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Medieval Castles > Castles England > Windsor Castle
Location: Windsor - England.
Built in: Around 1070 by William the Conqueror.
From out the dimness of England's ancient story, Windsor and Winchester, and Camelot and Caerleon are raised aloft, lit with the light of the romance of Arthur. Warwick, Dover, and Belvoir, and Alnwick and Conway and Caernarvoil, the tower of London and again Windsor, rise from the times of the Norman dominion. Edinburgh, Kenilworth, Penshurst, and Naworth; Carisbrooke, and again Windsor, remain in our sight to recall most forcibly the period when "our loyal passion for our temperate kings" began to make these castle-landmarks of our story scarcer in the land.
Through all the long review of points of time that challenge observation, Windsor stands the most enduring and the most majestic of the places around which gather the memories of all ages of England's greatness.
In the valley of England's famous river the Normans built two strong towers, that of London and that of Windsor. This stream nursed the cradle of Norman ,power, and saw the renewed birth of English liberty, when the stranger-barons, whose fathers subdued England, wrung from their king the great charter of the rights of the subject.
No wonder William found the hill a good place, for there is no fairer view in England. That from Richmond is not so extensive; and at Windsor he possessed besides, a grand forest country for his sports. His men could put off their chain-mail and pointed helmets with the straight faceguards, and give chase to the red deer, which then abounded all over the country, the hunters having no metal about them except the sharp, plain Norman spur on their heels, and the iron on the tips of their arrows.
Now the distant smoke of the mightiest city in the world can be descried on the horizon. In those days so rarely was smoke visible, that signals were transmitted by kindling fires at market-places, and the clear air knew not the fumes that make the white river-fogs dark-yellow in colour, and stifling to breathe. The chequered appearance of the nearer landscape, divided by hedgerow and field to the north and east, is modern; but to the south and west the woods of oak must present much their appearance of the olden days. No engineer has altered the river, or been able even to abate its occasional winter floods, which turn the banks above Windsor into a shallow lake.
The further landscape is still what it was. It is still a wooded land. There are no sterile patches, no ugly intervals, no naked tracts of sand or earth. All is green, and better than in the early days in this that the cheerfulness of peace is on it, and the 11 stately homes" are more frequent, and the villages need no rampart, but expand in security, and, it must be added, often with a system of architecture to which distance alone can lend enchantment.
The Castle was very strong. These keeps were built so that there was no chance of a surprise. Massive gates placed in security beyond deep ditches were let into the walls, well defended by battlement and flanking towers. Drawbridges and portcullises might be forced, but there the enemy only found himself at the beginning of his work.
Narrow passages led to other defences, and the keep itself was reached by a stair so narrow that one man only could enter at a time. The walls of the lowest story showed only tiny shot- or loop-holes. The second story showed more of these, but so narrow that no torch could be thrown in. The third story had windows so high in the wall that arrows or bolts shot from below could only hit the arch of the opening, to fall back harmless.
The top stories were filled with weapons that could throw darts, stones, and heavy balls, so assailants could not easily take a Norman keep. The Normans had taste as well as strength, and gradually the 'whole neighbourhood was made more beautiful. During reign after reign the kings showered favours on their finest possession.
Around the Keep arose a Central Ward that is the space outside was enclosed with towers and walls and gardens. Then lower down the ridge another king built a church, and beyond it again other great towers, as the town arose, under the Castle's shelter and protection. This part was again flanked and made strong, and called the Lower Ward. The church was dedicated first to St. Edmond, and then to St. George. But on the other side of the Keep the monarchs built themselves something in the way of lodging far better than the small rooms of the Keep, for a wide range of palace apartments existed there before even the days of the Tudors. These were extended and improved from the days of Queen Elizabeth to the days of Queen Victoria. These buildings formed the Upper Ward.
The effect of this mass of buildings, dominated by the Round Tower, is very fine, and no better example exists of the feudal fortress. Whether seen from the river, with the red-roofed houses of the town clustered below the great white walls, or from the park, where Windsor rises like an enchanted castle above the wide greensward, which is varied with the groves of ancient oak and beech, there is nothing to compare with it.
All who speak the English tongue may be equally proud of the palace strength of their great forefathers. Chambers built over castle gateways were often used as prisons for those whose lot was not to be made too hard. For the unfortunates who were to be severely dealt with, a far more horrible prison was provided in the shape of a dungeon with a narrow orifice above, through which the victim was let down with cords into a vault, having often no windows. Places like this must have soon become foul and fatal to the captives.
At Windsor there is a very fair prison above the gateway, through which you must pass before entering the great stair that climbs the mound of the Keep. Although the windows are narrow they give light enough, and on the walls are the names of the men who here, in their durance vile, amused themselves by writing their name or making their mark by scratches on the stone. Sometimes they added a little tracing of their arms.
