Piety and Chivalry St George's Chapel Windsor: Nigel Saul Looks at a Building Which Embodied Much of England's Religious and Political Life in the Later Middle Ages, and Which Stages the Blessing the Prince of Wales's Marriage on April 8th

By Saul, Nigel | History Today, April 2005 | Go to article overview

Piety and Chivalry St George's Chapel Windsor: Nigel Saul Looks at a Building Which Embodied Much of England's Religious and Political Life in the Later Middle Ages, and Which Stages the Blessing the Prince of Wales's Marriage on April 8th


Saul, Nigel, History Today


FROM THE WEST AND NORTH, the views of Windsor are dominated by the unmistakable silhouette of the great castle. The jagged outline of towers and battlements rises slowly but forcefully up the chalk bluff overlooking the Thames. Occupying a dominant position in the centre is the Round Tower, the castle's shell keep, which was raised in height in the nineteenth century. Higher up, commanding the best views over the surrounding country, are the state apartments of the Upper Ward. Nearer to the town and further down is the Lower Ward, the preserve of the dean and canons of Windsor. In this part of the castle the silhouette is dominated by the long, horizontal, whaleback skyline of St George's Chapel. This is a chapel as big as a cathedral. In the vast fortress that is Windsor nothing is done by halves. In Europe's largest royal castle we have Europe's largest royal chapel.

The turning point in the history of the chapel came in the reign of Edward III (r.1327-77). The present chapel, however, is a creation of the Yorkist and early Tudor kings. The building we see today was begun in 1475 and completed, for the most part, by 1509. A central tower was projected but never built. The chapel attests to the chivalric ambitions of Edward IV (r.1461-83), who initiated the rebuilding. Edward's idea was to graft a magnificent new royal mausoleum onto the existing castle chapel.

For well over a century, the chapel had served as the annual meeting place of the Order of the Garter, founded in 1348. This earlier chapel was a much smaller building than its grandiose successor. It occupied approximately the site of the present mainly nineteenth-century Albert Memorial Chapel. What it lacked in architectural magnificence, however, it more than made up for in liturgical and institutional significance. Around the chapel's walls the banners of the Garter knights were hung, and on a knight's death his armorial plate was placed on the stall by his seat. Here, to a greater extent than in any other English church, the worlds of piety and chivalry so characteristic of the late Middle Ages were brought into visible harmony. In raising the chapel's status in the 1470s, Edward IV wanted to make this mix richer still. In the exotic ambience of Burgundian-style chivalry which he created at Windsor, Edward could feel at home. Unsurprisingly, it was here that he chose to be buried.

Edward's rebuilding formed part of a much larger scheme to revive and re-endow the collegiate establishment that Edward III had called into being. The first recorded chapel in the Lower Ward had been built in the 1240s by Henry III, and dedicated to the King's patron saint, the last legitimate Anglo-Saxon king, Edward the Confessor. In 1348, however, Edward III reconstituted this as a college, or community of secular canons. At the same time, he established a sister college in the chapel of St Stephen at Westminster. The Windsor chapel was now rededicated to St George, a saint who stood for and legitimised martial values.

Edward arranged for each of the new foundations to be served by a dean, twelve canons and thirteen vicars. St Stephen's developed a close association with the institutions of government at Westminster, with many of the canons involved in administration. At St George's, however, the community's links were with Edward's new order of chivalry, the Order of the Garter. From the beginning, St George's was to be one of the most remarkable and distinctive foundations of late medieval England. It was also, in many ways, to be one of the most influential.

The role which St George's played as the spiritual home of the new Order made it unlike any other castle chapel in England. In effect, the chapel was the institutionalised focus of the social and religious activities of an elite knightly brotherhood. Not only did the Knights of the Garter gather within its walls in April each year on the patron's feast day to celebrate Mass; from the later fourteenth century, if not earlier, they made it their locus of memorialisation. …

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Piety and Chivalry St George's Chapel Windsor: Nigel Saul Looks at a Building Which Embodied Much of England's Religious and Political Life in the Later Middle Ages, and Which Stages the Blessing the Prince of Wales's Marriage on April 8th
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