Windsor Castle is one of the world’s most famous and historically rich castles. As a royal residence synonymous with the British Royal Family, it is also a popular tourist attraction. Millions of people visit yearly to see its stunning architecture and rich history.
You can spend hours exploring the castle grounds, which include beautiful gardens, extravagant Baroque interiors, and the stunning 15th-century St. George’s chapel.
This blog will touch on Windsor Castle’s history and offer practical tips on enjoying your visit to the royal residence today. Although we don’t deliver tours to Windsor Castle as part of our Private Tours in South East England, we do explore an array of fascinating historical sites. Please browse our selection of tours and consider joining us.
A Short History of Windsor Castle
Windsor Castle is nothing short of a symbol of British history. Originally constructed by William the Conquerer in the wake of the 1066 Norman Invasion, Windsor Castle began its life as an important defensive fortification close to the River Thames.
The site provided William with easy access to London, and Windsor forest provided ample hunting grounds.
By the end of the 11th century, Windsor Castle was taking on the shape you see today (the castle is similar in design to Arundel Caste, a destination we visit on our Arundel Castle Day Tour).
The first king to use Windsor Castle as a residence was Henry I, who celebrated Whitsuntide at the castle in 1110 and was married in the castle. His son, Henry II, was a great builder, and Windsor Castle is one of his achievements.
He rebuilt it into a square, massive stone castle with towers at each corner. His castle was not as large as later castles were to become; however, it had many rooms.
King Henry III was a great builder and rebuilt Windsor in the Gothic fashion, adding the great hall, the chapel, and the round tower. The north range of the castle was also built during his reign.
In the 12th century, King John notably used the castle as a base for hosting negotiations before the signing of the Magna Carta at nearby Runnymede in 1215. John’s forces also had to successfully defend the castle from French sieges, which led to extensive developments and improvements being made under John’s reign and his successor, Henry III.
King Henry VIII used the castle as a prison for Anne Boleyn, Catherine Howard, and Jane Seymour. He accused all three of his queens. Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard were both sentenced to execution by their husband.
(To learn about the fascinating Tudor age, take our Hever Castle Tour, the former family home of the Boleyn family, or Tour of Hampton Court Palace, where Jane Seymour died during childbirth in 1537.)
During WW2, King George VI used Windsor Castle as an observation and command centre, from where he would direct operations and keep abreast of the war. His secretary, Sir Alan Lascelles, spent much of his time at Windsor Castle during this period. The king’s wife, Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, remained there with him until late 1940, when she moved to London because of the danger posed by aerial bombing.
Today, Windsor Castle is most widely known for being Queen Elizabeth I’s principal weekend home. In 1992, a fire damaged nine staterooms, which were restored over 15 months. The blaze started in the Queen’s Gallery on 15 November and spread through the roof to 12 of the castle’s rooms before firefighters extinguished it.
The restoration was carried out by English Heritage and included rebuilding sections of some rooms, such as the White Drawing Room, which had been extensively damaged. It also involved repairing items like furniture and art damaged in the fire.
Windsor Castle is a UNESCO World Heritage site. It has been recognised for its cultural significance and importance to humanity through its preservation of cultural property or natural sites that are significant internationally.
Things to Do At Windsor Castle
Lovingly cared for by the Royal Collection Trust, Windsor Castle is the largest occupied castle in the world and makes for a magnificent day out.
The State Apartments are the grandest of Windsor Castle’s rooms and are also home to some pretty impressive art. The Royal Library is home to an incredible collection of books and manuscripts, most notably a Gutenberg Bible from 1455 (the first book printed with movable type).
The Royal Chapel contains several famous works, including Leonardo Da Vinci’s Studies for the Last Supper, which shows what his original vision for the painting would have been like.
It also has several other paintings from artists like Rembrandt van Rijn and Peter Paul Rubens.
The Queen’s Gallery houses an extensive collection that includes some notable pieces by Anthony van Dyck and Johannes Vermeer, as well as works by Claude Monet and Pablo Picasso.
You can see these works in situ during your visit to this gallery, or if you want to learn more about them, you can go through one of many tours available throughout each day, which will allow you access behind closed doors so that you can see more than just how beautiful these paintings look when they are hanging on walls!
The Royal Stables hold lots of information about horses and carriage history throughout different eras, including a carriage used by Queen Victoria herself. This makes it an interesting place for adults who love learning about history and children who may be less interested in historical facts but still enjoy looking at beautiful objects such as those housed here!
Check the What’s On at Windsor Castle to keep up to date with the many events that occur throughout the year.
When to Visit Windsor Castle
The best time to visit Windsor Castle is between September and March when you can avoid larger crowds. If you’re planning on visiting during the school holidays or weekends, it might be best to wait until the crowds have died down or arrive at the castle for opening. Public holidays will also be busy.
Evening or night-time tours are particularly atmospheric, with the interiors of some rooms lit by candlelight.
The castle can usually be visited from 9 am to 5 pm from Easter to October and from 10 am to 4:30 pm the rest of the year, so there are plenty of times when you can visit without competing with other tourists.
Getting to Windsor Castle
By car: Windsor Castle is reached via the M4 motorway at Junction 15, signposted B789/A332. Follow the A332 to Windsor (B482). Once you reach Windsor, follow signs for “The Royal Borough of Windsor & Maidenhead” and turn left onto Victoria Road.
By train: Travel by train to London Waterloo station or Paddington station and then take the Heathrow Express direct to Windsor & Eton Central railway station.
If you’re based in London for a stay and wish to take a day tour to some of England’s most important historical sites, please explore our Private Tours in South East England. Our private tours conveniently depart from Bromley South station, in London’s southeast suburbs, just a 20-minute direct train ride from London Victoria station.
If you’d like to visit a site close to London that isn’t on our tour list, please enquire through our Tailor-Made Tours page. We cover Kent, Sussex, and parts of Surrey.
Is Windsor Castle the Oldest Castle in the World?
We’re often asked, “Is Windsor Castle the Oldest Castle in the World?” The oldest castle is, in fact, the Citadel of Aleppo, with some parts of the structure dating back to 3000 BC.
Windsor Castle is, however, the longest continuously occupied castle worldwide. Meanwhile, the oldest known castles in Europe are those built by the Romans during their occupation of Great Britain between 43 A.D. and 410 A.D., though some may have been built earlier by other peoples inhabiting Britain before Rome’s legions conquered them.
An Unforgettable Day at Windsor Castle
It’s not surprising that Windsor Castle welcomes around two million visitors every year, it’s a historical site with something for everyone.
Our brief foray into the history of Windsor Castle should have given you a good idea of where it all began and why the site is so significant.
It’s wonderful that the continued efforts of the Royal Collections Trust ensure that visitors can explore the grounds of this magnificent castle or go inside to see some of the most stunning art collections in England – go and see it for yourself!
If you have any questions or comments regarding our tours, please don’t hesitate to contact us.