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A History Of St George’s Chapel: Queen Victoria

'The Royal Family in 1846' by Franz Xavier Winterhalter, Creative Commons

Soon after the death of her uncle King William IV in 1837, the new teenage Queen, the former Princess Victoria of Kent, arrived at Windsor and attended morning services at St George’s Chapel. Thus began a lifelong love affair with Windsor, during a reign that is now the second-longest in British history.

Queen Victoria had the windows in the Quire of St George’s altered to let in more light and the stalls restored to their original state ‘for long accumulation of dirt had rendered the high beauty of the carving nearly invisible.’ In 1841 the stone mullions of the great west window were entirely renewed and the glass rearranged. The reason for this work was that, in 1767 one of the Canons had collected all the ancient glass to be found in and around the chapel and placed it in the Great Window. For some years this window had bulged inwards to the point that King George IV’s architect had wanted to repair it. It wasn’t until Queen Victoria that this work was finally undertaken. By this time the matter was urgent, and Thomas Willement was commissioned to rearrange the glass, retaining the ancient pieces, and where necessary commissioning new and more appropriate stained glass to harmonise with the old. During these works St. George’s was closed. The chapel reopened for divine worship on 22nd October, 1842. Its restoration work was hailed as a great success.

Around this same time a complete cleaning of St George’s was also undertaken; wood carvings, alabaster and marble monuments in the side chapels were all restored to their previous glory and the ceilings of the Nave and Quire were painstakingly cleaned. It had been thought at the time that the Catherine of Aragon Loft had been built from stone - but once layers of paint and whitewash had been removed it was found to be carved oak - which was stained and varnished. It now matches its only known counterpart - in Lincoln Cathedral. Some heraldic bosses on the vaults were newly cut and others newly emblazoned with the arms of Kings and Knights of the Garter. A huge 16th Century brass lectern was discovered by the Dean, lying dilapidated amongst some rubbish in a vault beneath the chapel. It was restored and polished and placed in the centre of the Quire, where it remained until well into recent times. Finally, the great organ, some of whose keys were by then over 50 years old, was restored and re-ornamented by Robert Gray.

The view from Queen Victoria's private exit from the Catherine of Aragon Loft, by Duncan Sowry-House

Queen Victoria famously enjoyed a happy marriage to Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha (whom she married in 1840), but sadly, the length of their marriage did not match the extraordinary length of her reign. On 14th December, 1861 Her Majesty was to suffer her most severe bereavement with the death of her husband. The Prince Consort’s funeral took place on 23rd December, 1861. His body remained in the Royal Vault of St George’s Chapel until 18th December 1862, when he was transferred to the Royal Mausoleum at Frogmore (which is located on the Windsor estate). Following the Prince Consort’s death, Queen Victoria transformed the former Tomb House and Lady Chapel into a memorial to Prince Albert, restoring and refurbishing it between 1863 and 1873. A new roof and stained-glass windows were commissioned for these rooms along with engraved marble with coloured marble in the incisions. The result was a completely restored chapel in the neo-gothic style, covered with costly mural decorations, and inlaid with precious stones and marbles. The cenotaph for Prince Albert was completed in 1873. The Albert Memorial Chapel, as it is now called, became one of the most elaborate of the multitude of memorials to The Prince Consort that Queen Victoria planted across her kingdom.

The Albert Memorial Chapel in St George's Chapel, Windsor, Unknown Photographer, via The Royal Collection Trust

Not everyone was in favour of the Queen’s idea of the mausoleum at Frogmore. They feared that this would detract from St George’s Chapel as a place for royal burials and so diminish the importance of the chapel. There had been a long-held desire by the Dean and Canons to replace Benjamin West’s East window, and Queen Victoria’s obsession with memorialising her spouse provided an ideal opportunity to replace it. The Queen was told by the Dean that the design would incorporate the Prince’s arms as well as illustrating his virtues and actions. Though the window wasn’t as magnificent as West’s West window, it was executed in a mid-fifteenth century character. The window was begun in 1862 and was in place in time for the wedding of their eldest son, His Royal Highness Albert Edward, Prince of Wales and Princess Alexandra of Denmark in March 1863.

Whilst St George’s has seen its fair share of sombre occasions it has also a strong connection with happier times. During Queen Victoria’s reign alone, there were six Royal Weddings. Queen Victoria’s memorable reign came to an end with her death on 22nd January, 1901 at Osborne House on the Isle of Wight, with her large family around her. Numerous family members had been brought to the island aboard HMY Alberta, the same yacht that had brought the body of Prince Henry of Battenburg (Victoria’s son-in-law) to the island in 1896 for burial at St Mildred’s Church at Whippingham. It was decided that HMY Alberta should carry the Queen’s body back to the mainland. The coffin was placed aboard the yacht on 1st February, 1901 and the Alberta led a procession across the Solent into Gosport, receiving the salutes of the warships anchored along the voyage. After spending the night on the Alberta the coffin was taken to the Albert Memorial Chapel in St George’s Chapel where it lay for three days. There followed a solemn procession to the mausoleum at Frogmore where the grave was opened and the coffin of Queen Victoria was placed next to that of her beloved Prince Albert.

Next up: The Edwardian Era & The Rise of The House of Windsor

- Written by Duncan Sowry-House