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Windsor Castle and Its Story

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Of all the great buildings of this country, none is so English as Windsor Castle; indeed, it may be doubted whether any other country can show a building so fit to sum up in itself the characteristics of a nation. Versailles brings before us one aspect of the French character and one epoch of French history; the Doges' Palace recalls a great history, but a history that is over: Schonbrunn and Potsdam never spoke of anything but a dynasty, and that dynasty is dead; but Windsor Castle yet lives, as it has lived for nearly nine hundred years, to play ' a very real part in a nation's life.

We pride ourselves on knowing how to preserve continuity in the midst of change. This is what makes our constitution at once so satisfactory to ourselves and so inexplicable to the foreigner; the characteristic reappears in our architecture, and that is why our cathedrals are so unlike the uniform edifices of other nations; but Windsor Castle has a longer history than most cathedrals, and a secular building has of course more possibilities of change than one consecrated to the service of a particular religion.

But it is not merely fanciful to say that Windsor shows other English characteristics as well as that power of assimilation which we owe to our mixed descent from Britons, Angles, Danes and Normans. For one thing we are a nation which believes in monarchy; perhaps the only great nation of which that can be certainly said, and it is right that our monarchs should have dwelt in one castle through every change of dynasty. The land on which the Castle stands once belonged to King Harold. His Conqueror, William, first chose it as a place for fortification, and it is significant that throughout its long history the only kings who have never cared for it as a residence are precisely those who were most conspicuously un-English-William III the Dutchman, and the first two German Georges.

Again, we are a peaceful nation, but one which does not shrink from fighting. Our typical building must be a castle indeed-for every Englishman's house is his castle, and most of all the English King's-it must have proved itself in war, but it must not be solely nor aggressively military. And so we find that Windsor Castle has stood its siege and defeated its assailants, but that this affair belongs to the days of its youth and has left no impress on its character. It was held for King John and unsuccessfully besieged for more than two months, so that its entry on a period of peace coincides with the internal peace which Magna Carta brought to a distracted land.

It is only when England really becomes England, when Norman and Saxon begin to live and work happily side by side, that Windsor Castle begins to take its true position. Henry III begins to make it a great fortress, but Edward III turns it from a fortress to a palace with the great William of Wyke-ham for one of his surveyors. In the next reign Chaucer acts for a while as Clerk of the Works, dignifying that office as Wordsworth did that of Collector of Stamps.

The House of Lancaster made few changes in Windsor, though its revenues were enriched by the pilgrimages to the tomb of its martyr King Henry. But the House of York altered its outline for ever, when King Edward IV designed his great St. George's to eclipse the Lancastrian foundation in the valley below. Does not the hurried change from stone to brick in the wall of College Hall at Eton show how nearly King Henry's College perished altogether, and do not our annals tell how the Provost of the time used every influence, good and bad, if by any means he might save the school?

But to return to the history of the Castle; Henry VIII gave it its great gateway, but thereafter little external change came till the days of Charles II. He was the first of the Vandals, for he found the palace (in the words of Mr. Evelyn) "melancholy and of a decayed magnificence" and determined ruthlessly to modernise it. Towers and battlements went to the ground, and much "magnificence" went with them; but Grinling Gibbons and those who worked with him understood the art of interior decoration, and "melancholy" no doubt was banished also. The result of Charles' drastic methods was, as usual in England, a strong reaction, and the next rebuilders of the Castle were determined to be purely Gothic; unfortunately the architects, Wyatt and Wyatville, who worked for George III and George IV, had more Gothic zeal than Gothic knowledge. They overloaded the unfortunate Castle with decoration and spent some of the money with which they were lavishly supplied on destroying good medieval work. But though it was a great liberty to add thirty feet of masonry to the Round Tower, it is hard to blame them for having given to the Castle what is certainly its most imposing feature.

The story of how some at least of the money was supplied is a curious one, and possibly of happy omen for our own day. In 1823 Austria, in defiance both of precedent and expectation, made a payment of two-and-sixpence in the pound on account of her war debt, and the Government, at a loss to deal with so surprising a windfall, gave half a million to the building of new churches and 300,000 to the embellishment of Windsor Castle. Those who have studied George IV's financial methods will not be surprised to learn that seven years later the estimates presented to a reluctant House of Commons amounted to three times that sum.

