Windsor is a 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 23 miles (37 km) west of Charing Cross, London. It is immediately south of the River Thames, which forms its boundary with Eton. 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 it was almost certainly settled some years before 1070 when William the Conqueror had a timber motte and bailey castle constructed. The focus of royal interest at that time was not the castle, however, but a small riverside settlement about 3 miles (5 km) downstream, possibly established from the 7th century. Windsor, or Windlesora as it was called in the 11th century, is first mentioned in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. The name originates from old English Windles-ore, or ‘winch by the riverside’. The settlement had used an earlier name, but this is unknown. From about the 8th century, high status people stated to visit the site occasionally, and possibly this included royalty. From the 11th century the site’s link with king Edward the Confessor is documented, but again, information about his use of the place is scant. After the Conquest of 1066 royal use of the site increased, probably because it offered good access to woodlands and opportunities for hunting – a sport which also practised military skills. By the late 12th century, and the relocation of the royal household to an enlarged castle in 1110, the site was renamed Old Windsor.
Windsor Castle is noted in the Domesday Book under the entry for Clewer, the neighbouring manor to Windsor. Although this might seem strange, it occurred because plans for the castle had changed since 1070, and more land had been acquired in Clewer on which to site a castle town. This plan was not actioned until the early 12th century. By 1110, meetings of the Great Council, which had previously taken place at Windlesora, were noted as taking place at the Castle – referred to as New Windsor, probably to indicate that it was a two ward castle/borough complex, similar to other early castle designs, such as Denbigh. Henry I – according to one chronicle – had rebuilt it, and this followed the Norman kings’ actions at other royal sites, such as Westminster, where larger and more magnificent accommodation was thought necessary for the new dynasty. King Henry married his second wife at Windsor Castle in 1121, after the White Ship disaster. The settlement at Old Windsor largely transferred to New Windsor during the 12th century, although substantial planning and setting out of the new town (including the parish church, marketplace, bridge, hermitage and leper hospital) did not take place until c. 1170, under Henry II, 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, built at a time when bridge building was rare; it was first documented in 1191, but had probably been built, according to the Pipe rolls, in 1173. 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, it underpinned the success of its fledgling economy.
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 Holy Trinity) from the early 13th century and, under royal patronage, was made the chief town of the county in 1277, as part of its grant of royal borough status by Edward I’s charter. Somewhat unusually, this charter gave no new rights or privileges to Windsor but probably codified the rights which it had enjoyed for many years. Windsor’s position as chief town of Berkshire was short-lived, however, as people found it difficult to reach. Wallingford took over this position in the early 14th century. As a self-governing town Windsor enjoyed a number of freedoms unavailable to other towns, including the right to hold its own borough court, the right of membership (or ‘freedom’) and some financial independence. The town accounts of the 16th century survive in part, although most of the once substantial borough archive dating back to the 12th century was destroyed, probably in the late 17th century.
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 in the late 13th century and provided much employment for townsmen. The development of the castle under Edward III, between 1350–68, was the largest secular building project in England of the Middle Ages, and many Windsor people worked on this project, again bringing great wealth to the town. Although the Black Death in 1348 had reduced some towns’ populations by up to 50%, in Windsor the building projects of Edward III brought money to the town, and possibly its population doubled: this was a ‘boom’ time for the local economy. People came to the town from every part of the country, and from continental Europe. The poet Geoffrey Chaucer held the honorific post of ‘Clerk of the Works’ at Windsor Castle in 1391.
