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Berkshire
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History of Windsor in the Royal County of Berkshire
by David Nash Ford

W I N D S O R

Royal Town & Castle

Windsor is, of course, best known for its castle, home of the British Monarchy for almost a thousand years, and the largest inhabited castle in the World. It has been suggested that it was built on the site of a Celtic camp where King Arthur or one of his subordinates lived as the town is mentioned a couple of times in Arthurian literature. Legend says the Round Table stood atop the motte of the Round Tower. William the Conqueror picked the site (which was then in the parish of Clewer) for a defencive wooden motte and bailey castle, soon after 1066. It wasn't until a couple of generations later that it replaced Old Windsor as a Royal Palace as well. It was totally rebuilt in stone during the 12th and 13th century when the castle became more popular with the English Kings.

With such an obvious centre for Royal patronage and trade, the settlement of Windsor (meaning "Winch-furnished-Riverbank" - transferred from Old Windsor) quickly grew up between the Castle and the Thames. Its right to hold a Market, dating from before 1261, reveals the place's status as an early town. At this date, it is recorded that the townsfolk guarded their privileges so jealously that they attacked several Reading merchants who were trying to muscle in on their territory. The poor men from Reading were physically assaulted and had their goods trampled in the mud! Free Borough Status was not officially granted until 1277, however. As well as advantages though, this charter brought unwanted residents to the town: for the County Gaol was set up in Windsor. The townsfolk objected, but to no avail until 1309 when there was a gaol-brake and several prisoners sought sanctuary in the parish churchyard! They were captured by force of arms and either killed in the skirmish or hanged soon afterward. King Edward II later decided it prudent to remove the gaol to Reading. In the 13th century the town also had a thriving Jewish community. They were forced out by officialdom in 1283, though thankfully this was "without doing them injury".

Windsor's Medieval Market CrossOnce well-known landmarks in Windsor have now long disappeared. The medieval market cross (rather like those still to be seen today in Chichester & Salisbury) was erected at the Castle Gates in 1380. Being at the intersections of several major roads in the town, it was a popular meeting place. Nearby stood the old open-arcaded market-hall in the middle of the High Street. Today's Guildhall was built in a similar style almost on the same spot in 1689, by Sir Christopher Wren, a son of the Dean of Windsor who is remembered at several points around the town. The burgesses of Windsor were, however, so worried by the lack of supports below the Guildhall's upper rooms that they insisted he insert some extra columns. Wren complied but, to justify his confidence in his original design, he left a gap so the pillars would not reach that which they were supposed to support.

Edward I was the first to make Windsor Castle a real family home. He held his Coronation Feast at the Castle in 1275, with jousting in the surrounding park, and four of his children were born within its walls. The tone changed in King Edward III's reign when many prisoners, including foreign Royalty were held at Windsor:

  • King David II of the Scots (1346-57): Most of his imprisonment was spent in London and Odiham (Hants). Ransom 100,000 marks (66,666 13s 4d), only a few instalments of which were ever paid.
  • King John II of France (1356-60): He was also lodged at Hertford, Somerton, the Tower and the Savoy. Ransom 3,000,000 crowns. He later returned to England when he was unable to pay his Ransom.
  • King James I of the Scots (1420-24): He courted Jane Beaufort (daughter of John Beaufort, Earl of Somerset & grandaughter of Prince John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster) here and wrote The King's Quair about his love for her. Ransom 60,000 marks (40,000).

Windsor Castle

Between 1344 and 48, King Edward had his architect, William of Wykeham, Bishop of Winchester, almost totally rebuild Windsor Castle. It is said that this rebuilding was inspired by these prisoners who complained about their surroundings and thus encouraged the King to reconstruct his palace - and their ransoms paid for it! Edward also wished a new home for his new knightly Order of the Garter, a Chivalric Order so named after the King's supposed lover dropped her garter at a Windsor Ball. In these years of plague, there were few workmen available and builders were apparently press-ganged into coming to Windsor from all over the country. On completion of the building-work, Edward and William walked through the castle together and the King noticed a Latin inscription carved in the new stonework that he translated as "William made me". The King was incensed, but the wily Bishop quickly explained that it really said, "I was the making of William"!

The Chapel Royal at Windsor Castle was originally built by King Henry III and later enlarged by Edward III, in 1363, as a Canonical Collegiate Chapel. St. George, as the country's new patron saint, was chosen for the dedication. He was neither Norman nor Saxon, so could unite a divided England. In 1416 the Holy Roman Emperor Sigismund visited Windsor to celebrate St. George's feast day at the Royal Chapel dedicated to him. On returning home, he left behind him the saint's heart that he had obtained while on crusade in the Holy Land. It rested in St. George's Chapel, along with his arm, two fingers and part of his skull, and was a great attraction to pilgrims until the reformation. St. George's Chapel also held the Cross of Gneth, a Celtic cross reliquary containing an important relic of the true cross and known as the National Palladium of Wales. Edward I had captured it during his Welsh campaigns in 1282 and taken it to Westminster Abbey and then the Tower. By 1352, it was at Windsor. The Royal Chapel had a large collection of other relics too, many standing within the "table" or reredos of the High Altar. This was made by the master stonemasons of Nottingham for 200. It took 10 carts, 80 horses and 20 men to bring it to Windsor. It contained numerous niches for relics, many with leaves to close them off like little cupboards.

