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A Brief History
of Windsor

Updated February 2007

See also

Click here for a List of Kings and Queens of England since AD1066

The History Zone Index

  The Royal Windsor Forum

Royal Windsor Home Page

Prehistoric Times

There are signs that the Thames Valley has been inhabited from the very earliest times. Paleolithic Man has lived here since the ice ages, hunting on the river banks. Examples of his weapons have been found during recent excavations and where gravel extraction has taken place. Areas of gravel extraction are primarily upstream of Maidenhead and on the northern areas of the valley, in Buckinghamshire. Animal remains that have been discovered over the years include mammoth, rhinoceros, aurochs, (a horned cow-like creature), as well as deer and horses. Remains have been found during excavation work for the Cavalry Barracks in St Leonards Road in 1867, later to be known as Combermere Barracks, and in Peascod Street in 1958, in Park Street in 1962 and on the site of the original swimming pool at Clewer in the early 1960s.
  Following the Ice Age forests began to grow and human habitation continued with examples of flint 'picks' and bone 'axe-hammers' found in the river. A small collection of palstaves (axes) were found near Bishopsgate in Windsor Great Park in the 1860s, which are believed to be Bronze Age, plus the remains of a dug-out canoe was found in Windsor in 1871, a model of which has been made for display in the, now sadly closed, Windsor Museum. Other artifacts, such as a very fine brooch decorated with an amber and glass beads and dating from about 400BC have been found in the area.

Roman and Saxon Times

The area surrounding Windsor was not a major Roman centre during the Roman occupation although there are examples of pottery, some coins, tiles and two tile-tombs from an excavation in the 1950s at Kingsbury, Old Windsor. There are the remains of a Roman camp on St Leonards Hill where the base of an urn was found.
  By Saxon times a Royal Manor had been established at Old Windsor where Great Councils of the Realm were held in the days of Edward the Confessor and William I and II. Excavations between 1951 and 1958 revealed a number of wooden buildings and rubbish pits. The site of a water-mill and its canal was also discovered, the first of this period to be discovered in the UK. These discoveries show that Old Windsor was inhabited from around 700AD and one of the oldest towns in Berkshire at the time.

The Castle

Castle in the early days - artist's impression

The artist's impression above illustrates how the castle might have looked in its earliest days, constructed on a chalk mound on a bend of the river amidst a barely populated landscape. No claims of historical accuracy are made for this painting (by Michael Vicary).

Windsor (or to be strictly accurate 'New Windsor') first came into being around 1070 when William the Conqueror established a fortification on a chalk mound on a bend in the river, two miles from his palace at Kingsbury, Old Windsor.

  Before this time the area where Windsor now sits would have been just another hill, possibly downland as it was primarily chalk, on a bend in the river, with perhaps a few simple buildings. There is evidence of a hamlet to the eastern side, known as Orton.
  Prior to the Norman Conquest, Edward the Confessor had held court at the Royal Manor at Kingsbury, in what we now know as Old Windsor, until his death in January 1066. Shortly before his death he had transferred ownership of the Manor of [Old] Windsor to the new Westminster Abbey, but later that year, following the Norman Conquest, William the Conqueror issued a charter reading "By the favour of the Abbot of Westminster, I have agreed that Windlesora shall be for the King's use."
  The proximity to the River Thames was no doubt the prime reason for choosing the area, the waterway being the main highway to London to the east. In addition, the extensive Windsor Forest offered excellent hunting and William chose to live there until his death in 1087.
  The name of Windsor derives from Windlesore, or 'Winding Shores' where boats were pulled by windlass ('windles') up the river. As with all such names that date back many centuries, there are other claims as to the derivation of the name. It has also been thought that the name derived from 'winding' meaning 'meandering' shores. A third school of thought stemmed from the belief that the name derived from 'a sore wind' referring to the wind that blew across the mound upon which the Castle was built but this fails on chronological grounds.
  So a Royal connection with this area has existed for more than 1000 years, even before the Norman Conquest of 1066 and the subsequent construction of the first fortifications that subsequently became the Castle as we know it today. Initially the fortifications would have been merely ditches and wooden palisades around Clewer Hill as the original site of the castle was known. Indeed, the tower known today as The Curfew Tower, was originally known as The Clewer Tower. The area of Clewer dates back to Roman times also, the Latin name being Clivore. The present Parish of Clewer is divided into two parts, Clewer Within, i.e. the town of Windsor, and Clewer Without, the area to the west of the town.  
  After the Norman Conquest, William I built a ring of fortresses within one day's march of London, of which Windsor is undoubtedly the finest. The site was chosen for its height, some 100 feet above the river, and its proximity to other castles that William had constructed to the west of London, at Berkhamstead and Guildford. Other castles were built in Ongar, Hertford and Pleshy to the north, Rayleigh and Rochester to the east and Tonbridge and Reigate to the south. The concept of castles was unknown to the Saxons and was part of William's plan to ensure the permanence of the conquest.
  The Castle has been a royal residence since 1110 when Henry I began using it, transferring from the earlier court in Old Windsor. In 1121 Henry married in the Castle Chapel, his Queen being consecrated and crowned there. With the coming of the court, the castle developed further, and the original wooden structures were replaced by stone in the period from 1173 to 1179, together with the characteristic rectangular towers.
  Windsor Castle has only rarely seen any action. There had been a siege in 1193 when, whilst he was on Crusade, Richard Coeur de Lion's brother, John, attempted to seize the crown. The Church Judiciary of the day, headed by the Archbishop of Rouen, elected not to oppose this usurper, but others decided that John should be ousted and he was besieged for almost two months after which John surrendered.
  Twenty three years later, when John was legitimately king, he was forced to accede to the demands of the Barons by the sealing of Magna Carta, at Runnymede, in 1215. Yet this was not implemented to the Barons satisfaction so, just one year later, in May 1216, French forces landed to help the Barons in their dispute with King John. A siege at Dover Castle took place in June, and a few days later the Barons arrived at Windsor. John was not in residence, he was at Corfe Castle on the south coast, leaving the defence of Windsor to Engelhard de Cygony, the Constable of the Castle. The attacks lasted for nearly three months when the besieging forces chased John's army into East Anglia. John died during that pursuit, they say from 'a surfeit of peaches and beer.'
  Tighe and Davis, in their history 'Annals of Windsor' (1858) describe the siege of Windsor as follows:

