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A History Of St George’s Chapel: The Hanoverians

George III, Queen Charlotte and their Six Eldest Children by Zoffany, 1770, via Creative Commons

King George III, the third British monarch of the House of Hanover and the first to be born in England, loved Windsor. The King enjoyed the informality of Windsor and its castle, something nonexistent in London. His Majesty would receive visitors freely in the castle and enjoyed walking in town, visiting bookshops, and watching local boys play cricket. His wife Queen Charlotte actively encouraged The Royal Family to live there, and thanks to this Windsor Castle enjoyed a renaissance. George III had been advised that after nearly a century of neglect extensive work was necessary on the castle. He responded by establishing new rooms for himself and his family overlooking the North Terrace. However the bulk of his expenditure he chose to devote to the restoration of St George’s chapel.

The King and his family first worshiped in the chapel in August, 1776. Royal burials there became a feature of his reign. These included the burials of King George’s younger brother William, Duke of Gloucester and Edinburgh in 1805, his wife Duchess Maria in 1807, and all the couple’s children: their infant daughter, Caroline (1775), their son, William Frederick, 2nd Duke of Gloucester and Edinburgh (1834), and their elder daughter Princess Sophia (1844).

In 1786 King George III introduced new categories to The Order of the Garter, not the last time he would expand the number of Knights. Work was necessary to increase the capacity of the Quire and number of Garter stalls. George III ensured that the work and particularly the wood carving was carried out so that there was an accord between the works that had been lacking previously. The Altar was replaced and reredos featuring a painting of the Last Supper by Benjamin West hung above the altar. The King gave the chapel a new organ. He commissioned a new stained-glass window at the East End, again by, Benjamin West, with an impression of The Resurrection in one of the central windows (in which the King’s much-lamented favorite son Prince Octavius, who passed away from smallpox at 4 years old, was depicted amongst cherubims and seraphims). The King paid for the window with contributions from the Knights of the Garter, including the Stranger Knights, whilst all other works he paid for from the Privy Purse. King George was also responsible for the organ screen with its beautiful fan vaulting beneath it as well as commissioning carved oak stalls for himself and his family when they came to the Nave to listen to the sermons (these stalls were later removed).

His Royal Highness The Prince Octavius of Great Britain by Thomas Gainsborough, via Creative Commons. Prince Octavius was the last member of the British Royal Family to die of smallpox.

In 1804 George commissioned an excavation of the Royal Vault under what is now the Albert Memorial Chapel. This was accessed by a lift under a slab in front of the high alter in the Quire. At the appropriate moment in a funeral service, the coffin descends into the ground and is taken along an underground passage into the vault itself. George III was prompted to build the new Royal Vault by his wish that his family should be buried at Windsor. The first member of his immediate family to be buried there was his daughter, Princess Amelia, who died in 1810, before the Royal Vault was completed in 1813 (although the underground tunnel was still being constructed). The vault was hewn out of the dry chalk and matched the size of what is now the Albert Memorial Chapel above it, about 15ft below ground, 70ft long and 28ft wide. Receptacles were created on either side to hold the coffins, formed by gothic columns of an octagon shape in Bath stone and supporting four shelves in Yorkshire stone. There are currently 17 royals occupying this Royal Vault. These include George III, Queen Charlotte, their son Edward, Duke of Kent (who was Queen Victoria’s father), George IV, William IV, and Queen Adelaide. In 1873 Queen Victoria built stairs in the Ambulatory, for easy visitor access to the vault. The last time a coffin descended into the Royal Vault was the during the funeral of Princess Andrew of Greece (mother of The Duke of Edinburgh) in 1969. The Princess remained in the royal vault until 1988 when her remains were exhumed and reinterred at the Church of Mary Magdalene in Jerusalem.

One of the last works to be commissioned by George III was the grand staircase at the West end of the Nave beyond the magnificent stained-glass window previously mentioned. This is now used as the exit from the chapel by the Knights on Garter Day and for newly-married Royal brides and grooms.

The next monarch, his son King George IV, whilst famous for spending exorbitant amounts of money on Windsor Castle and amassing an enormous art collection, paid little attention to St George’s Chapel. Still there is one touching contribution George IV made to the Chapel, and it is arguable one of the finest contributions to St George’s and indeed Windsor. Following the death of his only child and heir Princess Charlotte and her stillborn son (6 November 1817) George commissioned a white marble memorial designed by Matthew Wyatt. It depicts mother and child, being directed to heaven by the angels, whilst her draped body lay below, attended by veiled mourners. It was unveiled in 1824 and it is large and striking not only for the quality of the sculpting but for the obvious lacrimosa of a father. The sculpture was paid for by subscription which was limited to one schilling per person.

Sketch of the cenotaph commemorating Princess Charlotte Augusta in St George's Chapel, via Creative Commons

His successor William IV’s contribution was basically limited to a sculpture commemorating loyal Hanoverian courtier Lord William, 3rd Earl Harcourt. The Harcourts had been inner members of the Household of several generations of Hanoverian Kings and Queens. Lord Harcourt’s father, the 1st Earl, attended King George II at the Battle of Dettingen, was Governor to the Prince of Wales (Later George III) from 1751-1752, and ambassador to Mecklenburg-Strelitz when the King married Queen Charlotte in 1761.

Next up: The Victorian Era!

- Written by Duncan Sowry-House