St. George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle is about the most down-home place for a British royal wedding that American Meghan Markle could have hoped for. Compared with the spectacular public wedding of Prince Harry’s parents at St. Paul’s Cathedral, and big brother Prince William’s to Catherine Middleton at Westminster Abbey, the May 19 wedding there promises to be intimate — well, as intimate as 600 guests allows.
Windsor Castle is Harry’s family home. It’s where he and William visited Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip, who spend nearly every free weekend there, when the boys were in high school at Eton. From school, they could walk to the castle on a footbridge over the Thames. The queen’s stable at Windsor is where all her grandchildren learned to ride. And 3-month-old Harry was christened Henry Charles Albert David at St. George’s Chapel.
The chapel has seen several royal weddings, and it’s where Prince Charles and Camilla Parker Bowles had their “Service of Prayer and Dedication” following their civil-marriage ceremony in 2005.
While no one but invited guests will get inside on wedding day, anyone can check out the chapel and Windsor on most days.
The castle’s commanding position makes a strong impression. This is what William the Conqueror intended in 1070, when he built the fortress high above the Thames as part of the ring of forts he erected around London. It’s an uphill climb from the town, where visitors look skyward to see whether the red, yellow and blue royal standard is flying, indicating that the queen is there.
On a July day, a Blue Badge Guide, a licensed professional whose expertise can be highly valuable for a tourist, suggested I start my visit at the bottom of the hill, just inside the castle walls, to see St. George’s Chapel before it got crowded. I could go up the hill to visit the castle’s State Apartments later. That turned out to be good advice.
Chapel’s early days
St. George’s Chapel was built by Edward III as the religious home of the Knights of the Garter, which he created to hold his nobles close and loyal. While the chapel’s earliest walls date to 1240, Edward’s improvements came 100 years later, and it wasn’t until the 1500s that the chapel was completed, in the late Gothic English Perpendicular style with its magnificent, soaring, fan vaulting.
The most striking sight is in the Quire, where the Garter Knights have permanent, elaborately carved stalls, marked by large enameled brass nameplates in French, language of the royal court and crusading knights in the 14th century. Towering above each stall is that knight’s symbolic banner and a crest. The one for Sir Edmund Hillary, the New Zealander who climbed Mount Everest, sports a big blue Kiwi bird holding an ice ax. Just as it was when Edward created it in 1348, today’s Order is limited to the sovereign and her heir (the prince of Wales) and 24 additional members she personally chooses. It’s believed that the queen will install Prince Harry as a new knight this year. Prince William was installed in 2008.
For more only-in-England sights, the chapel visitor has only to look around. Set into the marble Quire floor is the grave marker of Henry VIII, his third wife, Jane Seymour, and the beheaded King Charles I. Charles I’s body was buried by the Cromwell forces who were using the royal chapel as a stable, and was discovered 150 years later. Overlooking the altar is the oriel window, similar to an enclosed balcony, that Henry VIII built for his first wife, Catherine of Aragon. She watched the annual Garter ceremony from the same spot where Queen Victoria often attended services.
Down the north aisle, a simple dark chapel is undecorated save for a small altar and a black floor plaque memorializing the current queen’s parents, King George VI and the Queen Mother. Also buried in the same chapel are the ashes of Queen Elizabeth’s sister, Princess Margaret. It’s believed to be where the queen has planned to be interred.
Also on the north aisle is a very large, white marble sculpture memorializing Princess Charlotte, who died in childbirth in 1817. Charlotte was the only heir to her grandfather, King George III, and her father, George IV. When she and her stillborn son died, the childless sons of George III were pressured to produce an heir, and 18 months later the baby who would become Queen Victoria was born.
Beyond the chapel
Uphill from the chapel is the castle, where visitors can see the State Apartments. A grand staircase lined with weapons and suits of armor is the entry for the tourist, as it has been for visiting heads of state for centuries. Most of the 39 monarchs who have lived at Windsor have expanded or improved it. But credit President Ronald Reagan with one modernization: The queen installed the castle’s first shower for his 1981 visit.
The castle underwent its biggest changes after an enormous 1992 fire caused by a construction crew’s spotlight, a blaze the queen watched helplessly from the castle grounds. Many rooms in the castle were destroyed or damaged. Fortunately, much of the royal collection of art had been removed during the ongoing construction. Princes Philip and Charles headed up plans for rebuilding — and in a fortunate move for tourists, the queen agreed to help fund the works by permitting public tours of Buckingham Palace while she is away during the summer months.
Among Prince Charles’ projects was one of the most impressive that tourists see today: a rebuilt medieval hammer-beam oak ceiling in the vast St. George’s Hall, the castle’s largest banquet room, where a table for 160 guests is set for state dinners with King George IV’s gold service. In that hall, the white ceiling is studded with hundreds of colorful coats of arms and the walls are lined with suits of armor and lists of every knight in royal history.
The queen’s private apartments are in another end of the castle quadrangle.
If recent history is a guide, the queen will go all out for the castle celebration after Meghan and Harry’s ceremony. A lunch for the 600 wedding guests will be held in St. George’s Hall. A smaller dinner party for 200 will be given by Prince Charles at the Frogmore House on the Windsor estate, the burial site of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, which is rarely open to the public.
After Camilla and Charles’ ceremony, boisterous cheers were heard. And the queen is known to love a good party. Reports of her dancing the night away in her stocking feet at Charles’ 21st birthday party have lived on.
And the next morning, tourists will stream through those same regal rooms.