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A History Of St George’s Chapel: The Stuarts

Updated: May 11, 2018

Funeral of King Charles I, St George's Chapel, Windsor, 1649 via Bristol Museum & Art Gallery

The first two Stuart Kings of England (James I and Charles I) did not alter the structure of St George’s Chapel. King James I’s primary interest in Windsor was the hunting (however in 1607 he did commission a birds-eye view of the castle from John Norden, the earliest detailed plan of the castle in existence). His son, King Charles I, presented St George’s Chapel with a magnificent baroque service of alter-plate, created by master Dutch craftsman Christian Van Viernan.

Charles I was the first and only King of England to be executed. He is sadly best remembered at St Georges Chapel for his extraordinary funeral there. During the English Civil War The King’s enemies kept him prisoner at Windsor Castle several times - notably at Christmas 1648 - when he spent three weeks before the fateful journey to Whitehall and his beheading on 30th January, 1649. The burial of The King presented a great challenge to the new government, as Charles had never expressed any wishes on this matter, nor had anyone dared discuss it with him in his lifetime. The obvious choice was his great-great-great grandfather Henry VII’s Lady Chapel within Westminster Abbey, but this idea was discarded on the grounds that ‘infinite numbers of peoples of all sorts’ would be drawn to it. The next choice was St George’s Chapel at Windsor. Parliament gave its ascent, authorising Sir Thomas Herbert, King Charles’ Groom of the Bedchamber and constant companion in his last days, and Captain Sir Anthony Mildmay, another staunch supporter, to bury The King there, by an order dated 7th February, 1649.

The body of Charles I was covered by a black velvet pall and conveyed in a hearse from St. James’s Palace to Windsor Castle, followed by four coaches. After several potential burial locations were eliminated, according to a contemporary report a group of nobles discovered a hollow sound beneath flagstones. This hollow space descended into a vault. Within the vault the coffins of King Henry VIII and Queen Jane Seymour were discovered. The body of Charles I was then carried in a sad, solemn little procession from his bedchamber in Windsor Castle to St George’s Hall and then to the Chapel under the cover of darkness. On this snowy night, the Quire was in disarray and the alter bereft of ornaments. The Governor of Windsor Castle even forbade the Bishop of London from reading the burial service. The King’s body was then simply laid in the vault beside Henry VIII and his soul quickly commended to God. At some point before the vault was closed, one of the noblemen asked that the coffin be opened. The Kings face was clearly discerned by the small group, thus full proof of the burial was assured.

Portrait of Charles II in Garter Robes by John Michael Wright, via Creative Commons

During the period of Commonwealth (1649-60) Windsor Castle was used as garrison barracks and a prison. St George’s Chapel appears to have suffered less during this unhappy period, yet it remained in some disorder until The Restoration. With Charles I’s eldest son restored to the throne as King Charles II in 1660 the fortunes of Windsor were once again turned around. The art and luxury-loving King directed considerable energy towards the restoration of St. George’s Chapel. New rafter and ironwork were introduced into the ceiling of the Cloisters and a garden was planted there, the Canons’ houses were restored and rebuilt, and a new Canonical residence was built in Denton’s Commons. Charles II also gave significant plate to the chapel, including ‘a pair of plain-gilt flagons, bought with the money collected from the Knight-Companions, weighing 150 ounces’, as well as candlesticks, basins (basons, Anglican), chalices, and covers.

The ceremonies of the Order of the Garter were revived by Charles II, with even more pomp and splendour than before. Charles II had continued to appoint Garter Knights whilst in exile, and within a year of his Restoration, he had brought the Order of the Garter back to its former glory. He quickly filled the Order to its full compliment and great feasts were held in Windsor Castle’s tapestry-hung St George’s Hall. In 1670 the gravy alone for the three days celebration was made from: 249 lbs of beef; 74 lbs of bacon; four cases of veal; two cases of mutton; a case of pork; ten dozen pullets; nine dozen sheep’s tongues; eighteen dozen sweetbreads; seven dozen marrow bones and much more besides. 12,000 prawns were consumed, as were 1,500 crawfish; 136 large lobsters; 118 large crabs; 400 scallops; twelve quarts of oysters; sixteen barrels of pickled oysters; 8 lbs of caviar and a multitude of other delicacies including 2,000 eggs and six thousand asparagus spears. The feast cost nearly £2,395 - in today’s money £370,400.00 ($510,308.00). For this feast The King sat on a dais in his robes as Sovereign of The Garter.

The short reign of James II made no positive impact upon the chapel other than that he gave over the former tomb house and Lady Chapel to Roman Catholic use. In addition, he restored an organ to St George’s Chapel and the Quire was paved in the black and white squares which are still in place today.

From the reign of James II to that of George III, Windsor and its chapel became somewhat neglected, despite it being a favourite residence of Queen Anne, the last Stuart monarch.

Tomorrow: The Hanoverians!

- Written by Duncan Sowry-House