The UK’s royal family are one of the major draw-cards for visitors to Great Britain. While Buckingham Palace and St James’s Palace can be admired from the streets of London, just a short distance from the capital you’ll find the Queen’s primary residence — Windsor Castle. This is a stunning castle and it welcomes visitors throughout the year.
The construction of the castle
It was William the Conqueror who originally built Windsor Castle — not long after he first led the Norman conquest of Britain in 1066.
As part of their defences, the Normans established a ring of castles around London — each was a day’s march from London and from each other, a distance of 20 miles. The location of Windsor was particularly strategic due to its position on the River Thames and its access to Windsor Forest.
When first constructed, the castle was in the traditional motte and bailey style favoured by the Normans.
Windsor wasn’t initially used as a royal residence, but Henry I married his wife Adela here in 1121 - it was subsequently used as one of their homes. Henry II greatly expanded the castle’s buildings between 1165 and 1179.
Since that time, Windsor has remained one of the favoured residences of the ruling families. Successive monarchs have renovated and extended the castle to the magnificent construction that we see today.
The castle under attack
There have been numerous occasions throughout history when Windsor Castle has come under siege or attack as the fortunes of the ruling families waxed and waned.
- Windsor was besieged in 1214 during the revolt of the English barons (which led to the signing of the Magna Carta in 1215).
- The 15th century was a particularly volatile period in English history, culminating in the War of the Roses — Windsor changed hands a number of times as the various forces fought for the throne.
- Henry VIII favoured the castle, and Elizabeth I often saw it as a safe haven in times of trouble.
- The civil war of the 17th century saw the castle looted and falling into disrepair, but it was quickly reinstated once the Monarchy resumed.
- It was during the First World War that King George V responded to growing anti-German sentiment and decided to the change his family’s dynastic name from the House of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, taking their new name from the castle that was their home, becoming the House of Windsor.
The castle today
Having barely survived a major fire in 1992, the major renovations and repair work required as a result now leave Windsor as a surprisingly modern and functional castle.
It’s the largest inhabited castle in the world and the longest-occupied palace in Europe. As well as being one of the Queen’s favourite residences, it regularly hosts state functions and important ceremonial events.
The bear-skin helmets
Following the Battle of Waterloo and the action in which they gained their name, the Grenadier Guards were permitted to wear the bearskin. In 1831, this practice was extended to the other two regiments of Foot Guards then in existence. The Royal Scots Dragoon Guards, Honourable Artillery Company and officers of Fusilier regiments also wear the bearskin as part of their ceremonial uniform.
The standard bearskin of the British Foot Guards is 18 inches tall, weighs 1.5 pounds and is made from the fur of the Canadian black bear. An entire skin is used for each hat. The British Army purchase the hats, which are known as caps, from a British hatmaker which sources its pelts from an international auction. The hatmakers purchase between 50 and 100 black bear skins each year at a cost of about £650 each. If properly maintained, the caps last for decades.
Is there an alternative to bear-skin?
Over the years, there have been calls for the bear-skin helmet to be replaced by a synthetic alternative. So far, an alternative has not been agreed on.
Army officials say that approximately 100 skins are taken every year from the annual cull of thousands of bears by native Inuit hunters in a Government of Canada programme to keep numbers under control.
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