what time of the year. Ideally you should aim to arrive before it opens at 10.00am. Allow about 45 minutes to get there from London and then 15 or 20 minutes to walk from the coach park along the railway tracks into town and to the top of Castle Hill where the entrance is. (Incidentally, if you call the castle the day before, you can order your tickets in advance and save the wait at the ticket office while the incredibly slow ticket machine prints your tickets.) Once you have the tickets encourage people to head for Queen Mary's Dolls' House and the State Apartments so that they can be viewed at some comparative leisure. It is hard to gauge exactly how much time you need here, depending on the crowds, the coach driver's schedule and your hurry to get back to London. Two hours is an absolute minimum.


Windsor Town, largely Victorian, some parts earlier; 
Queen Mary's Dolls' House; 
An exhibition on the recent fire and subsequent restoration; 
The State Apartments St. George's Chapel and the Albert Memorial Chapel; 
For more details about these places see notes below.


1) It's the only royal residence in the world to remain in continuous use from the early Middle Ages to the present.
2) It is one of the largest royal castles in the world.
3) The English kings buried there, and the additions to the buildings made by successive kings, make the castle a living record of English history.

How Windsor came to be built  In 1066 William the Conqueror's problem was this: how could he hold in subjection the whole Anglo-Saxon people? His troops had to be dispersed over the whole country. His solution was to build a few key strongpoints in strategic places to withstand any rebel army. One major strategic line and vital communications link was the Thames Valley stretching from Oxford to London itself. Three castles were built in London (of which the Tower of London is one) and a series of castles at the most defensible places outside the city. Lying on a bluff above a bend in the river, Windsor was one of these. Not least among the additional advantages of Windsor was that it was surrounded by large forests which made it a favourite spot for royal hunting parties.

How the castle was constructed  (The following is the case for all castles of Norman origin you may come across in England, eg. Warwick to the Tower of London.) Windsor Castle, in its Norman manifestation, is based on two elements: the "motte" and the "bailey." The motte was a central rise of land on which the Keep or dungeon stood. The bailey was a surrounding strip of land running between the inner and outer walls. At first, the structure was wood. 100 years after William the Conqueror, stone was used. Windsor was, however, unusual in one respect. Its motte was not round, but long and thin. This made the castle a spread-out, sprawling affair from the very first. Furthermore the central mound sloped down in gentle stages. Thus, the castle is built on three levels, called Lower Ward, Middle Ward, and Upper Ward. The Round Tower, from where the flag flies, is where the original Norman keep was. Only the lowest levels of stone and the mound itself are Norman.

The two sieges in the history of Windsor  The castle was so powerful that it was never taken but two famous attempts were made:

1) Richard the Lionheart was King of England, but he was taken prisoner on a Crusade by the German Emperor in the late C12. His brother, King John, rebelled and took possession of Windsor Castle. Barons loyal to Richard besieged the castle, but could not take it. However, lack of popular support forced John to surrender the castle.

2) The second siege also involved King John but later, after he had become the legitimate king. In 1215 he had just signed the Magna Carta under pressure from the barons. But he secured an annulment from the Pope and began to ignore it. The barons rebelled, assisted by the French king (to whose son they offered the crown). The siege lasted three months before it was broken.

Additions and improvements made by successive kings  King John's successor, Henry III, finished the outer walls and enlarged the Lower Ward. In the C16 King Henry VIII built the gateway that bears his name (and through which you'll leave the castle). He also stipulated in his will that lodgings be built for special Knights who were retired soldiers with little means; these are the apartments running east of King Henry VIII's Gate, along the inner side of the wall. Today they're occupied by descendants of the original 13 Knights. King Charles II (C17) made many improvements in the Upper Ward where the Royal Apartments are located. He was inspired by Versailles, built by his cousin Louis XIV of France, and wanted to create a scene of similar splendour at Windsor. The palace he built was the basis for the present Royal Apartments. He also laid out the spectacular Long Walk running for 3 miles up to the front of this palace. The next great builder-king at Windsor was King George III, of American Revolutionary fame. In the late C18 the architectural trend was back to a fantasy Gothic, and George remodelled the Royal Apartments, changing for example the windows from Baroque back to Gothic style. The last royal builder was King George IV. He moved the Royal Apartments from the sunless north side to the south. But the south buildings were very slender; hence a hallway connecting them was built out into the courtyard. All windows were now pseudo-Gothic in design. All sorts of new towers, reinforcing the Gothic imagery, were built on the roofs. The squat Round Tower in the Middle Ward was doubled in height, with elaborate battlements on top.


