Did you know that Henry VIII – one of the most famous monarchs of all time – and Charles I – who famously lost his head – are buried in the same tomb? And do you know that the parents of our current Queen, Elizabeth II, are buried together at the same location?
If not, then a trip to the gothic style St George’s Chapel, in Windsor is in order. This is a magnificent place, containing the tombs of 10 monarchs and open to the public not just for exploring, but also for Church services. It may be far less well-known than Windsor castle – the oldest occupied castle in the world, which is right next to it – but you really shouldn’t miss out on the chance of a visit.
St George’s Chapel is still a working Church which runs at least three services, all open to the public, each day. It welcomes worshippers from all over the world and is an architectural wonder, full of history and beauty. It’s also full of reminders that this is a royal building and its purpose is to pray for the sovereign and the knights of the garter, the highest order of chivalry, which still exists today*.
The chapel was founded by King Edward III in 1348, but during the Wars of the Roses, in the 15th century, Edward IV wanted it to be bigger, as well as grand enough to be his own burial place. So, he rebuilt it from 1475. And he was the first monarch to be buried there, in a tomb shared by his wife Elizabeth Woodville, which you can still see today.
There are so many things to see here, whether you choose to walk around by yourself and ask the volunteers questions, or follow an audio tour. It’s a beautiful place, with its long thin columns and light streaming in from the windows. Outside there are a number of wonderful grotesques which are meant to keep bad things away, while inside, the frieze of angels draws your eyes up (and are intended to bring your prayers upwards too!)
But in case this sounds like it wouldn’t be of interest to children, I think that’s wrong. There are so many interesting things to see here, from the sarcophagus of George V and Queen Mary, with his feet resting against a lion and hers against a unicorn, to the amazing golden altar, and there are also a number of family friendly trails to follow..
Another thing you shouldn’t miss – and which children will like too – is the sword of King Edward III, which hangs in the south quire aisle. It is a two handed sword and a huge 6ft 8. Remarkably it was made to be brought into battle, although I’m sure it would have been quite unwieldy, and it stands next to a portrait of the King who is carrying it in the picture (and using it, to pierce the crowns of both Scotland and France – then England’s enemies).
There are also a number of small chantry chapels (initially set up for saying masses for someone’s soul after they died) scattered around, which is fascinating, because these were mainly destroyed across the country during the Reformation. However, special dispensation was given so that they could continue at Windsor.
After George VI (the current Queen’s father) died, a hole was punched through a wall and a new chantry chapel built. It is very dignified, with just the names and dates of the lives of King George and his wife and a cross of gold on the altar. When you look at these, you are struck by how long Elizabeth the Queen Mother was a widow – over 50 years. The ashes of the Queen’s sister Princess Margaret, are also in this small chapel.
There is a beautiful quire in the centre of the chapel, full of seats for the Queen, Prince Charles and others in the royal family. This is where you see the flags of the members of the knights of the garter, which are all very impressive.
The whole place is remarkable, and has such history. Henry VII is buried here and Edward VII. There is a vault where George III, George IV and William IV are buried too.
Possibly one of the most remarkable things about the chapel is the simple black stone slab in the middle of the quire. It says that Henry VIII, Jane Seymour (his third wife, and mother of Edward VI), Charles I and “an infant child of Queen Anne” are buried there. It seems quite bizarre that they are all buried together and it wasn’t really the plan.
In fact, Henry had a lavish tomb planned, but none of his children put it up and the sarcophagus eventually went to London, where it was used for the tomb of Admiral Horatio Nelson! So, Henry was just left there, buried below ground, waiting for his great tomb to be built. In later years, the body of Charles I was also brought here after his execution and many years later, William IV couldn’t believe there were no markings or memorial for either of them. So, He marked it with this simple plaque. Honestly, you couldn’t make it up.
The chapel is open for visitors: Monday to Saturday 10am-4pm and for services throughout the day, from Holy Communion at 8.30 to Evensong at 5.15. On Sunday the Chapel is closed to visitors, but you are welcome to attend services.
You can enter the chapel with your ticket to Windsor Castle (which you can visit first). It costs £20.50 for an adult or £53 for two adults and three children under 17.
You can’t take photographs inside the chapel – sorry!
Windsor is about 20 miles west of London, in the county of Berkshire. It is very easily accessible, and you can take a train from London (Waterloo or Paddington stations) and be there in less than an hour.
*Initially a group of knights brought together by Edward II, now it’s men and women from across the commonwealth, from Baroness Manningham-Buller, the former Director-General of MI5 to John Major, the ex Prime Minister.