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Ten Castles that Made Medieval Britain: Windsor Castle

Ten Castles that Made Medieval Britain: Windsor Castle


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By James Turner

At one time the greatest palace complex in Europe and a favoured haunt of the British Royal family to this day, Windsor Castle is a still-living relic of a time where out of necessity, the sum of a nation’s sovereignty and a State’s very existence as a politically distinct identity rested upon a crowned head. In England, more often than not the place where that crowned head rested was Windsor Castle. Emerging out of the bedlam and cultivated political distortion that followed the Norman Conquest, Windsor Castle would gradually blossom into a magnificent and much favoured royal residence cultivated by the successive generations of monarchs who dwelt within it.

While its face and form have undergone almost continual revision to better reflect the perceived or claimed glories of its patrons and to adhere to the advancing demands of luxury and fashion, the castle has enjoyed a remarkable continuity of purpose. Transitioning by degrees from military installation to royal palace, Windsor has at one time or another housed the Court or personage of every English and later, after the Union of Crowns, British King or Queen.

In addition to serving as one of the principal and most prized residences of the foci of the medieval political community in the high Middle Ages, under the direction of one of Europe’s greatest warrior Kings, Windsor through its role as the centre of England’s Chivalric and martial cult was transformed into a powerful tool for the consolidation of Royal authority and England’s temporal power. The ideological and constitutional role of the Monarchy has, like all social institutions and values, waxed, waned and been heavily altered since its heyday, yet Winsor Castle in which so much of their history is anchored, well articulates and preserves what potency remains.

Considering its current splendour and the long, rich history that stretched out before it, Windsor Castle has humble, rather grubby, origins. While William the Conqueror was crowned King of England in 1066 following his bloody victory at the Battle of Hastings, a great deal of the actual nitty-gritty of conquering took place in the years following his coronation. The occupation of England by the new and land hungry Normans was a tumultuous and muddled affair complicated by the presence of an entrenched and still functional political elite. There were a substantial number of Anglo-Saxon and Anglo-Danish Earls who had not been present at Hastings and for whom, alongside the Anglo-Saxon dominated church, the grudging acknowledgement of William’s status following a tense period of negotiations was vastly different from genuine acceptance. These remnants of the old elite would only be replaced haphazardly over the following decades following a series of unaffiliated and often selfishly motivated rebellions.

Almost as dangerous to King William’s person and the establishment of any form of coherent governance was William’s now largely dispersed army composed not just of his liege men in Normandy but also mercenary adventurers, desperate nobility and brigands from his often hostile neighbours over whom he now had to exert control. In order to safeguard his hard-won acquisitions and as a way to transmit his will throughout the country, as he bent the full powers of his brilliance and casual brutality to its governance, William embarked upon a great spree of castle building. Windsor was part of a network of largely temporary castles guarding the approach to London, the site being chosen for its strategic value overlooking the Thames as well as its location nearby an Anglo-Saxon royal hunting lodge and its accompanying forest which as the draconian Norman forestry laws can attest to, was a major source of royal income. Partly because of the number of resources they consumed and partly because the of limitations of communication technology for much of the middle ages, Royal Courts were nomadic in nature travelling from royal centre to royal centre but despite his extremely active kingship and continued sojourns through his newly won country, William never visited the then spartan Windsor himself. Nor was it particularly favoured during the reign of his second son and immediate successor, William Rufus. The castle being ignored in favour of the nearby hunting lodge of Old Windsor and William’s pet project, Westminster Palace into which he poured a surfeit of resources.

The castle first attracted royal affinity, which it enjoys to this day, during the reign of the last of the Conqueror’s sons, the savagely intelligent and politically methodical Henry I who greatly expanded the castle, furnishing it with a stone keep where he held his Pentecost Court in 1110 and creating a new burgh at the Castle’s feet, effectively abandoning Old Windsor. In 1121, the already picturesque Windsor was chosen by Henry as the venue for his marriage to Adela, the daughter of the Duke of the Lower Lorraine.

During the reign of the energetic Henry II, the castle underwent further fortification and renovation replacing the wooden palisade with a new stone curtain wall as well as rebuilding the royal apartments and the central keep. When Henry’s son, Richard I was captured and held for ransom by his old rival, Duke Leopold of Austria, while returning from the Third Crusade, his younger brother the unscrupulous Prince John seized Windsor Castle, seeking to use Richard’s capture as a chance to co-opt the royal authority the castle already represented. However, John was swiftly compelled to vacate the castle by the timely intervention of their mother, the formidable Eleanor of Aquitaine. During John’s own turbulent reign, succeeding to the throne over the body of his second brother Geoffrey’s son, Arthur of Brittany, Windsor was his favourite residence and he went to some expense to remodel and expand the royal apartments there.

As a result of John’s now-legendary quarrels with his barons, the castle was besieged in 1214 and later served as his base of operations during the period running up to his reluctant signing of the Magna Carta. Following John’s perhaps short-sighted attempts to enact bloody vengeance on the offending barons, elements of the nobility invited Prince Louis of France to invade and claim the English throne. As a result of this, the castle once again came under siege in 1216 when a French army led by the Count of Nevers was heroically repelled by the castle’s sixty strong garrison. John’s son, Henry III’s tenure as King saw yet more momentous change to the structure of Windsor Castle including the erection of a great sweeping wall to cover the castle’s vulnerable lower ward, a structural weakness that had almost proved disastrous in the siege of 1216. Henry also invested a staggering amount of money on the castle’s domestic paraphernalia, creating a new Great Hall and remodelling and refurbishing the royal apartments for use by his young wife Eleanor of Provence, creating a palace of staggering opulence and refinement.

