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The Normans brought much to England - Norman French, which the English would rob for useful culinary terms such as beef, mutton and pork - a top-up transfusion of the existing Viking gene pool (after all, the 'Normans' were just transplanted 'Norse men') - and, most pervasive of all the Feudal system, which was to stratify and 'freeze' the form of society for around the next 400 years.

Perhaps the most perfect expression of the new feudalism was the Norman castle. Designed as a visual reminder of the power of the invaders, it was also a refuge and base for the local feudal overlord. The earliest form - that of a ditch and earth rampart, topped by a wooden palisade surrounding an enclosure (called a bailey) at the center of which was an earthern mound (called a motte) topped by a keep (initially in wood, soon replaced by stone) - popped up like mushrooms, all over the place.

In 1078, William the Conqueror had already started building the White Tower in London (using part of the existing Roman fortifications, as a basis), when he decided that a strong fortification further up the River Thames, outside the capital which was now known as Londres, would enable him to exercise power and remove him from any unhealthy atmosphere which could arise in the city. A 20 mile journey up the Thames brought him to where a steep ridge, aligned roughly west to east, dominated a river crossing, and was easily defended. This was also at a time when 'bad air', or miasma, particularly that which gathered near swamps or in dank dwellings was thought to cause illness. Thus was Windsor Castle born.

The initial work of the Conqueror was greatly enhanced by Henry III (1312 - 1327), and the castle grew, stretching out along the ridge to eventually occupy a thirteen acre site. The town of Windsor grew up at the foot of the ridge, and slowly spread towards the battlements. In 1440, Henry VI founded a school on the other side of the Thames, for boys of limited means. It was originally known as, 'The King's College of Our Lady of Eton besides Wyndsor', but now as Eton College it has ceased to be a school for poor boys and has been transformed into the most exclusive public (private for my American reader) school in the country! Traditionally, sons of the Royal Family, and other prominent families, attend Eton.

Although Windsor Castle looks to be completely Mediaeval in style, it also contains many Georgian structures, and some Victorian ones, constructed to match the earlier buildings. Here we can see the western corner of the Upper Ward, a rectangular set of buildings, including the formal State Apartments (out of sight to the left), which enclose the Central Quadrangle. The Official Entrance to the State Apartments is along the gravel drive to the left, along with St. George's Hall and the Guests' Entrance. In the left of the photograph, you can see the Private Royal Apartments, and the lovely hexagonal King Edward III Tower, constructed during the period 1357 - 1367, in that monarch's reign.

To the right, you can see the grassy slope which forms part of the mound surrounding the Round Tower, a spectacular Mediaeval structure built at the same time as the King Edward III Tower.

The bronze equine statue is of Charles II, of the House of Stewart (1630 - 1685). It was cast in 1679 - during the King's lifetime -  by Josias Ibach, and sits on a marble plinth. The plinth is adorned with carvings by Grinling Gibbons, generally acknowledged as being the pre-eminent English carver, whose work can be found in St. Paul's Cathedral and many other churches and castles. However, since Gibbons had a large studio by this stage, with many artists working under him, it is difficult to categorically state that this carving was actually executed by him, alone.

Windsor Castle has been many things - a Royal prison, a secure residence for King George VI and the Royal Family away from the Blitz in 1940/41, a venue for State occasions, the largest inhabited castle in the world, the oldest continuously inhabited Royal residence and a favored week-end retreat of Queen Elizabeth II, but in 1992, it came close to being destroyed. On 22nd November, an electrical fault caused a fire which quickly spread to some of the historic parts of the Castle (including the State Apartments, the Private Chapel and other areas). Strenuous efforts saved many works of art, but some ceilings fell in, and much was destroyed; it was fortunate that no lives were lost, and only one person suffered some burns (rescuing paintings). It was just by chance that seven of the most seriously damaged rooms had been emptied the day before, as re-wiring was due to take place!

The rebuilding/restoration process took almost exactly five years. The Queen gave some of the money, she raised more by opening Buckingham Palace to the public (never done before) and private donations bridged the gap. It was a labor of love, but the Castle was completed and fitted out by November, 1997.

I think Windsor is worthy of a full day of exploration, from the magnificent St. George's Chapel (with the tombs of ten monarchs) to the wonderful Queen Mary's Doll's House. There is something for everyone. If you get bored, you can always lounge against one of the cannon on the North Terrace, and admire the outskirts of West London in the distance, off to your right. Or perhaps do what I do, spot airliners heading west from London's Heathrow Airport - which is just 5 miles away as the crow, or 747, flies!

What was I doing at Windsor Castle? Ah! THAT'S another story......

Originally posted to shortfinals on Wed May 15, 2013 at 06:31 PM PDT.

Also republished by History for Kossacks.

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