But, whatever his methods may have been, George IV has some right to be considered as the creator of the present royal residence. Before his day there was no direct access from the State apartments to the rooms occupied by distinguished visitors, the Royal Family, and the ladies and gentlemen of the Court, who had to cross an open quadrangle. This had not mattered in the days of his royal father, who lived until the years of his final insanity in some small buildings on the site of the present royal stables, but George IV wished for a magnificent house in which he could entertain magnificently. The architect met the difficulty by erecting a long two-storied gallery.

So far we have spoken only of the general history of the Castle, but besides being the residence of the Royal family it is also the home of the most distinguished order of chivalry in the world, and St. George's Chapel is unique as being the only chapel in the world belonging to such an order. It represents in a worthy form those great ideas of the Middle Ages that man's highest duty was to serve, and that such knightly service must be based on prayer. Hence came the twenty-six Canons to sit in Chapel alter-ately with the Knights and pray with them day by day; hence came the twenty-six poor Knights to represent the others when their manifold duties kept them from worship. Such were the ideas with which, as Froissart tells us, King Edward III chose out "a certain number of the most valiantest men of the realm," and such was the spirit in which "they sware and sealed to maintain the ordinances such as were devised because they saw it was a thing most honourable, and whereby great amity and love should grow and increase."

Of such an order St. George's, as has been said, is a worthy shrine. Built in that perpendicular style which is the only purely English style of architecture, it contains within itself perhaps as many works of art and historic interest as any church, save Westminster, in England; first and chiefest among them the ninety unique examples in English enamel of the stall plates of the Knights. All lovers of architecture must rejoice that the long task of its restoration now approaches completion, and that the square pinnacles which surmount it once more carry "the king's beasts" standing proudly against the sky.

If we wish to give a stranger the most impressive view of the Castle, our choice is wide. It stands on a steep eminence a hundred feet above the Thames, as though Nature had designed it for a medieval fortress, arranging that the river at its foot should be easily bridged at that point. And if Nature, as Dr. Trevelyan has told us, made London by providing a hard foundation for London Bridge, we need not fear to trace her handiwork here. But the best view of the Castle is not to be obtained from immediately below it; for that, some will go to South Meadow or to the Brocas, where they will have the river as a foreground; others will swear by the view which the Great Western gives a passenger as he enters Windsor Station, where the great mass of buildings which extend over thirteen acres seems to group itself for his especial benefit. Those who go farther afield may prefer the view across Dorney Common or from the ridge on the way to Burnham Beeches, where distance mellows what is crude in detail and Wyatville's magnificent outline gets full justice; but perhaps best, because most unexpected, of all is the view from the heights of the Great Park, where at the right time of day the Castle, seen across a mass of foliage, stands up in almost magical beauty.

In a sketch like this it is impossible to do justice to the wealth either of artistic treasures or of historic associations which the Castle possesses. We have said nothing of the Library, with its priceless collection of drawings, of the magnificent French furniture which George IV collected during the Revolution, or of its pictures and miniatures, or of its armour. We have not even mentioned the Stalls or the ironwork of the Chapel nor the tombs of the Kings, representing every dynasty that has sat on the throne of England, nor yet that other tomb designed by Cardinal Wolsey for himself, annexed by Henry VIII for a similar purpose, and resting now, by a strange fate, over Nelson's grave in St. Paul's.

Nor have we touched on many of the countless figures known to literary history whose fate has brought them to Windsor: the poet-King, James I of Scotland who, from a Windsor prison window, saw his destined bride as she walked in the Castle garden, and wooed her in imperishable verse: Shakespeare, whose "Merry Wives" was first performed for Queen Elizabeth by St. George's choristers; Mr. Pepys, who attended the Chapel to his exceeding content when Dr. Childe " for our sakes had this anthem and the great service sung extraordinary, only to entertain us."

Nor have we touched on those dramatic scenes for which the Castle has provided such a splendid, setting, such as the entertainment of the King of Castile, driven by a storm to England, from whom Henry VII exacted a treaty as the price of his hospitality; or the burial on a snowy day in February, with no service sung or said, of the King who was slain, in part at least, for his loyalty to the Prayer Book; or that other funeral service when the new King William IV disturbed the solemnity of the proceedings by continually calling out "Generals, generals, keep step, keep step! Admirals, keep step."

But enough has been said to justify the unique place which Windsor Castle holds in the affections of the English people. It is a place singularly blessed by fortune; happy in its commanding position, happy in its chequered architectural history; happy, above all, in the fact that, alone among the royal palaces of the world, it has been "the continuous home of the rulers of a great country for nine hundred years."

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