Perhaps one of the most recognisable castles in the world, the 13-acre Windsor Castle has been home to a long line of British Royals. Over the centuries it has seen changes in power, war, plague, and revolt. The castle itself has also gone through immense evolution during its life and boasts an eclectic range of design and architecture styles that mark new periods of the history of Britain.
Here are 10 little-known facts about Windsor Castle:
1. It’s nearly 1,000 years old
When William the Conqueror invaded England in 1066, he quickly erected a series of motte and bailey castles to subjugate the Anglo Saxons and establish a firm seat of power. Starting in Dover, William made his way up from the coast, where he built the Tower of London. Windsor Castle was built as one of nine defensive castles in a ring around London. Each one was placed around 25 miles apart to remain a day's march away from the city.
2. It’s the largest and oldest inhabited castle in the world
Windsor Castle was first used as a place of residence by William’s son, Henry I, and has remained a firm favourite with monarchs ever since. With its easy access to London and vast lush hunting grounds, Windsor is the familial home of members of the Royal family.
As it has grown more established since it was a motte and bailey, the castle is now home to 150 resident staff (out of approximately 400 staff in total). Operating more like a small town than a palace, Windsor Castle has remained inhabited for close to 1,000 years and has been home to everyone from soldiers to librarians, fendersmiths, and horologists.
The Great Kitchen is the oldest working kitchen in the country and has been in continual use for over 650 years, serving 32 of Britain’s 39 monarchs. It currently hosts the Queen’s culinary team of 20 chefs and sous chefs, three pastry chefs, and over 40 porters and kitchen staff.
3. It takes around 16 hours to turn the clocks forward
Windsor Castle has 300 fireplaces and over 450 clocks. Resident fendersmiths are on hand 24 hours a day to attend to the fireplaces, while the resident horologists are always busy making sure that the clocks are running smoothly. When it comes to daylight savings hours it takes around 40 hours of work to prepare and around 16 hours to turn all 450 clocks forward or backward.
4. It is the burial ground for 10 of England's kings
10 of the 39 British monarchs to have ruled are buried at Windsor Castle, including Henry VIII and his favourite wife, Jane Seymour. Not all burial places are resting places, however, and some of the kings interned there have died in less than favourable circumstances. Charles I, Britain’s only monarch to be tried and executed for treason, is interred alongside Henry VIII. Meanwhile, Henry VI was murdered on the orders of Edward IV, who had laid claim to his throne.
5. Queen Mary’s Dolls’ House
Inside the castle is a magical example of architecture and craftsmanship that you might not expect. Queen Mary’s Dolls’ House was built for the queen in the 1920s and is a 1:12 scale (1 inch: 1 foot) model home. Featuring a complete library of 170 miniature books, electric lighting, a fully stocked wine cellar (with real wine), and working plumbing that allows you to draw a bath: the house is a one-of-a-kind work of art.
It is filled with miniature replicas of brands and items that would have been found in any royal palace, and the artworks and creations that fill the home were gifted by over 1,500 artists, artisans, and manufacturers.
6. The Long Walk is nearly three miles long
The tree-lined avenue leading up to Windsor Castle was introduced by Charles II. The iconic stretch starts at the George IV Gateway and ends at the copper horse statue. It boasts fantastic views of the castle, its grounds, and the deer population of the royal parks.
7. It’s the birthplace of English Chivalry
While people joke about chivalry being dead in the modern-day, at Windsor Castle, it is very much still alive. The Order of the Garter was set up by Edward III, who was inspired by the chivalric heroics of the Knights of the Round Table in the stories of King Arthur.
The men and women who are offered knighthoods based on their services to the public are required to display their heraldic banner whenever they attend St George’s Chapel in the castle.
8. It’s kept out more than just invading armies
Windsor isn’t just a castle; it is a stronghold that can protect the royal family from invaders at the gates. However, it’s helped to protect the monarchs of Britain from some threats that are much harder to avoid.
During outbreaks of plague, many monarchs have returned to Windsor to wait out pandemics in relative safety. With the ability to be holed up within the castle and limit entry from potential plague carriers, Windsor has been used as a quarantine multiple times. Queen Elizabeth I was rumoured to have sojourned in the castle during a nasty bout of the plague and threatened any uninvited visitors to the castle with immediate hanging. More recently, the castle was used by Queen Elizabeth and her late husband Phillip to weather out the COVID-19 pandemic.
9. The Royal Family takes its name from Windsor
King George V made the decision in 1917 to change the Royal Family's surname to 'Windsor'. Why? The country was three years into World War I and the anti-Germany sentiment was at an all-time high. Therefore, the king dispensed with the use of German-sounding surnames. From 19th June the Royal Family were no longer known as 'Saxe-Coburg-Gotha' and instead opted for the much more patriotic 'House of Windsor' as an homage to their hometown.
