Windsor’s history is long, and there is evidence of occupation at or near the site stretching back into the Neolithic period. In rather more recent times, Brian Hope-Taylor’s so-far unpublished excavations of 1954-1955 and 1957-1958 found evidence of a modest settlement at Old Windsor, some two miles from the hilltop site of the present castle, dating to the 8th century or earlier. It seems that c.AD 730 somebody invested substantially in this area, on the boundary between Mercia and Wessex, constructing a large watermill, fed by a great leat – or watercourse – three-quarters of a mile (1.2km) long and 20ft (6m) wide, dug across a meander of the Thames. Close by the leat, Hope-Taylor found evidence for a succession of timber buildings – probably residential halls – and a rectangular stone structure with glazed windows and possibly a tiled roof – great rarities for a domestic building of this period. The whole site was destroyed by fire around AD 900, when debris was tipped into the mill-leat. Hope-Taylor thought, very plausibly, that it had been ravaged by Viking raiders. But this did not signal the end of Windsor’s history, it was really only just beginning.
Revealing a royal residence
In addition to his 8th-century finds, Hope-Taylor also uncovered timber buildings and an abundance of pottery representing reoccupation of the site in the 11th century. But, by his own account, he failed to find the main focus of the settlement, which must have included a large timber hall, or halls, because by now Windsor had become an occasional royal residence.
Edward the Confessor (r. 1042-1066) issued a number of charters while staying at Windsor, and the chronicler Robert of Gloucester records a ‘fair feast’ at Windsor in 1053 when Earl Godwin, Edward’s father-in-law and a dominant political figure throughout most of his reign, was seated next to the king. Godwin was widely suspected of having murdered Edward’s younger brother, Alfred, in 1036 and, during the feast, when Edward cross-examined him about the crime, Godwin swore that ‘so might I safely swallow this morsel of bread… I am guiltless of the deed’. He promptly choked on the bread, and died. (Some other chroniclers say this event happened at Winchester; in any event, it is probably apocryphal, as modern scholars think Godwin suffered a stroke.)
There is further indirect evidence for a royal hall at Old Windsor: this was one of the four places where seasonal courts and ‘crown-wearings’ took place at Christmas, Easter, and Whitsuntide. Easter was almost always celebrated at Winchester, while Windsor and Westminster seem to have been regarded as the usual venues for Whitsuntide, and Westminster or Gloucester for the Christmas court. The coronatio, or crown-wearing ceremony, with its religious services, processions, and banquets, was attended by the leading barons, bishops, and abbots of the day, and was designed to remind the onlookers of the king’s divinely ordained right to rule. These feasts were very large gatherings for the time, involving hundreds of people, many of whom had travelled large distances with their entourages, and a large hall would have been essential to accommodate them all.
First fortified foundations
The Abingdon Abbey Chronicle tells us that, in 1069-1070, William the Conqueror (r. 1066-1087) ordered castles to be founded at Oxford, Wallingford, and Windsor to control the Thames Valley. The choice of Windsor suggests that there was a river crossing here that needed to be watched to prevent rebellious Anglo-Saxon forces from moving around freely. As the Thames is too deep here to be forded, there must have been a bridge, but none has yet been found.
That first Norman castle still survives in the form of the motte on which the Round Tower now stands. Surrounding it is the Middle Ward, while the adjoining Upper and Lower Wards together climb for 1,500ft (457m) up the chalk ridge on which the castle sits to the steep natural scarp that forms its northern defence. The architectural historian Sir William St John Hope argued in 1913 that all three baileys were laid out at the outset, but Tim Tatton-Brown believes that a ditch, which was filled in the 17th century, marked the outline of the original bailey, while the Upper and Lower Wards were added by Henry I (r. 1100-1135) in the early 12th century, as part of the castle’s transformation from a fortress with a garrison of a few dozen individuals into a large royal residence.
While that first castle was being constructed, the Norman kings continued to hold court at the site. When Henry I held a crown-wearing ceremony there at Michaelmas 1101, the guests included the archbishops of York and Canterbury, nine bishops, Robert, Duke of Normandy, the papal legate, the Count of Brittany, and a host of English and French noblemen. A similarly distinguished array of guests descended at Whitsuntide 1103, Christmas 1104, Christmas 1105, Easter 1107, and Whitsun 1108 – although this was probably the last time the court went to Old Windsor, for the chroniclers tell us that Henry I held his Whitsun court in 1110 at New Windsor, which ‘he himself had built’.
Our best evidence for Henry I’s work at Windsor comes from the Pipe Rolls (records of spending by local officials on the Crown’s behalf) from the later reigns of Henry II and John. These refer to expenditure on the ‘King’s Houses’ in the Upper Ward, which included a hall and a chapel as well as a separate hall (the ‘King’s Hall’) and a large chamber block ‘in the Lower Ward’. The terms used in the accounts suggest that work was being carried out to modify existing buildings. They also tell us that Henry II spent £155 15s building a stone curtain wall around the Upper Ward, implying that this part of the castle precinct had been previously enclosed solely by ditches and palisades.