The besiegers, having arranged their engines, made a fierce assault on the walls. The castle was stoutly defended, and the barons gained little or no advantage.
  "They were long there, but did little, and were in great jeopardy. The besieged made many fierce sallies, twice cutting the beam of their perriere (the name given to the engine for throwing large stones, the greater part of which consisted of a long beam). A knight of Artois, called William de Ceris, was killed, lamented by few, for he was hated much."
  In the meantime, the king, finding his enemies occupied with the sieges of the two castles of Windsor and Dover, availed himself of the opportunity to pillage and lay waste the estates of the barons. He was at Reading on the 7th of September, and came so near Windsor that the besiegers expected a battle. The Welshmen, approaching by night, shot at them with their arrows. The besiegers remained armed a long time, prepared for the fight, but none occurred, the king withdrawing.
  After remaining a week at Sonning, he proceeded to Wallingford and Cambridge. The barons, hearing of the king's movements, and not making any progress at Windsor, determined, under the advice of the Count de Nevers, to raise the siege, and cut off the king's retreat. They left their tents at night, and marched with all haste towards Cambridge. The king, being apprized of their movements, moved to Stamford and Lincoln.
  It was rumoured that the Count de Nevers had been bribed by presents from John to raise the siege of Windsor. Be that as it may, the barons did not return to the siege, but finding the king had escaped them, returned to London, and then joined Louis at Dover.
  Windsor consequently remained in the hands of the king's friends.

By 1217 the castle and surrounding dwellings must have been in a sad state of repair following the ravages of the besieging armies, their siege engines, their raids for food, and the inevitable fires. The residents of the town would almost certainly have taken shelter within the castle, helping to defend it, and providing a source of food to some extent, from their live stock such as pigs and sheep. However, it was not until the year 1230, some thirteen years later, that Henry's grandson, Henry III built a 'curtain wall' and three drum towers to the west beyond the line of the original Norman fortifications. Henry also built royal apartments in the Upper and Lower Wards, now occupied by the State Apartments and Canon's Cloisters respectively. It was at this time that Henry built a Chapel dedicated to Edward the Confessor, later to become St George's Chapel in 1348. The present St George's Chapel was started in 1475 by Edward IV as he wished Windsor to be the centre of his dynasty, with royal burials taking place there. The chapel was not completed for over 50 years until the reign of Henry VIII, in 1528.
  With these building works by Henry III, the Castle was now a substantial and influential royal residence, one of the finest in Europe, and by their very imposing existence, effective in keeping law and order. Windsor too would have prospered in the ensuing peace. Windsor maintained its position as the prime Royal Residence and in 1239 the Queen, Eleanor of Provence, gave birth to her first child, the future Edward I. The Castle saw more building and extension work to provide Edward, now with a younger sister, Margaret (b. September 1240), a courtyard in which to play. The community of the Castle would have been quite substantial, with courtiers and their families, and the many workers that a large royal residence would have required.
  Windsor was not always thereafter the residence of choice. Edward himself, when he became King Edward I, apparently stayed at Windsor only on a few occasions each year. But these were major occasions, tournaments in the Park, military exercises, feasts and jousts.
 The military tournaments at Windsor gave rise to The Most Noble Order of the Garter in 1348, during the reign of Edward III, which was celebrated by feasting and jousting. Knights of the Garter are also known as Military Knights to this day. For over 600 years new Knights of the Garter have been invested annually at The Garter Service, which takes place in St George's Chapel in mid June. St George's Chapel itself was started in 1475 by Edward IV with the final stone vaulted ceiling completed by his son-in-law, Henry VII, by 1528. The Chapel is one of the finest examples of Perpandicular Gothic, the late medieval style. Ten sovereigns are buried at St George's.

Early Castle print

An early illustration of Windsor Castle, showing the wooden bridge to Eton, St George's Chapel, top right, and the State Apartments to the left.

