The town of Windsor is home to Windsor Castle – the largest and oldest inhabited castle in the world, and apparently the Queen’s favourite weekend home.
The history of Windsor Castle is filled with Kings and Queens of England escaping from London via the River Thames to the safety of their castle at Windsor during times of turbulence.
Other highlights of Windsor include the nearby Ascot Racecourse, if you are into horse racing, and Eton College, one of the oldest and most famous schools in England. Eton offers guided tours during the summer.
The town itself is a delight, by the way, which was a pleasant and unexpected surprise for me when I visited.
Arthurian legend states that Windsor Castle was built on the site of an old Celtic camp where King Arthur once lived. I love any link to King Arthur, no matter how tenuous.
The reign of Edward III saw a Great Chivalric Age and Windsor was the scene of many tournaments. In 1344 Edward made a demonstration of his interest in Arthurian legend during a joust at Windsor Castle and this was the genesis of the Order of the Garter. The reasons for naming it the Order of the Garter aren’t clear and records have been destroyed by fire. Two possible reasons are:
- The best story is that the Countess of Salisbury was dancing at a ball and her garter slipped down around her foot. Ooer! The courtiers sniggered, but good old Eddy chivalrously picked it up and either put it on his own leg or back on hers. I hope he put it on his own, that would be fantastic. He then commented
Shame be to him who thinks evil of it!
…which has remained the motto of the order to this day.
Some think this story was French propaganda to make a glorious English institution appear to have frivolous origins.
- The second story is that Edward was simply reviving the idea of the round table, the legend of King Arthur and the idea of chivalry and gallantry. Richard I was said to have used the garter during the Crusades when he tied them around the legs of the soldiers to bestow status on them (the garter also had a practical purpose to hold on armour). But this one is a bit boring, so I choose to believe in #1.
However it came about, in 1349 the Order consisted of Edward as sovereign and twenty five Knights Companion, one of whom was the Prince of Wales (the Black Prince!). These ‘founder knights’ were military men, skilled in battle and tournaments, and all really young. The order was intended by Edward to be reserved as the highest reward for loyalty and military merit.
Between 1344-48, King Edward had the castle almost totally rebuilt. It is said that this rebuilding was inspired by royal prisoners from abroad who sneered about their unsophisticated surroundings, and so their ransoms paid for the reconstruction. Part of the work was a gigantic circular building two-hundred feet across within the upper ward of the castle to house an Round Table.
When the Bubonic Plague broke out in London in 1563, Queen Elizabeth I moved her court to Windsor Castle where she erected gallows and ordered that anyone coming from London was to be summarily hanged. Yikes.
Elizabeth requested Shakespeare write another play featuring Falstaff from Henry IV, who I guess was one of her faves. And so he wrote the ‘Merry Wives of Windsor’…
I didn’t immediately make the Shakespeare connection with Windsor. But when I was in the castle there was a display about him and I suddenly remembered – of course! The Merry Wives of Windsor must have been set in … Windsor. He also apparently read and performed to the Royal Court at Windsor.
The play features a few local landmarks. Falstaff stays at the Garter Inn, which today is thought to be part of the Hart and Garter in the High Street. Datchett Mead, the Thames and Frogmore are also mentioned in the play.
It’s not his most famous play, but it’s good fun and reads a bit like a modern sitcom. Most of its humour is low humour – cheap gags, physical comedy etc. Most of the action is based on Mistress Ford and Mistress Page (The Merry Wives) concocting various schemes to embarrass Falstaff.
The play also references the Order of the Garter. Mistress Quickly sings a song to scare Falstaff and orders her little “fairies” to get Windsor Castle ready for the Order of the Garter. She asks them to spell out the order’s motto with flower petals, which you will remember is
Shame to him who thinks evil of it
This basically means “shame on anyone with a dirty mind”, which is kind of the moral of the whole play i.e. shame on Falstaff for having a dirty mind. Incidentally, I think this is a wierd motto for a supposedly noble order of knights to have adopted and held onto for all these years.
Some of the most famous quotes you’ll recognise from the Merry Wives include:
“The world ‘s mine oyster”
“This is the short and the long of it”
“I cannot tell what the dickens his name is”
“As good luck would have it”
And my all-time favourite (albeit not so famous):
“Let the sky rain potatoes”
Windsor is an easy day trip from London. Trains depart regularly from Paddington. The journey takes about 45 minutes (with one change at Slough) and costs just £14 return.
Entry to the castle is £20, but if you don’t want to pay that you can still see plenty of the castle from the outside and, as I said, the town itself is worth visiting.
Complete your experience
Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor
Chimes at Midnight (1966) – The story follows Sir John Falstaff through his appearances in Shakespeare’s histories. Henry IV, Richard II, Henry V, and the Merry Wives of Windsor
Berkshire’s only native cheese is the Windsor Red, a cheddar impregnated with veins of elderberry wine. Very Tasty.
To The Hilt by Banks, because we’ve been talking about knights, and they have swords, and swords have hilts.