A History Of St George’s Chapel: The Early House of Windsor
His Majesty George V was the grandfather of Queen Elizabeth II and the first monarch of the newly-renamed House of Windsor. In 1917 during the First World War, King George had issued Letters Patent changing the Royal House from the very Germanic Saxe-Coburg-Gotha to The House of Windsor in response to Britain being at war with Germany. George was a survivalist and knew the family, if it were not to suffer the same fate as other monarchies, had to reflect the national sentiment. Having taken the new family name from the ancient castle and sovereign seat – Windsor - it seems natural that King George made significant efforts to keep up the castle and its chapel.
A survey had been carried out on the fabric of the building in 1918, which highlighted serious problems. The great tie-beams of oak, which were original to the initial construction, did not rest sufficiently on the walls. Had it not been for Christopher Wren’s strengthening of the roof in 1682, it might have been beyond repair. The deathwatch beetle had wrought its customary havoc, the foundations were unsound, and the cracks in the roof were so alarming that there was a danger of the vault of the roof caving in. In 1929 the glass in the West window was once again rearranged. Categories of depictions were grouped together and some of the better-preserved pieces were moved to the lower tiers of the window. In all, the extensive restoration work on St George’s Chapel totaled in excess of £200,000 between 1920 and 1930.
King George paid his last visit to St George’s Chapel in December 1935, when he attended the funeral of his beloved sister, Princess Victoria. Mourning the loss of his sister the King became deeply depressed. On the evening of 15th January, 1936, he took to his bed at Sandringham House complaining of a cold. He became gradually weaker, drifting in and out of consciousness. By 20th January he was close to death. His physicians issued a bulletin with the words that became famous; “The King’s life is moving peacefully towards its close.” British Pathé announced the King’s death the following morning.
King George V was interred at St George’s Chapel on 28th January, 1936. His coffin remained in the Royal Vault until his tomb was ready for a basin the North Nave Aisle, near the Urswick Chantry.
One of the first acts of the new monarch King George VI (we’re going to skip the turbulent 10 ½ month reign of Edward VIII, who became The Duke of Windsor) was to command a Garter ceremony to be held at Windsor. This took place on 14th June, 1937, just over a month from his coronation. George loved the Order of the Garter, and took a considerable interest in its appointments and ceremonial. With war descending on Europe, the King became concerned for the fate of St George’s. He instructed that the stained glass be removed along with the knights banners and other precious items, to be stored in a secure place until the risk to them had passed. The chapel continued to function as a chapel throughout the war and it was here that the last three of Queen Victoria’s children’s funerals were held. The King’s brother, Prince George, Duke of Kent was killed in a wartime flying accident and his coffin was lowered into St George’s Royal Vault where it remained until the death of his wife Princess Marina of Greece and Denmark in 1968, when their mortal remains were laid to rest at Frogmore.
As with the First World War, some of the knight’s banners were considered for removal due to the state of war existing between The U.K. and other countries. Whilst five were considered for removal and expulsion only two were finally removed, those being Emperor Hirohito of Japan and King Victor Emanuel III of Italy. In 1947 the King bestowed the Garter on his heir The Princess Elizabeth and The Duke of Edinburgh shortly before their wedding on 20th November. Princess Elizabeth was declared a Lady of the Garter by special statute on 11th November, 1947, and Prince Philip on 19th November 1947. The King wrote to Queen Mary explaining that this was done so that ‘she will be senior to Philip’.
King George VI died on February 6, 1952 and the 25 year-old Princess Elizabeth, Duchess of Edinburgh became Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. His funeral took place at St George’s Chapel on February 15. Initially placed in the chapel’s Royal Vault, his coffin was moved to the specially-constructed King George VI Memorial Chapel inside St. George's in 1969. His wife Elizabeth, The Queen Mother and their daughter Princess Margaret joined him there in 2002. There is just enough space in the small chapel for Queen Elizabeth II and The Duke of Edinburgh when their times inevitably come.
We wrap up tomorrow with the 600th Anniversary of The Order of The Garter & The Modern House of Windsor!
- Written by Duncan Sowry-House