The eyes of the world will be on Windsor Castle for the forthcoming wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle later this month. Nestling in the lavish grounds, St George’s Chapel is the venue for the long-anticipated royal wedding on 19th May.
Aside from the royal event, the castle is a major tourist attraction in its own right, with its long and rich heritage luring visitors from across the UK and abroad to witness British tradition at its best.
William the Conqueror built the original castle on the 13-acre estate in the 11th century, following the Norman invasion of England, but he used it as a defensive base and not as a residence. It was said to combine the features of a fort, a royal palace and a small town.
The first royal wedding to take place at Windsor was the marriage of Henry I to Adela, daughter of Godfrey of Louvain, in 1121. The couple were also the first royals to live at Windsor Castle.
Over the centuries, various improvements and renovations were carried out at the royal residence. Henry III spent a lot of money on improving the royal accommodation after his reign began in 1216. The greatest impression was left by Edward III in the 14th-century, when he transformed Windsor into the centre of his court, government and the newly-founded Order of the Garter.
During his reign, beginning in 1509, Henry VIII began hosting increasingly extravagant feasts at Windsor Castle – one of his favourite residences. The main archway was reconstructed in 1511 to bear his name, so that visitors would see it as they left the castle.
He frequently stayed at Windsor, as he hunted in the surrounding forest. It was also the scene of controversy, as Henry confined his first wife, Katherine of Aragon, to the castle while he negotiated their divorce. The king’s illegitimate son, Henry Fitzroy, also lived there for a while.
The son of the king and his mistress, Elizabeth Blount, Fitzroy – born in 1519 – was the only illegitimate child ever acknowledged by Henry VIII and he became the 1st Duke of Richmond and Somerset. His mother Elizabeth was the daughter of Sir John Blount, a royal servant, who went with King Henry VIII to France in 1513, during England’s war against Louis XII.
During the huge uprising of 1536 against Henry’s rule in the north of England (known as the Pilgrimage of Grace), the king based himself at Windsor and managed his armed forces from the castle.
Over the centuries Windsor Castle has seen many changes, such as its increasing use for diplomatic engagements by Elizabeth I in the 16th century, and major improvements in its art collection under Charles I in the 17th century.
Oliver Cromwell used Windsor Castle as his headquarters and as a jail for captured royalists during the civil war from 1642 to 1651. After Charles I was found guilty of high treason and executed in January 1649, his body was returned to Windsor Castle under cover of darkness and interred in the vaults beneath St George’s Chapel.
The monarchy was restored by his son, Charles II, in 1660. He used Windsor Castle as his country residence, determined to make the most of it as a symbol of the restoration of the monarchy after the uprising.
During the reign of George IV, beginning in 1820, the most lavish renovations were carried out at Windsor Castle, including a refurbishment of the state apartments and the redesign of the sumptuous castle gardens. To the east of the castle, he had a D-shaped formal garden laid out, bordered by pleasant raised walks lined with bronze statues.
One of the most famous and best-loved monarchs to reside at Windsor was Queen Victoria, who used it as her principal palace during her long reign from 1837 to 1901. It became the focus of the British Empire, welcoming state visits from monarchs, ambassadors and ministers from all over the world.
Today, Windsor Castle is a massive tourist attraction and is the weekend home of Queen Elizabeth II, who also takes up official residence there in March and April – a period known as Her Majesty’s Easter Court. She has always loved Windsor and she and her sister, Margaret, spent most of their time there in their youth.
The castle is divided into various sections, all of which are tourist attractions in their own right. The magnificent State Apartments are filled with fine works of art from the Royal Collection, such as paintings by Van Dyck, Holbein and Rubens.
The Semi-State Rooms (private apartments furnished by George IV) boast luxurious interiors created by Morel and Seddon, with many of the furnishings and fittings taken from the king’s former London residence, Carlton House, echoing his love of fine objects and taste for the theatrical.
Featuring exotic chandeliers and shiny gilding, the Grand Reception Room was the main ballroom at one time. It houses the large malachite urn that Tsar Nicholas I presented to Queen Victoria in 1839.
With many other rooms providing spectacle and splendour for visitors, the grounds are also popular among tourists. Official guides lead tours of the Castle Precincts, introducing the castle’s 1,000-year history.
The royal wedding will see the happy couple take part in a carriage procession through Windsor following the ceremony at Windsor Castle’s chapel at noon. Thousands of flag-waving fans will line the route to wish the newlyweds well.
If you’re planning a get-away trip to London, H&H Van Hire’s minibus hire is a convenient means for all members of your party to travel together. Reduce transport costs and enjoy a more pleasant journey together – if you’re heading to Windsor to enjoy the Royal Wedding, you can even start the celebrations on the way! Please contact us for details of our nine, 14 and 17-seater minibuses.