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The History of Windsor

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Windsor is world famous as the seat of the British head of state, at present Queen Elizabeth the Second, and is the site of the largest and oldest inhabited castle in the world. The early history of Windsor is not clear and, although the site was certainly inhabited before the castle was built, it is not until Anglo-Saxon times that Windsor starts to establish itself in history. There is plenty of evidence to suggest that the combination of a navigable river and an defendable spot on a high hill attracted early man. Archeologists have unearthed palaeolithic hand-axes, neolithic flint picks, Bronze Age swords and an Iron Age brooch. While it is known that the Romans were in the region, few remains of their time there have been found.

It is in the time of the Anglo-Saxons that Windsor is first mentioned in historical records. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle mentions the royal
settlement at what is now Old Windsor, situated three miles from the modern town. The name Windsor is though to be derived from Windles-ore, meaning winch (windlass) by the river. The name comes from the settlement’s role in transporting goods along the River Thames . By 1070 a timber motte and bailey castle had been established away from the original settlement and it is thought that the royal household relocated there in the reign of King Henry I , some time after 1086. The new settlement started to flourish and around 1170 a period of substantial planning and building took place. During this time Windsor saw the establishment of a parish church, marketplace, and a hospital. It was also around this time that the castle was rebuilt in stone and a stone bridge built across the Thames, making it the earliest bridge established on the river between Staines and Reading .

As a royal ‘free’ borough, New Windsor was exempt to the often punitive taxes levied on other towns and boroughs. This previously casual status was reenforced in law when King Edward I granted it a charter in 1277. By 1332 Windsor was one of the fifty wealthiest towns in England and a place of considerable importance and prestige. The royal connection ensured high investment in the fabric of both the castle and the town itself, it also helped to attract wealthy merchants to the area. The 14th century saw the town flourish, mainly due to heavy investment in the castle by Edward III who bought many workers to the town to help expand his castle.

After the murder of Henry VI Windsor started attracting pilgrims, mainly from London , to touch the royal shrine that had been dedicated to the late king. A claim that Windsor also held a fragment of the True Cross, supposedly taken from the cross on which Christ was crucified, served to further encourage these pilgrims. Henry VIII is buried there, some say because he hoped to benefit from the town’s established popularity with pilgrims. After his death, however, Windsor began to stagnate. Contemporary reports from the 16th and 17th century show Windsor in decline. During the Civil War Windsor was the base for Cromwell ’s New Model Army and was a staunchly parliamentarian town, despite its royal connections. The defeated Charles I was laid to rest in the chapel at St Georges after his execution in Whitehall in 1649 .

The decline of the town continued until the reign of George III who recommenced royal residence in the town, initially at the Queens Lodge in 1778 and then the castle itself from 1804. This marked the start of an era of dramatic change for Windsor and two army barracks were built there. The population rose from 3,361 in 1801 to 6,734 by the 1851. By the end of the 1800s it had grown to beyond the 9,000 mark. In 1824 a
cast iron bridge was built to span the Thames at Windsor and, by 1827 the town had gas street lamps. The railway arrived in 1849 giving the town a relatively fast and direct route into central London and all stops along the way. Unfortunately local opposition relegated Windsor to branch line status and thus the town missed out on a golden opportunity to be along the main route heading west out of London.

Queen Victoria took up residence in Windsor from 1840 and the town rapidly went from being a slumbering medieval town to the centre of the vast British Empire almost overnight. Sadly, the redevelopment of the castle also led to the destruction of much of medieval Windsor meaning that much of the surviving town is relatively modern.

Windsor Castle continues to be a royal residence, despite the purchase and use of Buckingham Palace as the royal residence in London. In 1992 a fire broke out in the castle resulting it a great deal of destruction. The work to restore the castle after the fire took until 1997 to complete at a cost of £37 million.

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