St. George’s Chapel is the venue of Prince Harry and Meghan’s forthcoming wedding, and has also played the backdrop to other royal weddings, as well as funerals. Take a look at the chapel’s history and its interior.
Though called a chapel, St. George’s has the commanding presence of a cathedral. The size of it is striking in person, and so is its beauty. Built of honey-coloured stone, it sits like a jewel in the grounds of Windsor Castle. Amidst a backdrop of turrets, towers and crenelated walls, all jostling for attention, St George’s holds its own, rising above the myriad architectural layers of the thousand-year-old castle.
Despite changes and alterations, its grandness, and its gothic elaborations, there is something simple and reassuring about it that provides continuity in the landscape of Windsor Castle. If St. Paul’s Cathedral embodies the identity of the nation, and Westminster Abbey the identity of the institution of the monarchy, then St. George’s Chapel embodies the identity of the Royal Family itself, a space set away from the world for reflection and family celebrations.
St. George’s Chapel is located on the north side of the Lower Ward, which also includes the residences of the Military Knights of Windsor as well as the Guard Room and parade ground. It is governed by the Dean and Canons of Windsor and seats approximately 800 people. The Chapel is run by the religious college of St. George, which see to its day-to-day operations.
Construction of the chapel was begun under Edward IV in 1475, when the small 13th-century chapel of St. Edward the Confessor, which had originally occupied the site, was expanded into the large chapel that we see today. The east end was the first portion completed, finished in 1484. Building was continued by Edward IV and Henry VII, with work finally completed in 1528 under Henry VIII. The chapel underwent significant destruction during the English Civil War, but reconstruction was begun following the Restoration of the Monarchy (1660).
The two most important areas of the Chapel are the Nave and the Quire (as it is traditionally spelled), and these are the areas that you’ll be able to see when you visit. Upon entering the chapel through the south side, you’ll first enter the Nave and you’ll notice its height and soaring, cathedral-like vaulting. This is because the chapel was designed in the Perpendicular Gothic style: St. George’s Chapel is considered to be one of the finest examples of Perpendicular Gothic architecture in Britain. The Perpendicular style was the last phase of English Gothic Architecture and emerged in the mid-14th century and remained popular until the early 17th century. The Perpendicular style emphasises verticality (hence its name), and building technology developed at the time allowed for large windows.
Perpendicular interiors are characterised by fan vaults, which are a uniquely English architectural phenomenon. The fan vault consists of an arch whose ribs are of equal curvature and which are placed at equal distances around a central axis, resulting in a fan shape when viewed from below. These vaults were added to the Chapel by Henry VIII and almost give the feeling of tall trees delicately arched over you.
The chapel’s dramatic West Window, which illuminates the Nave, is one of the defining features and is 11 metres high and still incorporates original 16th-century stained glass. The West Window is reportedly to be the third largest in England and contains 75 lights (or panes).
There are two chantries located off the Nave. The Bray Chantry is located in the south transept of St George’s (where you enter). This is the burial place of Sir Reginald Bray, who served as a minister to King Henry VII and died in 1503. Be sure to find the Bray badge, which features a hemp-brake (a machine used to crush hemp). There are 175 of these carved in stone and metal throughout the chapel!
On the north transept of the chapel is the Rutland Chantry, which was founded by Sir Thomas St. Leger in 1481 – he was the brother-in-law of King Edward IV and was executed in 1483 by order of King Richard III. In this area is a copper plate on the north wall commemorating him and his wife. In the centre of this chantry is also the tomb of Lord Roos who died in 1513, along with his wife, Ann, and daughter, the Duchess of Exeter. This chantry is often used for services. Be sure to look up above the chantry to see the impressive organ loft, which was installed during the reign of King George III (you can see his insignia in the centre just below the loft).