It is likely that Henry I was also responsible for establishing a town at the castle gates. The earliest reference to it, in the 1130-1131 Pipe Roll, distinguishes between the tax income from Old Windsor (£5 3s 8d) and New Windsor (£12 3s 4d), indicating that by then the new town was already a substantial site and that the population of Old Windsor had already begun to move. The ‘burgage plots’, still traceable on large-scale Ordnance Survey maps, suggest that New Windsor was laid out with a large funnel-shaped marketplace approximately aligned with the outer gate of the Lower Ward. The first documentary reference to the parish church of St John the Baptist and its churchyard dates from 1185, but its position in the marketplace suggests that it formed part of the original settlement. If it did not already exist, it is also almost certain that a bridge was built across the Thames as part of the overall development, which would help explain why a riverside community – Under Oure – developed in the 12th century around the Windsor end of the bridge site.
Maintaining the motte
Recent archaeological and architectural surveys of the Round Tower (1988-1992) and the fire-damaged areas of the Upper Ward (1992-1997) enabled the sequence of building to be better understood, though dates remain elusive because pottery and older architectural features have nearly all been removed by later developments.
The motte – the mound on which today’s Round Tower stands – is a prodigious structure, almost 246ft (75m) in diameter across its base and 43ft (13m) high. That makes it one of the largest Norman mottes in England. Borehole investigations by English Heritage in 1988-1989 showed that it was all raised in a single campaign and is composed of chalk rubble, taken from the upcast of the ditch around it, which is correspondingly broad (52ft or 16m) and deep (21ft or 6.5m).
The present Round Tower, at the heart of the castle, has been dated by tree-ring analysis to 1225, but excavation revealed that this tower was pre-dated by a bewildering sequence of earlier structures. A number of post-holes found on the summit may represent traces of the first timber tower, but the evidence was heavily disturbed by later development – most notably by a major episode of subsidence in which the southern part of the motte’s summit slipped by more than 6.5ft (2m). The motte was stabilised by driving a number of timber piles into the mound, and the surface was levelled with a thick layer of chalk rubble and also steadied with timber piles to create a massive plinth, which is all that has survived of the first generation of masonry defences. This had walls of mortared flint and chalk rubble with a battered plinth on its outer side, faced in coursed flint rubble and buttressed.
Within this shell, buildings were grouped around a rectangular open courtyard, and although entirely rebuilt at least twice, this has remained the basic plan of the buildings. The functions of these structures are not clear, but the kitchen is likely to have been in the northern range, close to the well, and there may have been a small hall and chambers in the west range. The importance of the rebuilt motte is indicated by the massive effort that went into constructing an independent water supply. A well 180ft (55m) deep was dug to the east of the earlier one, lined with mortared ashlar blocks for the first 50ft (15m) and cut for a further 130ft (40m) from the solid chalk bedrock. The outer face of the well lining, composed of mortared chalk rubble, retained evidence for the timber plank shuttering used in its construction.
Warding the castle
Until recently it was not possible to say for certain what Henry I’s Upper Ward buildings – the ‘King’s Houses’ – looked like, or whether they were of stone or timber. The archaeological investigation following the 1992 fire in the State Apartments, however, solved the debate by providing clear evidence of stone foundations and a fragment of round-headed arcading, or vaulting, suggestive of a 12th-century date. Our understanding of the form and date of early buildings at Windsor was further transformed by the realisation that the early 12th-century worked stones that survive in the castle’s Moat Garden did not come from Reading Abbey after its dissolution in the 16th century, as had previously been supposed (see CA 336). Instead, they were almost certainly discovered by the architect Jeffry Wyatville during his remodelling of the Upper Ward in the 1820s and 1830s. This confirms that there was a set of richly decorated Romanesque buildings there dating from the reign of Henry I, quite possibly the work of a royal school of masons stationed at Windsor, some of whom went on to work at Reading Abbey.
Based on these, we can envisage the general appearance of Henry I’s buildings by comparison with such contemporary structures as Sherborne Old Castle and the Salle de l’Échiquier in the château at Caen, in Normandy. The core suite of royal apartments consisted of four large ranges built around a rectangular courtyard; these one- and two-storey structures had Romanesque moulded decoration (such as zigzag ornament and beak-heads) around the doors and windows, with some surfaces framed with blind arcading. The complex probably contained a hall, chambers, and a chapel, and must have been supported by structures such as a kitchen and other ancillary buildings.
