Ever since William the Conqueror first identified a strategic spot high above the River Thames some 20 miles west of London as the perfect place to build a military fortification in the late eleventh century, Windsor Castle has played a crucial role in the lives of the British royal family and the formation of an English national identity. Visitors to Windsor Castle today will marvel at the luxurious splendor of the State Apartments, which are anchored by a host of ceremonial rooms and historic chambers, and the Semi-State Rooms, with its regal Crimson Drawing Room. Other Windsor Castle highlights include St. George’s Chapel, Queen Mary’s Dolls’ House, and the kid-friendly Moat Room.
Money Saving Tip! Windsor Castle is included on the London Pass. If you are sightseeing in Windsor, then you can save a lot of money with the pass.
History of Windsor Castle
Though famous today as one of the primary royal residences, Windsor Castle was originally built as a wholly defensive military structure. Work began on what would become Windsor Castle in 1070, when William the Conqueror ordered the construction of a timber fortification high on a bluff above the Thames. It would remain largely a military facility until the middle of the fourteenth century, when King Edward III began to transform the site into a palace. The expansive work that Edward and his heirs had done on Windsor Castle would be maintained until Queen Elizabeth I came to the throne. Her reign would inaugurate a century of change, culminating in King Charles II’s extensive redecoration of the State Apartments.
King George IV, who ruled from 1820 to 1830, made improving, expanding, and restoring the castle a priority, and his reign marked the last great transformation of the site. A substantial fire broke out in Windsor Castle in 1992, necessitating a wide range of repairs. This painstaking work took five years to complete, but has in the ensuing years been hailed as a success.
Windsor Castle Highlights
The impressive portion of Windsor Castle open to the public today is headlined by the so-called Ceremonial Rooms: those ornate chambers within the site’s State Apartments used by the royal family to host foreign heads of state when they’re making official visits. None of these is more famous than the Grand Reception Room, a lavishly appointed space where each and every surface seems to be decorated in gold. Of particular note here is a large urn gifted to Queen Victoria in 1839 by Tsar Nicholas I.
The State Apartments also feature a suite of rooms known as the Historic Rooms. Dating to the time of King Charles II, who spent incredible sums in an attempt to construct a home to rival the Versailles of King Louis XIV, the Historic Rooms possess plenty of elaborate ceiling paintings, priceless artifacts, and masterpieces by artists like Rubens, Van Dyck, and Holbein.
Built for King George IV in the early decades of the nineteenth century, the Semi-State Rooms are considered among the most expensively decorated interior spaces in all of England. Keep an eye out for the Crimson Drawing Room, whose décor matches its name: it’s an expansive space full of red-cushioned furniture, gold trim, and large paintings of royals. It is said that this area was utilized by Queen Elizabeth II when entertaining official guests.
More to See and Do at Windsor Castle
With so much to see and do at Windsor Castle, it’s easy to get overwhelmed at the thought of trying to experience it all in one visit. Here are few more essential items worth knowing about as you plan your trip.
•St. George’s Chapel dates to the late fifteenth century and stands today as a classic example of the Gothic style of architecture. The tombs of eleven British monarchs are to be found within its storied footprint—including Queen Elizabeth II, King Charles I, and King Henry II—and royal weddings still occur here on occasion.
•You’ve never seen a doll house until you’ve Queen Mary’s Dolls’ House. This stunning creation was designed by acclaimed architect Sir Edwin Lutyens, required the services of 1,500 artists, manufacturers, and craftspersons, and took some three years to build (1921-1924). No joke, Queen Mary’s Dolls’ House even has running water, electricity, and functioning elevators.
•Families visiting Windsor Castle with small children will definitely want to seek out the Moat Room, which houses a bronze model of Windsor Castle as it might have appeared in the fourteenth century, as well as the Pug Yard Learning Centre. There you’ll find a train set to play with, bean bags to rest on, and plenty of kid-friendly, educational information about the legacy of this historic site.
•Visitors to Windsor Castle in the mood for a small meal or quick snack should stop in at Undercroft Café. Located in what’s said to be one of the oldest remaining areas of the castle complex, the Undercroft Café serves an assortment of sandwiches, salads, wraps, desserts, and of course, tea.
•Pretty much everything you come across while touring Windsor Castle—whether it’s a piece of furniture, china teapot, oil painting, or suit of armor—is of tremendous historic value. When in doubt, if you’re curious about something that’s caught your eye, ask a staff member for more information!
Why Windsor Castle Should Be on Your Must-See List
Anyone with the slightest interest in the history of England or the British royal family will not want to miss out on a visit to Windsor Castle. Simply put, Windsor Castle is one of the world’s most fabled residences. For a thousand years now, Windsor Castle has housed royalty, welcomed dignitaries, and stood as a symbol of the English nation, and a millennium’s worth of changes are reflected in its architecture, design, grounds, and artworks.