Next, go through the chantry and step through the organ screen into the Quire. This was the first portion of the chapel completed between 1477 and 1483. On either side you’ll notice the intricately wooden carved stalls. There were originally 50 stalls reserved for Knights and Canons. 21 stalls faced each other on either side and eight were placed at the west end facing the altar. The stall immediately to your right as you pass from the Nave to the Quire is known as the Sovereign’s stall (you’ll notice it by its ornamental hood and its draping of rich blue cloth).
While you’re standing amongst the stalls, look at the panels behind them. You’ll notice numerous gold plates. These are the Stall Plates for members of the Order of the Garter. A stall is provided for each member for life, and these plates display the Arms and titles of the Knight or Lady. These plates remain in place following the death of the members, hence the reason for so many plates to be on display.
Be sure to look up whilst standing here as well (always a good rule for visiting any historic building!). Above you are the colourful banners and crests of each Garter Knight, which are located above their respective stalls. Above the altar on the north wall is the Oriel Window. This window was installed by King Henry VIII so that his then wife, Katherine of Aragon, could view services conducted in the Chapel privately.
The interior of St. George’s Chapel is renowned for its excellent examples of medieval woodwork, ironwork, and stonework, so be sure to take time to appreciate the intricately carved surfaces and design patterns seen throughout the chapel.
Treasures kept at St George’s Chapel include Edward III’s long sword (possibly the same one he carried in battle) located in the south, or ‘pilgrimage’, aisle of the chapel, which was a popular pilgrimage church in medieval times; relics here included the body of John Schorne and Henry VI, as well as the Cross Gneth, a reliquary presented by Edward III which is said to include a portion of the True Cross. An alms box made about 1480 by John Tresilian for donations from pilgrims can still be seen in the chapel today.
The chapel is the site of a number of royal tombs and memorials. These include Edward IV, Henry VI, Henry VIII, Charles I, Edward VII, Queen Alexandra, the Duke of Clarence and Avondale (the son of Edward VII), George V, Queen Mary, Princess Charlotte (George IV’s only child), George VI, Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother, and Princess Margaret (although she was cremated and her ashes interred with her parents). St George’s also contains a memorial chapel dedicated to Prince Albert, which was created by Sir George Gilbert Scott for Queen Victoria. The Albert Memorial Chapel was originally built as Henry III’s chapel and altered by Henry VII.
Though the chapel has had a colourful history, it is first and foremost a working family church. At least three services take place in the chapel every day for those who live and work at Windsor. St. George’s Chapel, whilst being a Church of England Parish church, is also considered a Royal Peculiar, and so is not subject to the jurisdiction of the diocese and archdiocese, but is instead subject to the direct jurisdiction of the Monarch. In this sense St. George’s Chapel is very much Her Majesty’s personal church, with Windsor Castle considered her primary and most favoured residence. St. George’s Chapel will also be the final resting place of Her Majesty.
The choice of St. George’s Chapel as the venue for royal weddings in recent years has reflected the trend away from the spectacular royal weddings, for example, that of Prince Charles to the late Princess Diana in 1981, and of Prince Andrew to Sarah Ferguson, Duchess of York, in 1987. Even Prince William’s marriage to Kate Middleton at Westminster Abbey in 2011 was more restrained in tone, reflecting the more conservative approach to royal weddings which the Windsors have adopted since the turn of the Millennium.
Recently, more family-focused weddings at the chapel have included those of Prince Edward to Sophie Rhys-Jones in 1999, and a service of prayer and dedication to mark the marriage of Prince Charles and Camilla Parker-Bowles, Duchess of Cornwall, in 2005, following a civil ceremony conducted at Windsor Guildhall.
St. George’s Chapel continues to be a personal symbol of the Royal Family, as well as a centrepiece of ceremonial life for Windsor Castle and the nation. As we eagerly anticipate the wedding of Prince Harry to Meghan Markle on 19th May, St. George’s Chapel will once again provide a timeless backdrop for the union of a very modern royal couple.