Evidence was also found for the curtain wall and towers built by Henry II (r. 1154-1189) to enclose the Upper Ward in 1171-1174. During the 1992-1997 Fire Restoration Project, the inner face of the curtain wall was exposed at the back of the 14th-century kitchen fireplaces, which had been constructed against and over the earlier curtain wall. Knowing what this wall looked like led to the recognition of similar stretches of wall, faced with local Heath stone (a hard sarsen or sandstone), throughout the complex, including the Chester Tower. This has now been dated to the 1170s, when it was built as an open-gorged tower (without a back wall). Since the Clarence, Augusta, and York Towers are comparable in size and plan, it seems likely that they are of 12th-century origin as well. This suggests that the Upper Ward was built with a series of square, open-gorged mural towers, comparable to Henry II’s nearly contemporary work at Orford Castle in Suffolk (1165-1173) and Dover Castle (1180s).
The Pipe Rolls mention the ‘King’s Hall’ in the Lower Ward but this seems to have been demolished in the late 15th century. The site of the hall was only finally established by an archaeological investigation in 2006. It was built against the north curtain wall on an east–west alignment; a robber trench was found about 28ft (9m) south of the curtain wall representing the hall’s front wall, and indicating that the hall was not wide enough to have had aisles. No clear evidence was found for its length, but its context and plausible proportions suggest that it may have been about 100ft (30m) long.
Alongside was a large rectangular building of two storeys – probably a chamber block. Its internal disposition is not clear, but it seems likely to have been divided into two long north–south halves or compartments. There must have been several other buildings in the Lower Ward in the 12th century, probably including a kitchen, a bakehouse, and several barns and sheds, but there is no specific evidence for them.
The castle transformed
We now have an overall picture of the appearance of the castle as begun by William I and transformed under Henry I and Henry II. The skyline on the approach to the castle from the river was dominated by the motte – one of the biggest ever raised – crowned with a shell keep, its flint outer wall divided at regular intervals with buttresses. The Upper Ward defences were surrounded by a strong and tall curtain wall studded with higher vertical rectangular towers, all faced in regular courses of roughly faced Heath stone blocks and pierced by narrow windows and arrow-loops.
Outside the curtain wall and around the base of the motte were wide and deep ditches. Inside was a large and imposing set of King’s Houses along the northern side. These buildings were richly ornamented when first built, c.1105-1110. It is likely that the Lower and Middle Wards were crammed with timber buildings, including the lodgings, stables, kitchen buildings, and other structures needed to support the king and his guests. We know too that the southern slopes of the castle hill were planted with vines in 1158-1160, when payments of £8 6s 1d each year for ‘workers in the vines’ (operatiis vinee) are recorded in the Pipe Rolls. It is fairly certain that any wine produced at Windsor would have been of the inferior kind doled out to higher servants, rather than the superior wine imported from France for the king’s own table.
These stately buildings were the backdrop to the scene when, at Christmas 1126, Henry I held a court at Windsor and demanded (rather unsuccessfully it turned out) that the lords of the realm swear oaths of allegiance to his daughter, Matilda (1102-1167), and to uphold her right to the thrones of England and Normandy after his death. After the Anarchy, it was the setting for Henry II’s regular visits. Henry’s Windsor courts were famed for their splendour, attracting visitors from all over Europe, and from 1172-1173 the Pipe Rolls frequently record payments for ‘provisioning’ the castle with wine, wheat, and salted carcasses. Two of his courtiers, Walter Map and Peter of Blois, left vivid descriptions of candles and tapers burning in such numbers as to turn ‘night into day’. Despite the splendour, there was little privacy: even the king shared his chamber with chamberlains and servants, while the hundreds of courtiers, household knights, visitors, and servants – who would have filled any royal residence – slept where they worked or bedded down in the Great Hall.
In March 1185, Henry held a full court at Windsor again, when he knighted his youngest son, John, before sending him to Ireland, of which he had been made lord. This was the king’s last known visit. The first phase of Windsor’s development as a royal residence ended when he died at Chinon, on the Loire, in July 1189. But Windsor’s role as a much-favoured royal residence was only just beginning. Looking out from the castle to the south, primeval oak forests spread for miles. Windsor offered abundant hunting in the surrounding forests, where the royal party might ride all day in pursuit of the native red and roe deer, as well as wild boar.
That explains why Windsor was set to become the second most-used royal residence (after Westminster) in the 13th century, before achieving European renown as the seat of Edward III (r. 1327-1377) and his chivalric court – a privileged band of the king’s knight-companions who fought with him at the battle of Crécy, given permanent and institutional form by the king’s simultaneous foundation of the Order of the Garter and the College and Chapel of St George in the Castle’s Lower Ward.
While superficially the castle may look very different today, Windsor Castle still retains its basic medieval plan and continues to play a central role in the lives of the English monarchy.
Steven Brindle (ed.) (2018) Windsor Castle: a thousand years of a royal palace, Royal Collection Trust, £95, ISBN 978-1909741249.
All images: copyright of Royal Collection Trust, unless otherwise stated photo: Will Pryce.