Windsor Castle is the most famous of all castles in England. Still a principal home
of the British royal family, the sprawling structure is
the largest and oldest residential castle in the world.
It has been the site of a royal residence for almost 1,000
years, since the time of William the Conqueror.
William’s fortifications consisted of a wooden
structure atop an artificial hill. Throughout the history
of Windsor Castle other monarchs have put their own stamp
on the castle, but the round hill and outer walls are
still in the same position as in William’s day.
Windsor’s strategic position, 20 miles west of London near the banks of the River Thames, made it an important
King Henry II constructed the first stone building on the site of Windsor Castle in the 1170s. King Edward III, who was born in the castle, demolished most of Henry’s buildings in the 1350s, replacing them with a new “round castle” on the raised earth mound in the center of the castle. Edward’s central keep has survived to this day, though with major alterations.
St. George’s Chapel, the principal church on the grounds and a certain stop on any Windsor Castle tour, was begun during the reign of King Edward IV (1461–1483). The chapel was completed by King Henry VIII (1509–1547), who is buried there along with nine other British monarchs.
The most bloody episode in the history of Windsor Castle took place during the English Civil War, when Oliver Cromwell’s Roundhead troops seized the castle and used it as a fortress and the headquarters of the parliamentary New Model Army. The deposed monarch, Charles I, was briefly imprisoned at Windsor Castle and was buried here after his beheading in 1648.
After the monarchy was restored in 1660, Charles II began one of the most extensive periods of restoration and expansion in the history of Windsor Castle. Emulating the extravagance of Versailles in France, Charles laid out long tree-lined avenues on the castle grounds and rebuilt the royal apartments.
After Charles II’s death, succeeding monarchs until George III preferred to live in other palaces and castles in England. It was during the reign of George III’s son, George IV (1820–1830), that the final large rebuilding project in the history of Windsor Castle was begun. George’s architects transformed the castle into the spectacular Gothic palace you would see on a Windsor Castle tour today, raising the heights of towers and adding decorative touchs to unify the buildings from various ages.
Windsor remains a primary residence of the royal family, but much of it is now open to the public. Sights on a Windsor Castle tour include the daily changing of the guard, a more elaborate and exciting affair here than at Buckingham Palace. The public rooms contain a wealth of painting, decorative ceiling designs, and antique furniture. A fire in 1992 destroyed parts of the royal apartments, open to a Windsor Castle tour when the Queen is not in residence, but these have been painstakingly restored. A Windsor Castle tour should include a walk through the Windsor Great Park, a beautifully sculpted garden in the remains of a royal hunting forest.
A visit to Windsor Castle makes a great day-trip from London and a good break from the capital city’s urban attractions. The grandest of all castles in England is also situated just two miles from Legoland, a good place to take the kids after trekking them around this historic fortress.