(in no particular order)

1) King John had a savage temper. Once, when a baron had offended him, he threatened revenge, and the baron fled to France. But John had the baron's wife and son shut up in a tower for eleven days. When the tower was reopened, the wife and son were both dead of starvation, but the dying wife, in her last pangs of hunger, had gnawed the cheeks of her already-dead son. Charming.

2) The custom of the Christmas tree was introduced into England at Windsor Castle by Queen Victoria. She inaugurated the tradition at the request of her husband Prince Albert, a German, who was homesick for this native German tradition. Gifts were placed at the base of the tree and opened on Christmas morning. The custom spread rapidly throughout England and by 1858 it was the popular convention still observed today. Then it spread to the U.S.

3) The tradition of having sailors in blue uniforms draw the gun-carriage on which the body of the dead king or queen rests was begun at Windsor. Queen Victoria's coffin lay on a gun-carriage which several horses were pulling up to Windsor Castle. But one of the horses became nervous at the sound of bells and cannons, and began to rear. A sailor suggested that he and his colleagues take over from the nervous horses, and this tradition has continued to this day.

4) Queen Victoria was descended from a German king (George I) and up until WW I, the royal family's surname was Saxe-Coburg Gotha. But this became embarrassing during the war, and so a search was conducted for an appropriate, English-sounding (at least not German-sounding) name. Some proposed resurrecting older dynastic names like York, Plantagenet, Tudor or Stuart. Even "England" was proposed. George V took the suggestion of his private secretary and changed his surname to Windsor; his justification was that back in the Middle Ages, King Edward III had been called "Edward of Windsor". Thus, from now on English kings would also have "Windsor" tacked on to their names. (It's said that the German Kaiser, hearing this, ordered a performance at court of a Shakespeare play with the title changed to The Merry Wives of Saxe-Coburg Gotha.)

5) The legend of the founding of the order of the Garter at Windsor. It is said that at a ball in Windsor, King Edward III picked up a garter which had fallen from a noble lady. As onlooking nobles chuckled to see the king reduced to a valet, Edward III replied: "Evil be to him who thinks evil on it. Sirs, the time will come when you will attribute much honour to such a garter." He founded the Order of the Knights of the Garter, later adding religious rituals. The idea was that this would be a fraternity of knights who would accomplish heroic deeds on the battlefield. The emblems and banners of the Garter Knights past and present can be seen today hanging from the walls inside St. George's Chapel. The phrase "Evil be to him who thinks evil on it" in its French form "Honi soit qui mal y pense" is the motto of the English Royal Family.

6) How St. George's Chapel came to be built. King Edward IV had come to the throne by deposing (and probably murdering) his predecessor, Henry VI. Henry had sponsored the building of the large chapel at Eton College, the largest landmark in the whole area. Every time Edward IV saw this chapel, he felt humiliated and probably remorseful, so he decided to build a larger chapel which would outshine the one at Eton. The new chapel, St. George's, took almost 100 years to finish. Henry VIII finally completed it.

a) Windsor Town: The group will undoubtedly want some time to explore in the shops of the town and possibly eat lunch before you leave. The prettiest corner is the tiny area of the surviving old town, C16 to C18, at the foot of Castle Hill opposite the castle and bordered by the High Street. This cobbled area contains a couple of nice pubs and tearooms, a Reject China Shop among others, a wonderfully picturesque crooked house and the shortest street in England. Across the road is the Edinburgh Woollen Mills and adjacent is the Guildhall built by Christopher Wren. There is also a very nice shopping area in the old train station complex

b) Queen Mary's Dolls' House: This is an amazing miniature treasure. It was never a toy for a child but was a gift to Queen Mary made in 1923. It was intended for display with the entrance fee going to various children's charities. Part of your entrance tickets to the castle today is given to those same charities. The architect was Sir Edwin Lutyens. Everything is to a scale of 1:12, including the cars in the garage, and everything works. The taps have running water; the lamps are powered by electricity; the books in the library are written by authors such as Rudyard Kipling; the bottles in the cellar contain vintage wine; the hangings in the bedrooms are real silk.

