Windsor is an affluent town and unparished area in the Royal Borough of Windsor and Maidenhead in Berkshire, England. It is widely known as the site of Windsor Castle, one of the official residences of the British Royal Family.
The town is situated 21 miles (34 km) west of Charing Cross, London. It is immediately south of the River Thames, which forms its boundary with Eton.
The village of Old Windsor, just over 2 miles (3 km) to the south, predates what is now called Windsor by around 300 years; in the past Windsor was formally referred to as New Windsor to distinguish the two.
The early history of the site is unknown, although it was almost certainly settled some years before 1070 when William the Conqueror had a timber motte and bailey castle constructed. The focus of royal interest at that time was not the castle, however, but a small riverside settlement about 3 miles (5 km)downstream, possibly established from the seventh century.
Windsor, or as it was called in the eleventh century, Windlesora is first mentioned in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. The name originates from old English Windles-ore, or 'winch by the riverside'. The settlement had used an earlier name, but this is unknown. From about the eighth century high status people stated to visit the site occasionally, and possibly this included royalty. From the eleventh century the site's link with the king, Edward the Confessor, is documented, but again, information about his use of the place is scant. After the Conquest of 1066 royal use of the site increased, probably because it offered good access to woodlands and opportunities for hunting - a sport which also practised military skills. By the late twelfth century, and the relocation of the royal household to an enlarged castle in 1110, the site was renamed Old Windsor.
Windsor Castle is noted in the Domesday Book under the entry for Clewer, the neighbouring manor to Windsor. Although this might seem strange, it occurred because plans for the castle had changed since 1070, and more land had been acquired (in Clewer) on which to site a castle town. The fulfillment of this plan did not take place until the early twelfth century. By 1110, important crown wearings (Great Council of state), which had previously taken place at Windlesora, were noted as now taking place at the Castle - referred to as New Windsor - probably to indicate that it was a two ward castle / borough complex, similar to other early castle designs, such as Denbeigh. Henry I - according to one chronicle - had rebuilt it, and this followed the Norman kings actions at other royal sites, such as Westminster, where larger and more magnificent accommodation was thought necessary for the new dynasty's style of kingship. King Henry married his second wife at Windsor Castle in 1121, after the White Ship disaster. The settlement at Old Windsor largely transferred to New Windsor during the 12th century, although substantial planning and setting out of the new town (including the parish church, marketplace, bridge, hermitage and leper hospital) did not take place until c. 1170, under Henry II, following the civil war of Stephen's reign. At about the same time, the present upper ward of the castle was rebuilt in stone. Windsor Bridge is the earliest bridge on the Thames between Staines and Reading, having been built when bridge building was rare, it was first documented in 1191, but had probably been built, according to the pipe rolls, in 1173. It played an important part in the national road system, linking London with Reading and Winchester, but also, by diverting traffic into the new town, it underpinned the success of its fledgling economy.
The town of New Windsor, as ancient demesne of the Crown, was a privileged settlement from the start, apparently having the rights of a 'free borough' for which other towns had to pay substantial fees to the king. It had a merchant guild (known by the 14th century as the Fraternity or brotherhood of the Holy Trinity) from the early 13th century and, under royal patronage, was made the chief town of the county in 1277, as part of its grant of royal borough status by Edward I's charter. Somewhat unusually, this charter gave no new rights or privileges to Windsor but probably codified the rights which it had enjoyed for many years. Windsor's position as chief town of Berkshire was short lived, however, as people found it difficult to reach. Wallingford took over this position in the early fourteenth century. As a self-governing town Windsor enjoyed a number of freedoms unavailable to other towns, including the right to hold its own borough court, the right of membership (or 'freedom') and some financial independence. The town accounts of the 16th century survive in part, although most of the once substantial borough archive dating back to the twelfth century was destroyed, probably in the late 17th century.
The development of the castle continued in the late 15th century with the rebuilding of St George's chapel. With this Windsor became a major pilgrimage destination, particularly for Londoners. Pilgrims came to touch the royal shrine of the murdered Henry VI, the fragment of the True Cross and other important relics. Visits to the chapel were probably combined with a visit to the important nearby Marian shrine and college at Eton, founded by Henry VI in 1440, and dedicated to the Assumption. This place is now better known as Eton College school. Pilgrims came with substantial sums to spend. From perhaps two or three named inns in the late fifteenth century, over twenty nine can be identified a century later. The town again grew in wealth. For London pilgrims, Windsor was probably - but briefly - of greater importance than Canterbury and the shrine of the City's patron Saint Thomas Becket. With the closures of the Reformation, however, Windsor's pilgrim traffic died out. Henry VIII was buried in St George's Chapel in 1547, next to the body of Jane Seymour, the mother of his only legitimate son, Edward (Edward VI). Henry, the founder of the Church of England, may have wanted to benefit from the stream of Catholic pilgrims coming to the town. His will gives that impression.
