Located within the Lower Ward of Windsor Castle, St George’s Chapel has become synonymous with royal weddings, baptisms, funerals and burials. It is here that Queen Elizabeth II will be laid to rest after her funeral at Westminster Abbey. However, the chapel has a far longer history that dates back to the 13th-century. What 7 things should you know about the history of St George’s Chapel?
1. There has been a chapel on the site since the 13th-century
Henry II had a chapel erected on the site in the early-13th century – this first chapel was dedicated to St Edward the Confessor. Edward III later established a college of canons (secular priests ie: not monks) attached to the chapel. The 12 canons formed a self-governing community, or chapter, with a Dean as their head. Each canon had a deputy for singing services, and the chapter was further supported by a small number of clerks, boy choristers, and bell-ringers. The chapel was re-dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary, St George and St Edward the Confessor. The choice of St George was personal to Edward III who particularly valued military virtues and was pressing his claim to the French throne – he had recently defeated the French army at the Battle of Crecy. Over time, the chapel has come to be known simply as the College of St George.
2. Edward III also founded the Order of the Garter at St George’s Chapel
Edward III shared a medieval interest in King Arthur; Arthur was seen as the epitomy of both kingly and knightly virtues. Edward had intended to revive King Arthur’s Round Table with 300 knights (he even began constructing a round building at Windsor Castle to house the Order) but his plans were interrupted by war with France. Instead, in 1348, he founded the chivalric Order of the Garter which was associated with the new college of St George. Twenty-five knights, and the King, each had a personal stall in the chapel and were entitled to wear the insignia of the Order. The Companions of the Order could be Knights Subject (subjects of the English King) or Stranger Knights (subjects of foreign countries). Companions of the Order can be degraded for treason, or fighting against the monarch. Six Companions were degraded by Henry VIII; more recently, foreign monarchs were degraded after fighting against Great Britain in the World Wars.
Supporting the Companions of the Garter was a community of twenty-six Poor/Alms Knights who received food and accommodation in return for praying for the members or the Order of the Garter. These were were mainly knights who had been captured by the French and had to sell their lands and possessions to pay their ransoms, leaving them impoverished.
3. The Order of the Garter and the Poor Knights still exist today
The Order of the Garter is still in existence today and includes the Monarch, their heir, and twenty-four additional Companions. Since 1990, it has been possible for women to be appointed as full Companions of the Order. Stranger Knights are now supernumary appointments to the Order, as are additional members of the royal family. The banners and crests of the Companions are still displayed above their stall in the chapel.
The number of Poor Knights was reduced in number in the 16th century and, in the early-19th century, they were renamed to Military Knights. Today, there are 13 Military Knights who live within the Lower Ward of the castle. They are all retired army officers and are expected to carry out parade duties through the year in addition to participating in ceremonial events.
4. The chapel was rebuilt by Edward IV
The rebuilding of St George’s Chapel was ordered by Edward IV in 1475. Edward IV had a particular love for Windsor castle and wished to be buried in the chapel. However, the chapel was not completed until 1528, when the vaulted ceiling over the crossing was finished.
5. St George’s Chapel has not always been a royal mausoleum
The first monarch to be buried in St George’s Chapel was Edward IV; this was a personal choice and did not necessarily indicate a desire to establish a royal mausoleum. The body of Henry VI was reburied in St George’s Chapel on the orders of Richard III. This likely was an attempt to create a sense of continuity between the Lancastrian and Yorkist dynasties, and symbolically strengthen the Yorkist hold on the throne.
Henry VIII was buried in the middle of the quire of St George’s Chapel (alongside Jane Seymour) as was Charles I. However, it was not until the early-19th century that the chapel truly emerged as a royal mausoleum.
Since George III, only Victoria and Edward VIII are the only monarchs not to have been buried in St George’s Chapel. Many members of the wider royal family were also buried in various locations around St George’s Chapel in the 19th-21st centuries, though some of the burials have since been transferred elsewhere (details here).
In the 21st century, the George VI Memorial Chapel has emerged as the main burial location for his immediate family. George VI, Queen Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon and Princess Margaret were all buried in this chapel. The most recent royal burial was that of Prince Philip, duke of Edinburgh, in 2021; It is expected that he will be moved to the George VI chapel from the Royal Vault to be buried alongside Elizabeth II.
Other, non-royals, were previously buried in St George’s Chapel. These included William Lord Hastings d, 1483 (a close friend of Edward IV’s, executed by Richard III); Sir John Donne d. 1503 (William Hasting’s brother-in-law); Sir Reginal Bray d. 1503; George Manners, Lord Ros d. 1513; Charles Somerset, earl of Worcester d. 1526;Charles Brandon, duke of Suffolk d. 1545; and Henry Somerset, duke of Beaufort d. 1700 (his tomb was later moved to Badminton).
6. There are surviving chantry chapels in St George’s Chapel
Prior to the religious Reformation England, churches and cathedrals were filled with chantry chapels. These were endowments established to ensure that ongoing prayers would be said for the souls of particular individuals. At their most basic, they could consist of a stipend for a priest, or priests, to say prayers at an altar. However, they could also be structures added on to an existing building, or enclosures created within the church. During Edward VI’s reign, chanry chapels were abolished. However, although altars were removed from St George’s Chapel, chantry chapel structures were not.
Edward IV’s chantry chapel is located above his tomb and the adjoinging aisle; an oriel window was added to the chapel by Henry VIII so that Katherine of Aragon could watch services in the quire. A small chantry chapel enclosure for William Lord Hastings is located in the north aisle near to Edward IV’s tomb. The Bray and Rutland chantries are located in the chapel transepts and contain the tombs of Sir Reginald Bray and George Manners Lord Ros. The Beaufort chantry contains the tomb of Charles Somerset, earl of Worcester.
7. Henry VIII should have a tomb in St George’s Chapel
Plans for an enormous, elaborate tomb for Henry VIII were drawn up during his lifetime and work had begun before his death in 1547. However, construction was never completed and the unfinished tomb was eventually dismantled. There are no known contemporary drawings of the incomplete monument, only speculative attempts to reconstruct the design (I have explored this in more detail here). Instead Henry VIII’s burial location in the quire is marked with a large ledger stone in the floor.