Church with a castle attached

15 February 2011

St George’s, Windsor, was too royal to lose, says Nicholas Orme

St George’s Chapel, Windsor: History and Heritage
Nigel Saul and Tim Tatton-Brown, editors

The Dovecote Press £14.95
Church Times Bookshop £13.45

ST GEORGE’S CHAPEL, Windsor, is a curious remnant of the kind of church so popular with kings, bishops, and noblemen in late-medieval England: the collegiate foundation. Most of these were not academic institutions of any significance, but bodies of canons and priests saying daily offices and prayers for the dead.

It survived the Reformation less through any merit of its own than because it was an emblem of royalty. The Tudor monarchs could not imagine one of their principal palaces as functioning without such a chapel and clergy. It still fulfils its ancient role of commemorating and praying for the royal family, and a side chapel to house the tombs of George VI and his Queen was added as recently as 1969.

The volume under review is a collection of 25 essays on aspects of the chapel’s history, not a definitive account of the whole. About half of the essays are architectural, includ­ing studies of the chapel built by Henry III, its replacement under Edward IV, the west window, the ironwork, and modern restorations. The others range over burials, organs, archives, and a little social history: chiefly that of the canons as well as the family of George III.

The essays are concise rather than detailed, and large areas of the chapel’s past are not addressed, such as the medieval constitution, the Reformation, its aftermath up to the Civil War, and most of the history of liturgy and music. The book does not set out to establish the chapel’s place in the wider church history of England, where it has been identi­fied, for example, as an important model for the “New Foundation” cathedrals of Henry VIII.

None the less, there is much here that is interesting, valuable, and thought-provoking. What a contrast to Henry VIII’s magnificence is the sorry story of his tomb in the chapel! It began as Wolsey’s monu­ment, was never fully reconstructed for Henry, lost its sumptuous metal­work after the Civil War, and finally had its black marble Renais­sance sarcophagus bestowed by George III on Nelson in St Paul’s. Now there is only a slab, by courtesy of William IV, recording where Henry lies — and that is in the wrong place.

Professor Orme’s recent books include histories of the Church in Cornwall, Exeter Cathedral, and the collegiate church of Westbury-on-Trym.

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