Windsor (pron.: /ˈwɪnzər/) is an affluent town and unparished area in the Royal Borough of Windsor and Maidenhead in Berkshire, England. It is widely known as the site of Windsor Castle, one of the official residences of the British Royal Family.
The town is situated 21 miles (34 km) west of Charing Cross, London. It is immediately south of the River Thames, which forms its boundary with Eton. Windsor and the surrounding areas contain some of the most expensive and desirable housing in the UK. The village of Old Windsor, just over 2 miles (3 km) to the south, predates what is now called Windsor by around 300 years; in the past Windsor was formally referred to as New Windsor to distinguish the two.
The early history of the site is unknown, although the site was almost certainly settled many years before the medieval castle was built. Histories of the town note that the combination of the navigable river and the strategically placed hill point to the likelihood of continuous human settlement from early times. Evidence includes archaeological finds from Windsor, such as palaeolithic hand-axes, neolithic flint picks, Bronze Age swords and an Iron Age brooch. Although Roman remains are few, there is ample evidence of Anglo Saxon settlement in the area.
Windsor is first mentioned in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. The name originates from old English Windles-ore, or ‘winch by the riverside’, a royal settlement, now called Old Windsor, located about 3 miles (5 km) from the modern town. Windsor Castle was originally built by William the Conqueror in the decade after the Norman conquest of 1066, a timber motte and bailey structure in the manor of Clewer. It was noted in the Domesday Book as ‘Windsor Castle’. Some time after 1086, probably in the reign of King Henry I, the royal household moved upstream to the recently-built castle. By 1110, important crown wearings (Great Council of state) were noted as taking place at the castle and King Henry married his second wife there in 1121, after the ‘White Ship’ disaster. The settlement at Old Windsor largely transferred to this ‘New’ Windsor during the 12th century, although substantial planning and setting out of the new town (including the parish church, marketplace, bridge and leper hospital) did not take place until c. 1170, following the civil war of Stephen’s reign. At about the same time, the present upper ward of the castle was rebuilt in stone. Windsor Bridge is the earliest bridge on the Thames between Staines and Reading, having been built when bridge building was not common. It played an important part in the national road system, linking London with Reading and Winchester, but also by diverting traffic into the new town, underpinned its success.
The town of New Windsor, as an ancient demesne of the Crown, was a privileged settlement from the start, apparently having the rights of a ‘free borough’ for which other towns had to pay substantial fees to the king. It had a merchant guild (known by the 14th century as the Fraternity or brotherhood of the Trinity) from the early 13th century and, under royal patronage, was made the chief town of the county later in the same century. Windsor was granted royal borough status by Edward I’s charter in 1277. This gave no new rights or privileges to Windsor but, as one historian puts it, «recognised [Windsor’s] existence and gave it a legal status as a borough». Importantly, as a self-governing town, it maintained a ‘common cheest’ paying for improvements to the town from its own resources. The town accounts of the 16th century survive, although most of the once substantial borough archive was destroyed, probably in the late 17th century.
The Last Supper by Franz de Cleyn in the West Gallery of Windsor parish church of St John The Baptist.
New Windsor was a nationally significant town in the Middle Ages, certainly one of the fifty wealthiest towns in the country by 1332. Its prosperity came from its close association with the royal household. The repeated investment in the castle brought London merchants (goldsmiths, vintners, spicers and mercers) to the town and provided much employment for townsmen. The development of the castle under Edward III (1350–68), for example, was the largest secular building project in England of the Middle Ages, and many Windsor people worked in the castle on this building project. Henry III, a hundred years earlier, had spent more on Windsor Castle than on any other royal building project, save the rebuilding of Westminster Abbey. The Black Death in 1348, although reducing some towns’ populations by up to 50%, seems to have had less of an impact in Windsor. Possibly 30% of the town’s population died, but the building projects of Edward III brought many building workers to the town, possibly doubling the population: the Black Death, and the plagues that followed in 1361–72, were a ‘boom’ time for the local economy. New people came to the town from every part of the country, and from continental Europe, to benefit from royal expenditure at the castle. The poet Geoffrey Chaucer worked at Windsor Castle as ‘Clerk of the Works’ in 1391.