The Town

As the castle grew, so did the town. Edward I made Windsor a Free Borough and granted the town its first Charter in 1276 at which time New Windsor was the county town of Berkshire. In 1314 however, as Windsor's location at the far eastern end of the county was considered too inconvenient, the distinction was transferred to Reading.
  From the days of Edward I, until the Parliamentary Representation Act of 1918,Windsor was a Parliamentary Borough. Its right to send two representatives to the House of Commons was exercised (with the exception of a considerable period between the reigns of Edward II and Henry IV) until the Reform Act of 1867 deprived it of one of its members. In order to retain a sufficiently large population to justify this one remaining member, other parts of Clewer, as well as Eton were added into the Parliamentary Constituency. With the new Act of 1918, Windsor no longer had its own MP. By the end of the nineteenth century, the constituency now included Maidenhead also.
  The town around the Castle has remained small for a number of centuries, development of land to the east and south being prevented by the surrounding Crown land that comprises the Home Park and Windsor Great Park. Also, Eton College land to the north was similarly unavailable for expansion and land alongside the river, regularly flooded, would not have been appropriate for the construction of homes or factories. In the late 1840s there was a major reorganisation of the lands around the castle to the east, where previously enclosed areas were opened up to become The Home Park, while to the south of the new Datchet Road and Victoria Bridge, public access was no longer possible.

Thames Street in the late 1840s

The buildings to the left were removed in the late 1840s and the Bell Tower altered to the 'Pepper Pot' design we know today.

The Curfew Tower and Thames Street

The Curfew Tower (Bell Tower) in 2000

The town began to change faster in Victorian times when a significant number of terraced houses were constructed in areas to the south and around to the west of Windsor. Semi-detached homes, described as 'villas' in Victorian times, were also built together with some more substantial homes for the 'well to do'. This significant growth in housing is probably due to the arrival of the railways in Windsor in 1849 which permitted convenient access to London. In the early 1900s slum dwellings in Bier Lane (now River Street) were removed at the same time as Barry Avenue and the river promenade was created. Further slums were removed in the late 1920s to create the River Street Car Park.
 The Goswells, at the foot of the castle to the west were created after a slum clearance scheme using a fund set up in 1910 to purchase the land and thereby protect the view of the castle from the west. This area is now in the care of the National Trust. In 1902-3 Alexandra Gardens were created beyond The Goswells, now an attractive open area adjacent to the river promenade at Barry Avenue.

The Goswells A R Quinton

The Goswells and Curfew Tower by A R Quinton in the early 1900s

The Round Tower from Alexandra Gardens

Alexandra Gardens, looking east towards The Goswells and the Castle

In recent years new estates have been built to the west, initially after World War Two, and later in the 1960s and 1970s. At the same time, some of the original terraces closer to the town centre were lost in the 1960s when the unattractive Ward Royal was built.

Windsor Bridge

A bridge to Eton has existed since 1268 or before, but being wooden, fell often into disrepair. The present bridge, an early cast iron and stone structure, was completed in 1824. After over 140 years, when horse and carts had for many years been superseded by cars, lorries and double decker buses, the bridge was finally deemed unsafe, and was closed to all vehicular traffic. Our Windsor History section features two articles about Windsor Bridge and the Bridges Downstream of Windsor.

Windsor Bridge, looking east, downstream

Windsor's Two Train Stations

As a Royal Town, Windsor attracted the attentions of both the Windsor, Staines and Richmond Railway Company, (subsequently the Southern Railway Company), and Brunel's Great Western Railway, each vying with the other for Queen Victoria's patronage, and both providing a Waiting Room at their respective stations, though if either believed that Her Majesty would be prepared to wait for one minute, they were mistaken!
  The Royal Waiting Rooms still exist, one in the Central Station (serving the Great Western main line at Slough on the Paddington, London to Bristol line), and one in Datchet Road adjacent to the Southern Region, Windsor and Eton Riverside, which connects with Waterloo Station in London.
  The railways arrived within months of each other in 1849. Brunel's line from Slough being on raised arches across the river, rising up to the town centre, while the Southern Railway approached from the east, through Crown land, the station as we know it today being completed in 1851.

Central Station - Waiting Room
Queen Victoria's Waiting Room (centre) under the roof of the Central Station, the Great Western Railway terminal from Slough and Paddington.

Windsor and Eton Riverside Station

The Southern Railway station at Windsor Riverside, connecting with Waterloo Station in London

Windsor Riverside Royal Waiting Room

The Royal Waiting Room to the south side of Windsor Riverside Station

The arrival of the railways made Windsor far more accessible from London and elsewhere, and so began the increase in tourism and day-tripping to the town and to the open areas of The Brocas (below, to the left) where many a fine picnic would be enjoyed, with views of Windsor and the Castle across the Thames, along with opportunities for boating and swimming.

The Thames at Windsor 1900s

Rowing skiffs were the order of the day in the early 1900s plus the odd steam launch.

See also

Click here for a List of Kings and Queens of England since AD1066

The History Zone Index

  The Royal Windsor Forum

Royal Windsor Home Page

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