17 May 2010

Windsor Castle

SONY DSC Located on a splendid rocky outcrop beside the winding Thames in a strategic spot guarding the western approaches to London, Windsor Castle has been the site of prominent fortifications for nearly a thousand years.  William the Conqueror erected the artificial hill that still forms the centrepiece of the castle grounds, and placed a wooden fort upon it.  Later came Henry II’s famed Round Tower and the vast curtain walls pierced with cross-shaped arrow-slits.  Later still came the beautiful late Gothic St George’s Chapel, the spiritual home of the Order of the Garter, the most prestigious and historic order of chivalry in Britain.  Windsor is the world’s largest inhabited castle: it’s also a royal residence, said to be the Queen’s favourite home.

SONY DSCThe start of my visit involved a brief wait while fifty or so smartly dressed Scandinavians got themselves in order.  A Norwegian Army band, decked out in black-plumed hats and green epaulettes, then marched with trumpets blaring a jaunty tune, up into the castle and out into the Lower Ward near St George’s Chapel, where they performed a series of military marching tunes and a seemingly obligatory and not particularly martial Michael Jackson medley (The Way You Make Me Feel followed by Thriller). 

After a brief listen I took the opportunity to visit St George’s Chapel, a remarkably beautiful structure in the Perpendicular Gothic style with a superb broad fan-vaulted nave ceiling supported by external buttresses.  The choir holds the heraldic insignia of the current Knights of the Garter, resting above half-drawn swords to indicate eternal vigilance against threats to the Crown.  In the middle of the floor lies the tomb of three notable figures: Henry VIII, his favourite wife Jane Seymour, and the reunited body and head of Charles I.  But perhaps my favourite aspect of the chapel was the venerable graffiti markings, particularly near at the far end from the pulpit – one scoundrel found himself a quiet moment to scratch his name and the date of his visit: ‘John Frost, 1599’.

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Then it was time to visit the State Apartments.  A small gallery displayed selections from the sumptuous royal art collection, including some works of the genius Leonardo – a deftly-realised sketch of a baby in his mother’s womb was startlingly realistic, and presumably drawn from an autopsy.  There was also a charming selection of royal photography from the Queen’s early years, when she looked like a regal Shirley Temple.

The Apartments were, as expected, an impressive spectacle, particularly the sweeping grandeur of St George’s Hall, in which 160 guests dine on a single table with suitable pomp: you’ve probably seen the documentaries showing how the table settings are individually measured out with rulers to ensure everything looks perfect.  Various treasures are on display throughout the Apartments, including a comically distended set of armour for a corpulent Henry VIII, and a small locket containing a humble slug of lead less than a centimetre wide, which pierced the shoulder and penetrated its victim until it nestled near the spine, resulting in eventual death.  Its target was Horatio, Lord Nelson, and the surgeon who removed the bullet after Nelson’s death at Trafalgar in 1805 wore it around his neck for the remainder of his own life. 

Incidentally, because the Royal Standard was flying on the flagpole of the Round Tower, the Queen was in residence when I visited.  This doesn’t necessarily mean she was physically present – she may well have been busy doing royal things elsewhere during the day.

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Above, clockwise from top left: The Round Tower; Guardsman on sentry duty in the Upper Ward; St George’s Chapel exterior; further view of the Round Tower garden.

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