The development of the castle continued in the late 15th century with the rebuilding of St George’s Chapel. With this Windsor became a major pilgrimage destination, particularly for Londoners. Pilgrims came to touch the royal shrine of the murdered Henry VI, the fragment of the True Cross and other important relics. Visits to the chapel were probably combined with a visit to the important nearby Marian shrine and college at Eton, founded by Henry VI in 1440, and dedicated to the Assumption; which is now better known as Eton College. Pilgrims came with substantial sums to spend. From perhaps two or three named inns in the late 15th century, some 30 can be identified a century later. The town again grew in wealth. For London pilgrims, Windsor was probably – but briefly – of greater importance than Canterbury and the shrine of the City’s patron Saint Thomas Becket. With the closures of the Reformation, however, Windsor’s pilgrim traffic died out. Henry VIII was buried in St George’s Chapel in 1547, next to 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, opposite the Castle, but this was destroyed by fire in the late 17th century. The long-standing – and famous – courtesan of king Charles II, Nell Gwyn, was given a house on St Albans Street: Burford House (now part of the Royal Mews). Her residence in this house, as far as it is possible to tell, was brief. Only one of her letters addressed from Burford House survives: it was probably intended as a legacy for her illegitimate son, the Earl of Burford, later the Duke of St Albans.
Windsor was garrisoned by Colonel Venn during the English Civil War. Later it became the home of the New Model Army when Venn had left the castle in 1645. Despite its royal dependence, like many commercial centres, Windsor was a Parliamentarian town. Charles I was buried without ceremony in St George’s Chapel after his execution at Whitehall in 1649. The present Guildhall, built in 1680–91, replaced an earlier market house 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 1350. The contraction in the number of old public buildings speaks of a town ‘clearing the decks’, ready for a renewed period of prosperity with Charles II’s return to the Castle. But his successors did not use the place, and as the town was short of money, the planned new civic buildings did not appear. The town continued in poverty until the mid 19th century.
In 1652 the largest house in Windsor Great Park was built 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 Lodge and Great Lodge. 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.
A number of fine houses were built in this period, including Hadleigh House on Sheet Street, which was built in 1793 by the then Mayor of Windsor, William Thomas. In 1811 it was the home of John O’Reilly, the apothecary-surgeon to George III. Windsor Castle was the westernmost sighting-point for the Anglo-French Survey (1784–1790), which measured the precise distance between the Royal Greenwich Observatory and the Paris Observatory by trigonometry. Windsor was used because of its relative proximity to the base-line of the survey at Hounslow Heath. 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. These events 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 around 1135.
As a tourist town there are many gift shops around the castle, together with stylish shops and restaurants in Windsor Royal Shopping inside Windsor & Eton Central railway station. The main shopping street, Peascod Street, includes as an independent department store, W J Daniel & Co., noted for its large toy department, as well as national chains such as Marks & Spencer and Boots. King Edward Court, a pedestrian-only shopping centre, has a Waitrose supermarket alongside other stores including H&M, New Look and Zara. As a result of the castle, Windsor is a popular tourist destination and has facilities usually found in larger towns: two railway stations, a theatre and several substantial hotels. Various boat trips operate on the River Thames, with connections to Maidenhead and Staines-upon-Thames. In winter, Alexandra Gardens hosts a temporary ice rink. Near the town is Legoland Windsor, the only Legoland park in the United Kingdom and the largest Legoland park in the world in terms of area. Legoland Windsor was built on the site of the former Windsor Safari Park.
Windsor’s senior football team is Windsor F.C. The team currently play in the Combined Counties League Premier Division and their home is Stag Meadow, granted to the original club by King George VI in 1911. The ground, in Windsor Great Park, is one of the most iconic football locations in the UK. The club’s president is the famous BBC commentator Barry Davies. Windsor Cricket Club’s clubhouse and pitches are at Home Park in the shadow of Windsor Castle. The club played host to a 2006 Lord’s Taverners cricket match. The Windsor 1st team currently play in Division 2A of the Thames Valley League. Neighbours, Windsor Rugby Club also use the ground and the team currently plays in the Southern Counties – South Division. Several other local sports clubs are based at Home Park, including: Hockey and archery clubs, and the Datchet Dashers running club. Royal Windsor Rollergirls, were one of the first roller derby leagues to be founded in the UK in 2007, they regularly hold games at Windsor Leisure Centre.