Tudor and Stuart periods
The town began to stagnate about ten years after the Reformation. The castle was considered old fashioned and shrines to the dead were thought to be 'superstitious'. The early modern period formed a stark contrast to the medieval history of the town. Most accounts of Windsor in the 16th and 17th centuries talk of its poverty, badly made streets and poor housing. Shakespeare's play The Merry Wives of Windsor is set in Windsor and contains many references to parts of the town and the surrounding countryside. Shakespeare must have walked the town's streets, near the castle and river, much as people still do. The play may have been written in the Garter Inn, opposite the Castle, but this was destroyed by fire in the late seventeenth century. The long standing - and famous - courtesan of king Charles II, Nell Gwyn was given a house on St Albans Street's house. Burford House (now part of the Royal Mews). Her residence in this house, as far as it is possible to tell, was brief however. Only one of her letters addressed from Burford House survives: it was probably intended as a legacy for her (illegitimate)son, the earl of Burford, later the Duke of St Albans.
Windsor was garrisoned by Colonel Venn during the English Civil War. Later it became the home of the New Model Army when Venn had left the castle in 1645. Despite its royal dependence, like many commercial centres, Windsor was a Parliamentarian town. Charles I was buried without ceremony in St George's after his execution at Whitehall in 1649. The present Guildhall, built in 1680-91, replaced an earlier market house that had been built on the same site around 1580, as well as the old guildhall, which faced the castle and had been built around 1350. The contraction in the number of old public buildings speaks of a town 'clearing the decks', ready for a renewed period of prosperity with Charles II's return to the Castle. But his successors did not use the place and as the town was short of money, the planned new civic buildings did not appear. The town continued in poverty until the mid nineteenth century.
In 1652 the largest house in Windsor Great Park was built on land which Oliver Cromwell had appropriated from the Crown. Now known as Cumberland Lodge after the Duke of Cumberland's residence there in the mid 18th century, the house was variously known as Byfield House, New Lodge, Ranger's Lodge, Windsor Lodge and Great Lodge.
Georgian and Victorian periods
In 1778, there was a resumption of the royal presence, with George III at the Queen's Lodge and, from 1804, at the castle. This started a period of new development in Windsor, with the building of two army barracks. However the associated large numbers of soldiers led to a major prostitution problem by 1830 in a town where the number of streets had little changed since 1530.
A number of fine houses were built in this period, including Hadleigh House on Sheet Street, which was built in 1793 by the then Mayor of Windsor, William Thomas. In 1811 it was the home of John O'Reilly, the apothecary-surgeon to George III.
The substantial redevelopment of the castle in the subsequent decade and Queen Victoria's residence from 1840, as well as the coming of two railways in 1849, signalled the most dramatic changes in the town's history. It catapulted the town from a sleepy medieval has-been to the centre of empire – many European crowned heads of state came to Windsor to visit the Queen throughout the rest of the 19th century. Unfortunately, excessive redevelopment and 'refurbishment' of Windsor's medieval fabric at this time resulted in widespread destruction of the old town, including the demolition of the old parish church of St John the Baptist in 1820. The original had been built in c.1135.
Most of the current town's streets date from the mid to late 19th century. However the main street, Peascod Street (pronounced Pes-cod Street) is very ancient, predating the castle by many years, and probably of Saxon origin. It formed part of the 10th-century parish structure in east Berkshire and is first referred to as Peascroftstret in c. 1170. The 1000 year old royal Castle, although the largest and longest occupied in Europe, is a recent development in comparison. "New Windsor" was officially renamed "Windsor" in 1974.
Online Historical References
Nineteenth Century Local Administration
English Jurisdictions is a webpage provided by FamilySearch which analyses every ecclesiastical parish in England at the year 1851. It provides, with the aid of outline maps, the date at which parish records and bishops transcripts begin, non-conformist denominations with a chapel within the parish, the names of the jurisdictions in charge: county, civil registration district, probate court, diocese, rural deanery, poor law union, hundred, church province; and links to FamilySearch historical records, FamilySearch Catalog and the FamilySearch Wiki. Two limitations: only England, and at the year 1851.
During the 19th century two bodies, the Poor Law Union and the Sanitary District, had responsibility for governmental functions at a level immediately above that covered by the civil parish. In 1894 these were replace by Rural and Urban Districts. These were elected bodies, responsible for setting local property assessments and taxes as well as for carrying out their specified duties. Thses districts continued in operation until 1974. Urban districts for larger municipalities were called "Municipal Boroughs" and had additional powers and obligations.
Poor Law Unions, established nationally in 1834, combined parishes together for the purpose of providing relief for the needy who had no family support. This led to the building of '"union poorhouses" or "workhouses" funded by all the parishes in the union. The geographical boundaries established for the individual Poor Law Unions were employed again when Registration Districts were formed three years later. In 1875 Sanitary Districts were formed to provide services such as clean water supply, sewage systems, street cleaning, and the clearance of slum housing. These also tended to follow the same geographical boundaries, although there were local alterations caused by changes in population distribution.