Edward III was born within the walls of Windsor Castle in 1312 during the aftermath of one of the great upheavals of his father Edward II’s reign in which the King’s friend and advisor, Piers Gaveston, had been arrested and executed by several outraged prominent members of the nobility worried they were being isolated from the levers of power by the royal favourite. Edward III was a dynamic and driven personality, a dreamer and romantic with the verve to pursue his vision. He became one of England’s most successful warrior Kings. Although crowned in 1327, the young Edward only began to exercise power for himself in 1330 when he, alongside his childhood friends, stormed Nottingham Castle imprisoning his mother and her partner, Roger Mortimer, who had been acting as co-Regents. Following his assumption of royal authority, Edward threw himself into the reignited Second War of Scottish Independence, resurrecting his grandfather Edward I’s plan to support the Balliol claim to the Scottish throne in exchange for acknowledgement of English overlordship. Following several stunning victories and then a slow seemingly irreversible decay in the English position in Scotland, Edward began to pursue a claim to the kingship of France he held through his mother Isabella, daughter of the last Capetian King Philip IV, commencing the bloody and trudging conflict that came to be known as the Hundred Years War.

In the place of his birth, Windsor Castle, Edward, a fanatical devotee of chivalric culture and its accompanying pageantry, founded or perhaps in his mind renewed the Order of the Round Table. The tales of the Arthurian canon were the blockbusters of their day, read, enjoyed and obsessed over by the largely culturally homogeneous European nobility. Arthur was one of the nine worthies of chivalric lore, a universally acknowledged paragon of valour and virtue. Round Table Tournaments in which participants wore lavish Arthurian inspired costumes and re-enacted exploits derived from romance literature were widely popular throughout Europe. In England, however, this reverence for and emulation of Arthur and his knights took on a greater resonance, after all, Arthur had been an English King.

Moreover, an English King who had conquered the entirety of the British Isles and established a great empire within Europe, twin dreams which had burnt long and deep within the English national psyche and its Norman derived monarchy. The aristocrats and knights of England were the legendary Arthur’s heirs and he a symbol of a lost age of martial valour and temporal power. When Edward created the Order of the Round Table in Windsor in 1344, amidst a fountaining of pomp and ceremony, he was not only presenting himself as Arthur’s successor but also building political and cultural solidarity, harnessing the English nobility to his military ambitions through their shared legends and aspirations. Edward III would use the now Arthurian steeped Windsor Castle as a shrine to the cult of Chivalry, reigniting English ardour and ambition, rallying the often fractious nobility about himself and mobilising the nation for war.

While the Order of the Round Table, despite the colossal home he built for it in Windsor, faltered, much like his early attempts to prosecute war in France, largely due to a deficit of funds, Edward persevered and his propaganda swiftly took root. The Order was remoulded and refined by a slightly older and wiser Edward in 1348 into the Order of the Garter, much reduced from the initial three hundred strong Round Table to a mere twenty-four. The new Order was to be a command cadre composed of the most distinguished veterans of Edward’s victorious campaigns and capable of overseeing and enacting the completion of the war. Meeting regularly, the Order of the Garter became one of England’s most prestigious institutions housed in the great custom-built chapel of Windsor Castle and has continued with varying levels of enthusiasm and earnestness by his successors. In large part to make it more suitable for his chivalric enterprises and in order to celebrate and reflect his triumphs in France, Edward embarked upon a truly massive building project at Windsor, expending a vast fortune creating a great palace complex in which he intended to relax and recover from the taxing business of ruling both France and England.

Windsor continued to be an important royal centre in the approaching dusk of the middle ages with both Henry IV and Henry V often holding court and entertaining foreign dignitaries there; the most prominent being Emperor Sigismund in 1417. In 1421, the unfortunate Henry VI was born in the castle, although his long minority saw a dispersal of English political unity and a waning of the Order of the Garter, one of the key tools for Windsor’s upkeep. This position was reversed somewhat by Edward IV another chivalricly-minded warrior King who proudly traced his ancestry back to Arthur, firstly through his links to the Mortimer family and then through them to the Welsh Princes. It was during his reign that the new Chapel of St. George in which the Order is based to this day was constructed. A revival further encouraged by his Lancastrian rival and dynastic successor, Henry VII. For both Kings, who dwelt extensively in Windsor, the Order of the Garter and Windsor’s Arthurian connotations were used not to mobilise for war but rather to build a sense of conformity and unity following the ravages of the War of the Roses. As Windsor sailed smoothly past the middle ages into the modern era it has continued to be an important royal centre and residence of the successive ranks of the British monarchy, enduring wars, revolutions and depositions, all the way down to the current day. Yet increasingly as the tempo and philosophy of governance changed and dare I say improved, Windsor took up a more cursory role in history, a symbol of royalty by mere dint of association rather than the manifestation of royal power and English ideological solidarity that it had once been.

While centuries of revisions and refurbishment have taken Windsor far from its original military role, the palatial castle is truly a work of art and remains an icon of Britishness.

See also: Ten Castles that Made Medieval Britain: Edinburgh Castle

Top Image: Drawing of Windsor Castle from 1910


Watch the video: Abandoned Castle (July 2022).


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