These small rooms are among the few which remain exactly as they existed in the Middle Ages. In other apartments there has been much alteration. Most of the ceilings of Verrio are gone, the ancient tapestries have been removed, the heavy ornamentation of the times of the Georges, and almost all the still ponderous yet better decorations of Jacobean times, have disappeared. But the towers which held celebrated prisoners of State are yet pointed out. The two most notable are just under the hill on which the great round Keep is built. One of these has been raised high, and a very narrow stair communicates with each of its little rooms. Here King John of France had many a long hour in which to repent of his bad generalship at Poictiers, where the young Black Prince took him prisoner. Here he was brought after that ride through the streets of London, which must have been to him so humiliating, although he was shown much courtesy by his captor.
It was the opposite tower across the Upper Ward, with better accommodations that Henry V. of England assigned to the use of the young King of Scotland, who had been illegally captured during a time of truce. Young James of Scotland's uncle, the old Duke of Albany, was not supposed to be particularly sorry to have his sovereign and nephew kept in England, for it gave Albany all power in Scotland. So at Windsor James remained for nearly twenty years, becoming expert in literature and in knightly exercises.
The English were kind to him, and it was from this building of his captivity, now called Edward the Third's Tower, that he saw his future Queen, a daughter of the House of Seaufort, walking in the garden at the base of the Keep. His long residence in England was beneficial to James in many ways, and when he was at last allowed to return to his northern kingdom, he entered it the most accomplished knight of his time. He was much beloved by the English, with whom he managed, when on the throne, to keep on fair terms. His reign was illustrious, and worthy of a better close than that of the tragic assassination by which it was ended.
We need not think of all the terrible things that have happened at Windsor Castle-of prisoners dying by inches in dark dungeons; of men 'mutilated for treason, like the Earl of Eu; of the rare attacks the Castle has been called to endure; of the ruin wrought in glorious chapel and halls by Cromwell's soldiery. For Windsor has chiefly been associated with the brighter and more cheery events of the national life.
Here, more often than in any other royal home, were the joy-bells rung for the births and marriages of our princes; although here, too, the funeral knell has also been often heard; for it is the tomb, as it is the dwelling-place, of the monarchs of England.
The most daring and most romantic of the Constables of the Round Tower, the fiery Prince Rupert, made his rooms beautiful with pictures, with tapestry, and with ornament. At once an artist and a warrior, such as few countries have produced, he lived to see the palace a prey to the spoiler.
Earlier as well as later days are recalled by the buildings below, which are now devoted to the library. They overlook the Thames and England's great school of Eton. From their windows one gazes across the river far below, on the roofs and towers of the college founded by Henry VI.
Between the groups of houses and the thickly-scattered trees one may catch glimpses of bands of boys in the distance playing football or cricket, or rowing on the Thames. The poet Gray, looking on the same cheerful scene, wrote gloomily, "Alas! regardless of their doom, the little victims play." Well, they are fortunate victims, and the men who have been at school there would gladly live over again the years they spent at Eton.
It was in this part of the Castle that Queen Elizabeth lived and moved and had her imperious being. It was in a little chamber in a turret here that Queen Anne received the despatch from Marlborough wishing her joy on the victory of Blenheim. He wrote on a scrap of paper from the field, "Your Majesty's troops have had a great victory, and Marshall Tallard is in my coach." He had, with Prince Eugene, achieved one of the most fruitful successes of that reign of victories.
The old look of a fortress has given way to that of the palace, fearing no foeman; and long may this be so! But the Castle could be made strong against everything save long-range artillery. The walls could contain a large force, and its underground apartments have the solidity of bombproof. Sentries pace its ramparts, and a regiment of guards is also at hand. Nor is it dependent for water on river or outside supply. Not long ago a room in the Round Tower was complained of as always cold. The floor was taken up, and there lay
a vast circular stone with great iron rings. By these it was lifted, and a deep, carefully-constructed Norman well was discovered, going down to the level of the Thames itself.
The interior of the group of rooms extending from the north side of the Norman Gate to the angle at which the red-coated porters await visitors, now devoted to a fine library, is not always shown. But for those who have leave, a most interesting collection of medals, illuminated manuscripts, ancient buildings, and Oriental miniatures, is displayed. Handsome Elizabethan chimney-pieces, on one of which the great Queen herself is represented, warm the north wall. The windows on the other, embayed in presses full of well-arranged literature, look out towards that far-off church, the spire of which is easily recognised through glass, where Gray wrote his immortal Elegy. One little room is that in which Queen Anne was sitting when Marlborough's despatch announcing, the victory of Blenheim was brought to her.
Where the library ends is the first of a set of splendid apartments, used only by the public and the greatest sovereigns. Paintings by Zuccarelli, who, at his best, is always most pleasing, are hung over cabinets containing very beautiful porcelain. Onwards, on the north side, room after room can be most profitably examined, for the pictures are of particular interest, either on account of their history or their art. Formerly the Sovereign's family lived in this part of the Castle. Now they live on the southern side of the Upper Ward, where dwelt in other days the great officers of state.