c) The Exhibition about the Fire: After the disastrous fire of 1992 during maintenance work millions of pounds' worth of damage was done to the State Apartments, particularly St. George's Hall. Buckingham Palace opened to the public to help pay for the restoration. It was completed in 1998. This little exhibition explains how the damage was done and the story of the restoration.

d) The State Apartments: These comprise the north side of the Upper Ward. The rest of the buildings around the courtyard are the Private Apartments of the Royal Family. The Apartments date mostly from the 1820s. The architect was named Wyattville. The treasures are impossible to enumerate but look out especially for the Waterloo Chamber, the Grand Reception Room, St. George's Hall (recently restored) and the King's State Bedchamber. At least you can get an idea of the conditions of wealth and splendour that engendered these extraordinary places. Attendants are on hand to help with any questions.

e) St. George's Chapel and the Albert Memorial Chapel: St. George's Chapel is the architectural jewel of Windsor Castle. It dates from the early C16 in late Gothic, Perpendicular style. That is to say, tall, slender, light and very decorated. Its highlights are the two stupendous stained glass windows at the east and west ends, part C16, part C19, and the choir, with its wonderfully ornate choir stalls and glorious fan-vaulted ceiling. This chapel is dedicated to the Knights of the Garter whose standards decorate the walls.

The adjoining Albert Memorial Chapel is dedicated to Prince Albert, husband of Queen Victoria. The floor and walls are covered in inlaid marble. Prince Albert is actually buried nearby in the grounds of Windsor Great Park.

Eton College  From the North Terrace outside the State Apartments you look down on to the chapel and playing fields of Eton College. Eton is perhaps the most famous "public" (ie. private) school in England. It was founded in 1440 by King Henry VI. It is so well known as having been the alma mater of so many British Prime Ministers, princes and military heroes. The Duke of Wellington's comment sums up the legacy of Eton: "The battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton."


This is a short detour that should delay you no more than the 10 minutes it takes to get here and a couple of minutes to drive slowly through. There is virtually nothing to see except for a couple of monuments largely obscured by the trees at the top of the hill. (One of these memorials, very plain, is to John F. Kennedy. In the 1960s he made a speech in the presence of hundreds of British lawyers celebrating the rule of law as symbolised by the Magna Carta.) Though there is little or nothing to see in Runnymede, it is still of massive historical importance as the place where King John in 1215 put his seal to the Magna Carta, an event that marks the beginning of modern English justice, having repercussions all over the western world.

The Signing of the Magna Carta  The events leading up to and following the signing of the Magna Carta are immensely complicated and are not the subject of this little essay. Similarly the politics behind the rebellion of the Barons has much more to it than simply the unpopularity and despotic nature of the king. However, forthe purposes of these notes, that is enough. King John was a quarrelsome, tyrannical, and unpopular king. In medieval England, as elsewhere in Europe, the king did not hold undisputed power. In fact, the king was seldom as strong as a half-dozen or so of the most powerful feudal lords. That accounts for much of the warfare that raged all over Europe between different feudal nobles, and between them and the king. King John wanted to establish supreme power over the lords, and he levied taxes, imposed his own decrees, and made himself unpopular with the nobility. In 1215, they gathered together and forced King John to approve a bill of rights that would curb his powers. this draft eventually became known as the Magna Carta (the "great charter"). King John did not actually "sign" it. Rather, he affixed his royal seal to it. That seal and two of the four extant copies of the Magna Carta can be seen today in the British Library in London. The sealing took place outdoors in the Field of Runnymede. In future centuries, kings would attempt to gain absolute power, of course, but the rights of the nobles had at least in principle been recognised, and English citizens would continue to appeal to the Magna Carta whenever they felt those rights had been infringed. Notice: (1) The Magna Carta did not grant equal rights to all citizens, only to nobles. But at least the principle had been affirmed that the king could not wield arbitrary power, and it was only a matter of time before that principle would be used to protect all citizens against arbitrary rule. (2) The Magna Carta continues to be the founding-document of modern English justice. This concept of justice affirms that the rule of law must always take precedence against the whims of the sovereign, whether that sovereign be a king, a dictator, or even a Parliament. No law-making body, even if popularly elected, can infringe on the basic rights of the citizens. These rights include the right to a trial if arrested (known as habeas corpus), and a punishment appropriate to the offence.


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