10. Hitler intended to live there
Windsor isn't just a favourite of the Royals; there were rumours during WWII that if Hitler successfully invaded the UK, he would set up his residence in the castle. Had he succeeded in the invasion, however, he might not have been so lucky when it came to securing Windsor Castle. Many of the staff of Buckingham Palace were relocated to Windsor for safety, and Queen Elizabeth II (a princess in the Land Army at the time) was in residence throughout the war. Some nights she was forced to sleep in the dungeons in case the Luftwaffe successfully bombed the castle.
The history of Windsor Castle
How did Windsor Castle go from a humble wooden settlement to the resplendent royal residence? Let’s take a look back at its epic, and sometimes violent, history.
The castle’s creation
Windsor Castle owes its existence to the security concerns of William the Conqueror. Although the Norman leader had emerged victorious from the Battle of Hastings in 1066, his reign as the new king of England was threatened by Anglo-Saxon rebellions. To consolidate his power, he built a defensive ring of castles around London – one of these being a stronghold close to the Thames in Windsor.
It was a wooden motte-and-bailey castle, built on a man-made mound of chalk which still exists today as the last remnant of that original structure. The land was actually owned by a Norman aristocrat, which meant that William and successive monarchs would carry on paying rent until eventually buying the land in the 16th century.
It was William’s son, Henry I, who first used Windsor Castle as something more than a military fortification, choosing it as the location for his wedding in 1121. It would be his grandson, Henry II, who would oversee more extensive work on the castle, erecting stone walls and the iconic Round Tower.
The besieged castle
The first siege of Windsor Castle took place in 1193, but it was a bit of a damp squib as sieges go. Henry II’s son John had attempted to depose his own brother, Richard the Lionheart, while the latter was away fighting in the Crusades. English barons loyal to the absent king fought back, leading to a standoff at Windsor Castle where John and his garrison had hunkered down.
Since the attacking forces had longstanding friends in the castle, the siege was, in the words of a medieval chronicler, ‘not very earnest’, and John eventually surrendered to his own mother.
A more dramatic siege unfolded at the castle in 1216, during the First Barons’ War, when John, now king, was battling rebellious barons as well as a French prince who wanted the crown for himself. A contingent of knights loyal to John at Windsor Castle found themselves surrounded by enemy forces, in a standoff which dragged on for two months and saw the castle battered by catapults. Fortunately, it survived the bombardment.
A new Camelot?
Windsor Castle was greatly expanded and enhanced during the long reign of King John’s successor, Henry III. The defences were improved, eye-catching sections such as the Curfew, Salisbury and Garter towers were erected, and the residential areas were made more luxurious. Henry’s splurging on the castle was a reflection of how much he loved spending time there, and his passion was shared by a monarch of the following century, Edward III.
Actually born at Windsor Castle, Edward was keen to make the residence even grander and more imperious than before: a sprawling symbol of English chivalry and might. He would spend over £50,000 on renovation projects, more than any monarch had ever spent on a single building. Lavish fixtures and fittings were added, plus whole new buildings including apartments and courts.
Edward was an avid lover of the Arthurian legends, and saw Windsor Castle as a real-life Camelot. He even planned to create an Order of the Round Table at Windsor – an idea that would later evolve into the Most Noble Order of the Garter, a highly exclusive order of chivalry which still exists today.
The Tudors and the Stuarts
Henry VIII was another king who made great use of Windsor Castle, both for business and pleasure. It was where he would indulge his interests in hunting, listening to music and feasting, and it was also where he plotted his response to the Pilgrimage of Grace uprising in the north of England. He also rebuilt the main gateway, which bears his name today.
Elizabeth I, impressed by the castle’s track record of keeping besieging troops at bay, saw Windsor Castle as a safe space and followed in the footsteps of predecessors by lavishing money on yet more expansions and renovations.
During the English Civil War, which raged in the reign of Stuart monarch Charles I, Windsor Castle was seized by Parliamentary forces who objected to the ostentatious luxury within. Treasures and artworks were looted, and windows and books were destroyed. Charles himself would be kept prisoner at the castle in the lead up to his execution.
His son, Charles II, had a happier time at the castle. After the restoration of the monarchy, he had it renovated and refurbished, and created the now-famous and much-photographed Long Walk – a tree-lined avenue stretching out from the castle for more than two miles.
Fire and rebirth
Windsor Castle entered a ‘long sleep’ period in the early 18th century, as the Hanoverian kings George I and George II weren’t so keen and rarely visited. However, the spotlight returned after the accession of George IIl (who would be confined there when he succumbed to madness).
When Queen Victoria came to the throne she dismissed Windsor Castle as ‘dull and tiresome’. Despite this, it would become central to her reign, and the site of numerous diplomatic events during the heyday of the British Empire. Meanwhile, Queen Elizabeth II’s affection for Windsor was well known, and made it all the more devastating when a fire – believed to have been started by spotlight pressed up against a curtain – tore through the castle in November 1992.
More than 225 firefighters pumped 1.5 million gallons of water to fight the inferno, which destroyed vast swathes of the castle. However, painstaking restoration work restored Windsor to its former glory within five years, and it remains the world’s oldest continuously occupied castle.