I love the British children’s TV series, Horrible Histories. Seriously, I think it could be one of my favorite educational children’s shows of all time (a tall order considering my love of Picture Pages when I was three years old). I will say it again, AP European History was my favorite class in high school. I read British history books for fun. My mom traced at least one line of our ancestry to William the Conqueror. So yeah, I get kind of obsessed with these things.
Horrible Histories does not have a segment of its show entitled Nasty Normans, but it may as well have. I doubt they were very nice people. However, they did manage to build some enduring fortresses that have stood the test of time. Subsequent generations may have added on, remodeled, and repurposed, but when you hear the names Windsor Castle and the Tower of London, if you are like me, you first think of William the Conqueror.
Windsor Castle is the longest occupied residence of monarchy in Europe. The benefit to visiting in the early spring is that you can tour not only the State Rooms, but the more frequently used Semi-State rooms that are closed when they are more frequently used in the late spring and summer. We couldn’t take pictures inside the castle, but that was just as well because the accompanying audio tour was pretty fantastic.
The Round Tower took the place of the original Norman Keep and is the oldest part of the existing castle. It was built in 1170.
Really, the castle was transformed into a more livable palace (and not a mere military fortress) beginning with the reign of Edward III in the latter half of the 14th century. Now, it includes lovely gardens that are nice for long strolls.
The thing about this place is that it is a pretty incredible setting for a lot of pomp and pageantry. Today, the Irish President visited Windsor Castle in the first ever visit by the Irish Head of State, and that Windsor Castle looked absolutely amazing. That is why all of those historical state buildings have stood the test of time.
St. George’s Chapel at Windsor is the spiritual home of the highest order of British chivalry, the Knights of the Garter, founded by Edward III.
All of that history makes me pretty giddy and excited.
Apart from the history of the castle, the setting of Windsor Castle is absolutely beautiful. Set on a bluff high above the Thames, it has beautiful views of the surrounding countryside. We walked to the other side of the castle where the famed 2.64 miles Long Walk begins. If we had more time, I would have liked to walk up it and explore more of the beautiful gardens contained in the Great Park. It is still on my list to do on another occasion.
The town of Windsor itself is quite charming.
Rather than being set in the countryside, the crazy thing about the Tower of London is that it is this Norman and Medieval Fortress that the city of London has sprung up around. So it offers this interesting contrast between old and new:
The White Tower of the Tower of London dates to Norman times and is still an impressive structure in the face of the modernity of the city.
The audio tours of the Tower are great, because you can learn about the Tower by different historical era based on the different tour selections. I liked learning about all of the prisoners held at the Tower. (Although as you quickly learn, not nearly as many people were executed at the Tower as is popularly thought. Turns out, you had to be practically royal to be executed within the tower walls. Everyone else was just removed to Tower Hill outside of the Tower’s gates.) Prisoners left historical graffiti during their time in holding. Fascinatingly, several Pooles (My mom is a Poole by birth) were held in the Tower through the years. Maybe my tendency toward rebellion is genetic with my Poole genes.
The Tower wasn’t merely a prison, rather it was also a palace. Today, it is the home of the British crown jewels.
This blog post is long enough to go into all of the stories of famous historical figures associated with the Tower. What is equally fascinating is that people still live at the Tower today. The Yeomen of the Guard (Beefeaters) make their home within the Tower Walls, which gives it this interesting town within a town feel.
Also, there are of course great views of the Thames and Tower Bridge from the Tower.
If it weren’t for all of the marauding French and German teenaged students on field trips, I could spend even more time soaking in the history of the Tower.
Oh, and then there are the ravens, which are sufficiently dark enough to remind you that the Tower is still a pretty creepy place. If there are fewer than six ravens in residence at the Tower, the monarchy and the kingdom will fall, after all. I love a good historical superstition.