The masterpiece of early Renaissance architecture that we see at St. George's today, was erected around the original building by Edward IV, in the late 15th century. It was a rival to Eton College Chapel, just over the river, which had been erected by his old enemy and predecessor, Henry VI. It would have been the family Mausoleum of the Yorkist Kings, had they lasted. King Edward commissioned a popular momento-mori as his own memorial, bearing an effigy of his decaying body, but it was never completed. Only the beautiful gates to the niche where he lays remain: a masterpiece of medieval metalwork. Edward also had the body of Henry VI transferred to St. George's from Chertsey Abbey when it became clear that the saintly monarch's remains were attracting generous pilgrims. His effigial monument has gone, but there still remains the alms box decorated with the King's initials. A later pilgrim attraction was the body of the 14th century Revd. John Schorne, transferred from North Marston (Bucks). He was famous for having "conjured the Devil into a Boot"!

Adorning the roof of St. George's are seventy-six stone animals known as the Windsor Royal Beasts. They hold wind vanes and coats of arms, and depict fourteen different heraldic animals associated with the Plantagenet & Tudor Royal families:

  • The Crowned Golden Lion of England.
  • The Red Dragon of Wales.
  • The Silver Falcon of York.
  • The Black Bull of Clare(nce).
  • The Heraldic Panther of Queen Jane Seymour.
  • The Beaufort Yale of Kendal.
  • The Mortimer White Lion of March.
  • The White Greyhound of Richmond.
  • The Bohun White Swan of Hereford.
  • The White Hart of Richard II.
  • The Bohun Collared Silver Antelope.
  • The Black Dragon of Ulster.
  • The White Unicorn of Edward III.
  • The Golden Hind of Kent.

Henry VII built what is now the Albert Memorial Chapel for his own family before he decided on Westminster instead. Later it was known as Wolsey's Tomb-House for here, for many years, stood the Cardinal's magnificent, yet unfinished, monument. Taken on by Henry VIII as his own for a while, what was left of it was eventually shipped to St. Paul's for use by Lord Nelson. Many other monarchs have seen fit to make St. George's their last resting place: ten kings, seven queens and innumerable princes and princesses.

The religious turmoil of King Henry VIII's reign impacted heavily on Windsor. In 1536, during the Dissolution of the Monasteries, two Windsor men were hanged for their overly catholic beliefs. A local priest was accused of supporting the revolutionary "Pilgrimage of Grace". He was hanged on a tree near Windsor Bridge after implicating a local butcher who then suffered the same fate at the Castle Gate. Local tradition suggests the two bodies were then displayed from the top of the Curfew Tower. Towards the end of Henry's reign, however, it was over-zealous Protestants who were being martyred in the town. Anthony Pearson was a popular local preacher, Henry Filmer a churchwarden and Robert Testwood a lay-clerk at St. George's Chapel. They were but three members of a larger Protestant movement in Windsor who were all rounded up, arrested and publicly burnt to death in a field north of the Castle.

Shakespeare is said to have written his Merry Wives of Windsor at the behest of Queen Elizabeth I who wished to see Sir John Falstaff (from Henry IV) in love. Traditionally it was first performed in the Chapter Library of the castle around 1597. It features many local landmarks. The bard had Falstaff stay at the Garter Inn. Today it is part of the Hart and Garter in the High Street: two inns now combined as one. Shakespeare probably stayed there himself on many occasions. Mistresses Ford and Page were certainly from local families, and the Ford household was said to be one of the buildings demolished from beneath the castle wall almost opposite the Hart and Garter.

King Charles I was not a popular man in Windsor during the years prior to the Civil War. The House of Commons showed concern that he was raising "forces at this time without the consent of Parliament" and there was rioting in the town. The King decided it was prudent to move north. During the War, Parliament placed the castle in the charge of Colonel Venn. Troops were billeted throughout the town by the thousand, and Fairfax and Cromwell were frequent visitors. Royalist prisoners populated the castle. The Colonel initially stabled horses in St. George's Chapel, but was later commanded by parliament to "take care that there be no disorders and disturbances made in the Chapel at Windsor". Despite this, many windows and monuments were smashed and furnishings looted. So much so that after the King's execution, his fellows found it difficult to find a suitable resting place amongst the chaos in the chapel. Much survived destruction, however, as did the castle itself, to be restored and added to during the reigns of Charles II, George IV and Queen Victoria until the building we see today was created. It is hard to believe that, after the Civil War, the building was very nearly pulled down. The bill in parliament was defeated by just one vote!

Curiosities in Windsor include the only blue pillar-box in the country, at the junction of the High Street with St. Albans Street. It denotes an air mail post box: that put up for the first ever air mail service, which commemorated George V's coronation in 1911. Windsor is also from where Berkshire's only native cheese hails: Windsor Red. This is a cheddar impregnated with veins of elderberry wine. Very Tasty.

See also Clewer, Clewer Hamlets, Old Windsor and Windsor Hamlets.



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