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A History of St George’s Chapel, Windsor: The Plantagenets & The Founding of The Order of The Garter

Exterior of St George's Chapel, Windsor, via Creative Commons

St George’s Chapel, Windsor is no ordinary chapel. When you walk into St George’s, you are entering a ‘Royal Peculiar’. Royal Peculiar chapels differ from regular Church of England churches in that they are exempt from the jurisdiction of the diocese and the archdiocese in which they lie and are subject to the direct jurisdiction of the monarch. St George’s also happens to serve as the chapel of The Most Noble Order of the Garter, founded by King Edward III in 1348 and regarded as the most prestigious British order of chivalry.

King Edward III shrewdly intertwined The Order of The Garter and Saint George with his dynastic ambitions. In his campaign for the French throne, The King adopted St George as his patron saint, and eventually St George became the patron saint of England. The Order of the Garter was also formed in the saint’s name. Enthusiasm for St George was further advanced by King Henry V in 1415 with his legendary victory at The Battle of Agincourt, and well over a century later William Shakespeare made sure that nobody would forget it, by writing Henry V’s famous battle cry, ‘Cry God for Harry, England, and St George!’

Edward III as head of the Order of the Garter, drawing c. 1430–40 in the Bruges Garter Book, via Creative Commons

St George’s Chapel is one of the finest examples of late medieval architecture, although it was not the first St George’s Chapel. When Edward III founded the College of St George and the Order of the Garter in 1348, he took over a chapel originally built in the Lower Ward of Windsor Castle by King Henry III in the thirteenth century, refolding it in honour of the Blessed Virgin Mary, St George, and St Edward the Confessor. Some of this earlier chapel still exists, notably the west and north walls and the main door, painted scarlet and dressed with exquisite gilded ironwork. It is thought that these doors date from between 1247 and 1249. The scarlet exterior of the central door now serves as the interior of the double doors that open into the Ambulatory on Royal occasions. Also surviving are six Purbeck Marble columns (the same material used in the soaring columns at Salisbury Cathedral) and the arches of the narthex, which now form the vestibule.

Stalls were built in the original chapel for both the Garter Knights and the Canons. Knights’ helms, crests, and swords were attached to these stalls for the lifetime of each knight, and stall-plates affixed, some of which survived and were later moved to the new St George’s Chapel. The first Garter Robes were made for the Knights in 1351. Edward III’s Queen, Philippa of Hainault, received her Garter Robes in 1358 and their daughter Isabella received hers in 1376. Theirs are the only two female appointments known to have been made by Edward III.

The Order of the Garter is crucial to the College of St George and St George’s Chapel. Its establishment led directly to the foundation of the choir (by statute in 1352) to support the daily services of the College of St George, and the Alms Knights (now known as the Military Knights of Windsor). In 1351 The Pope granted the new body of priests there exemption from the jurisdiction of the Archbishop of Canterbury and from the Bishop of Salisbury. This is what made St George’s a ‘peculiar’ and free from episcopal jurisdiction.

In 1472 King Edward IV breathed new life in to the Order of the Garter, which was emerging from a quiet period. He celebrated the Garter Feast once again, and recognised the political benefit of conferring The Order on foreign Kings and Princes. Edward IV inducted into The Order men such as King Ferrante I of Naples, The Duke of Milan, The Duke of Burgundy, King Ferdinand of Castile, King John II of Portugal, and Federico III, Duke of Urbino and commander of the papal troops (whose palace in Urbino is still extensively adorned with Garter badges). For his English subjects, election was very much in Edward IV’s personal favour, and he created seven English Garter Knights during his reign. At the same time, this new enthusiasm for the for the Garter was not limited to robes and strategic appointments. The very fabric of the building was to undergo a transformation of its own. King Edward commissioned carpenters, stonecutters, and glass engravers along with other specialist craftsmen from all over England, and work began in 1475. Two years later Thomas Chancellor was appointed controller of works, and three years after that, so many stonecutters were being employed that the Chancellor of Oxford University could not find any masons to work on their Divinity School. Despite this deluge of skilled labour, the chapel was by no means complete when Edward IV unexpectedly died in 1483 days before his 41st birthday. Luckily, he’d provided the Canons of Windsor with generous funds to continue the building work at St George’s Chapel. Edward IV’s brother (and controversial successor) King Richard III was responsible for transferring the mortal remains of Henry VI to the chapel during his own brief reign. King Henry VI is the earliest king (historically) to lie in St George’s Chapel.

- Written by Duncan Sowry-House

Saint George hood ornament on Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II's Bentley, Her Majesty & The Duke of Edinburgh at Garter Day, 2009; Order of The Garter Arms on St George's Chapel. All photos by Duncan Sowry-House for chocolateduchess.com

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