The development of the castle continued in the 15th century. Windsor became a major pilgrimage destination, particularly for Londoners. Pilgrims came to touch the royal shrine of the murdered Henry VI and the fragment of the True Cross in the new St George’s Chapel (1480) and to visit the same king’s college at Eton (Eton College), which was dedicated in 1440 to the Blessed Virgin Mary. Pilgrims came with substantial sums to spend. There were over 29 inns in Windsor to provide accommodation, some very large. The town became very prosperous. For London pilgrims, Windsor was probably second in importance only to Canterbury and the shrine of Saint Thomas Becket. Henry VIII was buried in St George’s Chapel in 1547, next to the body of Jane Seymour, the mother of his only legitimate son, Edward (Edward VI). Henry, the founder of the Church of England, may have wanted to benefit from the stream of Catholic pilgrims coming to the town. His will gives that impression.
The town began to stagnate about ten years after the Reformation. The castle was considered old fashioned and shrines to the dead were thought to be ‘superstitious’. The early modern period formed a stark contrast to the medieval history of the town. Most accounts of Windsor in the 16th and 17th centuries talk of its poverty, badly made streets and poor housing. Shakespeare’s play The Merry Wives of Windsor is set in Windsor and contains many references to parts of the town and the surrounding countryside. Shakespeare must have walked the town’s streets, near the castle and river, much as people still do. The play may have been written in the Garter Inn, although this was certainly not part of the modern Harte and Garter Hotel opposite the castle. Nell Gwyn’s house, Burford House, is located on Church Street and was built in 1640. A tunnel, long since gone, is reported to have been built from this house to the inside of the castle.
Windsor was the home of the New Model Army and the castle was garrisoned by Colonel Venn during the English Civil War. Despite its royal dependence, like many commercial centres, Windsor was a Parliamentarian town. Charles I was buried without ceremony in St George’s after his execution at Whitehall in 1649. The present Guildhall, built in 1680, replaced an earlier market hall that had been built on the same site around 1580, as well as the old guildhall, which faced the castle and had been built around 1370. The contraction in the number of public buildings speaks of a town in decline. In 1652 the largest house in Windsor Great Park was builit on land which Oliver Cromwell had appropriated from the Crown. Now known as Cumberland Lodge after the Duke of Cumberland’s residence there in the mid 18th century, the house was variously known as Byfield House, New Lodge, Ranger’s Lodge, Windsor
In 1778, there was a resumption of the royal presence, with George III at the Queen’s Lodge and, from 1804, at the castle. This started a period of new development in Windsor, with the building of two army barracks. However the associated large numbers of soldiers led to a major prostitution problem by 1830 in a town where the number of streets had little changed since 1530. The substantial redevelopment of the castle in the subsequent decade and Queen Victoria’s residence from 1840, as well as the coming of two railways in 1849, signalled the most dramatic changes in the town’s history. It catapulted the town from a sleepy medieval has-been to the centre of empire – many European crowned heads of state came to Windsor to visit the Queen throughout the rest of the 19th century. Unfortunately, excessive redevelopment and ‘refurbishment’ of Windsor’s medieval fabric at this time resulted in widespread destruction of the old town, including the demolition of the old parish church of St John the Baptist in 1820. The original had been built in 1180.
Most of the current town’s streets date from the mid to late 19th century. However the main street, Peascod Street (pronounced Pes-cod Street) is very ancient, predating the castle by many years. It formed part of the 10th century parish structure in east Berkshire and in comparison, the 1000 year old royal castle, although the largest and longest occupied in Europe, is a recent development. «New Windsor» was officially renamed «Windsor» in 1974.