The wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle at St George's Chapel, Windsor on May 19, 2018, has put this special church high on many a visitor's curiosity lists. Here is everything you need to know to plan a visit.
When he married in what is, in essence, the family chapel, Prince Harry walked down the aisle of the same church his mother, the late Princess Diana, carried him to be christened.
Some of the other famous recent events in the chapel dedicated to St George, the patron saint of England, include:
- The blessing of the civil marriage of Prince Charles and Camilla Parker Bowles, now Duchess of Cornwall (a church wedding was ruled out because of their divorces, their very public adultery and public opinion at the time)
- The wedding of Prince Edward, Queen Elizabeth's youngest son, to Sophie Rhys-Jones, now the Countess of Wessex. Peter Philips, Princess Anne's son, married Autumn Kelly there.
- The separate funerals of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor (you may know them as Edward and Mrs. Simpson), both persona non-grata in Britain for more than 35 years (the Duchess for nearly 50 years) but accorded the rites of a former king and his consort (Edward's uncrowned reign lasted less than a year before he abdicated to marry divorcee Wallis Simpson).
Henry VIII and his third wife Jane Seymour, the mother of his only son, rest under the floor of St George's Chapel. So does the headless corpse of the doomed King Charles I. For more than 500 years, British Royals (and several of their German cousins) have been hatched, matched and dispatched at St George's, within the walls of Windsor Castle.
A Quick History
The chapel is part of the College of St George, a religious community established by King Edward III in 1348, to worship together, offer prayers for the Sovereign and the Order of the Garter, to provide service to society and hospitality to visitors. The Order of the Garter, the oldest and highest British order of chivalry and the only one currently completely in the gift of the Queen, was founded in the same year. Apparently, Edward was inspired by tales of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table to set up his own chivalric order of knights.
Today, the college buildings, which include a prep school and apartments for the Military Knights of Windsor (similar to the Chelsea Pensioners), occupy a quarter of the buildings at Windsor Castle.
The chapel, the centerpiece of the college, was built between 1475 and 1528. First commissioned by King Edward IV, it was King Henry VIII who ordered the creation of the chapel's breathtaking fan-vaulted ceiling.
Processions and Weddings
Since its beginnings, St George's Chapel has been the home of the Order of the Garter. Its annual procession is held in June, when the knights (Companions of the Order of the Garter), parade in velvet robes and plumed hats, garlanded with glittering regalia and accompanied by all the rigmarole of medieval and royal pageantry. It is one of the highlights of the year at Windsor and fills the town with hundreds of spectators.
Crowds turn out for weddings of princes as well as secondary and minor royals and they've been doing that for decades. When Queen Victoria's eldest son, the Prince of Wales, later Edward VII, married the Princess Alexandra of Denmark, Queen Victoria watched unobserved from the Catherine of Aragon Closet (more about that below). While still a Prince, King Gustav VI Adolph of Sweden married Margaret of Connaught, Queen Victoria's granddaughter and daughter of her third son, Prince Arthur. Most of Queen Victoria's children and grandchildren launched their married lives here.
Things to See Inside
St George's Chapel is considered a masterpiece of Perpendicular Gothic, a late medieval style of English architecture. If you're not a specialist, a certain been-there-done-that exhaustion can set in if you look at too many medieval churches (easy to do in the UK). Instead, save your energy for inside. That's where you'll find the chapel's real wow factor. Make sure you allow yourself enough time when you visit Windsor to explore it. You'll see:
- The intricate fan-vaulted ceiling, best viewed from the central aisle of the nave. A pivoting mirror mounted on ball bearings in the aisle allows you to look at this amazing ceiling without getting a crick in your neck or imagining you're falling upward into it. The ceiling was Henry VIII's addition to the chapel.
- The West Window is believed to be the third largest stained glass window in England. (The Great West Window at York Minster is the largest expanse of medieval stained glass in the world.) The window's 75 lights (or panels) were removed in 1940 to protect them from German bombs. They remained in storage for the remainder of WWII.
- The Quire, where the carved wood paneling is medieval, houses the Garter Knights Stalls. Knights and Ladies who become Companions of the Order receive a stall in this chapel for life. Decorative stall plates are attached to the stall and a banner hangs above it. The stall plate remains after the member dies. So, even though there are only 24 members of the Order of the Garter at any one time, there are hundreds of colorful painted or enameled stall plates reflecting the order through hundreds of years. When he was installed, Prince William became the thousandth member.
- The Oriel Window aka the Catherine of Aragon Closet is a secluded seat, shielded by a carved lattice, above the Quire. Henry VIII had it installed for his first wife, Catherine of Aragon so that she could watch the Order of the Garter service. When she was in mourning Queen Victoria often watched ceremonies - and even weddings - from here.
- The Queen's Stall, an 18th century decorated box from which the Sovereign can observe services.
The Royal Tombs
Ten British Kings, along with their consorts are buried within St George's Chapel. Look out for:
- The Tomb Henry VIII, Jane Seymour—his third wife—and Charles I, the king beheaded on the orders of Oliver Cromwell. Together with the infant child of Queen Anne, they are buried beneath a "Ledger Stone" in the central aisle of the Quire.
- King George III, who lost the American colonies in the American War of Independence, also buried in the Quire.
- King Edward IV and Queen Elizabeth Woodville. If you've followed the series The White Queen or read the book The White Queen by Philippa Gregory, you'll have heard of Elizabeth Woodville. She was the mother of the Princes in the Tower, who may have been murdered on the orders of the wicked King Richard III. Edward and Elizabeth Woodville are buried in the North Quire Aisle.
- The King George VI Memorial Chapel is the last resting place of the current Queen's parents, Elizabeth The Queen Mother, King George VI (perhaps you've seen The King's Speech?) and the ashes of Princess Margaret, the late sister of the Queen.
How to Visit
Unless you are attending a church service, you can only visit St. George's chapel as part of a visit to Windsor Castle, Monday through Saturday. It is closed to visitors on Sunday however you can freely attend church services there. Worship services on Sunday and throughout the week are freely open to all. To attend, check the St George's Chapel website for the schedule of services. Then simply tell a guardsman at the Castle exit gate, just down Castle Hill from the main entrance. He or she will hand you on to an usher who can escort you inside.