A History of Windsor

By Tim Lambert

Early Windsor

Windsor began as a Saxon village. The name Windsor is believed to be a corruption of the Saxon words ‘windlass Oran’ meaning a bank with a windlass. After the Saxons founded the settlement it grew into a town because of its position by a river. In those days it was expensive to transport goods by land. It was cheaper to transport them by river. The Thames was an important artery between London and the heart of England. It was inevitable that a town would grow up on the site of Windsor.

By the time of the Domesday book (1086), Windsor was a small town it probably had a population of only a few hundred, which seems very small to us but settlements were very small in those days. A typical village only had about 100 to 150 inhabitants. William the Conqueror took Windsor as his property. There was already a royal palace in the town. Windsor was near a forest where the king could go hunting and it was near a river that could be used for transport so the king liked it.

The original settlement was at Old Windsor but William built a castle on an escarpment at Clewer. Windsor Castle would have a large staff of defenders and servants and provide a market for the people’s goods. So it stimulated the growth of Windsor. Soon the townspeople began to move to be nearer the castle and a new settlement grew up around it.

At first Windsor Castle was made of wood but in the 12th century, it was rebuilt in stone. Windsor Castle was strengthened and improved by Henry II (1154-1189) and Henry III (1216-1272).

Medieval Windsor was run by an official called a bailiff, on behalf of the king. In 1212 the people of Windsor were ordered to provide 10 armored men to serve the king. During the 13th century, Windsor grew in size and importance.

In 1277 Windsor was given a charter. This was a document granting the townspeople certain rights. The charter granted the merchants the right to form a guild, an organization that looked after their interests and regulated trade in the town. Windsor had a weekly market and from 1350 Windsor also had 2 fairs. A fair was like a market but was held only once a year and would attract buyers and sellers from all over Berkshire.

In the 15th century, Windsor entered a recession and seems to have gone into decline. Nevertheless in 1467 Windsor’s government was reformed and it was given a proper corporation. From then on Windsor had a mayor and 2 bailiffs to assist him.

From the late 12th century there was a leper hospital outside Windsor. n In the 16th century prosperity returned to Windsor. Three Tuns pub was built in 1518. St George’s Chapel in Windsor Castle was begun in the reign of Edward IV (1442-1483) but it was completed in 1528 during the reign of Henry VIII.

From 1585 the inhabitants of Windsor were required by law to pave the streets in front of their houses. Whether they did so is doubtful!

Tudor Windsor would have been filthy. Like all towns in the 16th century and 17th century Windsor suffered from outbreaks of plague. There was a severe outbreak in 1603. Afterward, a pest house was built where victims could be isolated and looked after. There was another outbreak of plague in Windsor in 1624-25.

In 1635 the residents of Windsor were forbidden to let their pigs wander the streets! (That was a common practice at that time as the pigs would eat offal and other rubbish people threw in the streets).

In 1636 an existing settlement in Connecticut was renamed Windsor.

In 1642 civil war between the king and parliament began. Parliamentary troops were sent to occupy Windsor. The royalists made one attempt to take the town and castle in October 1642 but failed. Windsor remained in parliamentary hands until the end of the war in 1646. After his execution in 1649 Charles, I was buried in Windsor Castle.

By the late 17th century the population of Windsor had probably exceeded 2,000, by the standards of the time, it was a respectably sized town. Meanwhile, in 1673 the first stagecoach service from Windsor to London began. Burford House was built c. 1677. In 1689 a new Guildhall was built in Windsor. Frogmore House was built in 1680.

At the end of the 17th century Celia Fiennes, a travel writer, said: ‘Windsor town looks well, the streets large, the guildhall on stone pillars. From there the streets run along to the bridge over the Thames’.

During the 18th century, Windsor continued to be a market town. In 1725 a charity school was built in Windsor for poor boys. In 1733 a workhouse was built for the destitute. As the name suggests the able-bodied were expected to work.

In 1764 an existing French settlement in Canada was renamed, Windsor.

In the 18th century, Windsor was improved by an act of Parliament of 1769, which set up a body of men who were responsible for paving, cleaning, and lighting the streets. Previously residents were supposed to pave the street in front of their house and hang out a candle during the winter. How many did so is not known!

From 1769 the streets of Windsor were properly paved and lanterns were hung out during dark winter nights. Six night watchmen were appointed to patrol the streets at night. Despite these improvements, there was a great deal of poverty and slum housing in Windsor in the 18th century, as there was in all towns.

Meanwhile, Windsor gained its first theatre, Theatre Royal, in 1793.

Modern Windsor

In 1801 at the time of the first census, the population of Windsor was 3,361 making it a fair-sized town. Windsor grew rapidly in the 19th century. By 1851 it was 6,734 and by the end of the century, the population of Windsor had passed 9,000.

In 1810 another Windsor was founded in New South Wales. In 1836 another settlement in Canada was renamed, Windsor.

During the 19th century, Windsor remained a market town. The Industrial Revolution, which transformed other towns largely passed Windsor by. However, in the 19th century, there were some improvements in Windsor. In 1818 a dispensary was founded where the poor could obtain free medicines.

A cast-iron bridge over the Thames was built in 1824. Gas street lighting was introduced in Windsor in 1827 and a railway from London reached Windsor in 1844.

Combermere barracks were first built in 1805. It was rebuilt in 1853. Victoria Barracks was built in 1853.

In 1901 the population of Windsor was about 9,500. It was a small town dominated by the castle but it grew much larger during the 20th century. In 1932 Sir Eric Savill laid out 35 acres of gardens. The new gardens were named after him. The King George V Memorial was erected in 1937. St George’s Chapel was restored in 1922-23. In 1992 Windsor Castle suffered a fire. However, by 1997 the damage had been repaired.

At the beginning of the Second World War, it was assumed Windsor would be safe from bombing as it was not a manufacturing center. Many evacuees were sent to the town but most of them soon went home. However, Windsor was not entirely spared by the Germans.

Windsor has never been a manufacturing center. Today industry in the town is dominated by tourism, banking, and finance. There are also computer companies and a pharmaceutical industry. However many of the people in Windsor commute to Slough or London.

Windsor & Royal Borough Museum was founded in 1951. The Household Cavalry Museum opened in 1964. Then in 1974, local government was reformed and Windsor was joined with Maidenhead. King Edward Court was built in 1979 and Royal Station shopping centre was built in 1997.

A view of Windsor Castle
Windsor Castle

Today Windsor is a thriving town. In 2023 the population of Windsor was 32,000.