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The Royal Closet at St George’s Chapel, Windsor

With the announcement by Kensington Palace on Tuesday, 28 November 2017, that the marriage of His Royal Highness Prince Henry of Wales and Ms Meghan Markle will take place at St George’s Chapel, Windsor in May 2018, following Her Majesty The Queen’s granting permission for the wedding to take place there, Royal Central recently took a look at previous royal marriages which have been celebrated at St George’s Chapel. At St George’s is a remarkable oriel window or ‘Closet’, which has a fascinating history of its own, with a connection with a previous royal wedding.

The Marriage of the Prince of Wales and Princess Alexandra of Denmark in 1863, painted by the artist William Powell Frith (William Powell Frith [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

The high, wooden oriel window on the north side of the altar was added in the 1510s, when Henry VIII made the Chantry Chapel of Edward IV into a royal pew for the use of his first queen, Catherine of Aragon, who watched Garter ceremonies in the Quire from it, for which reason today it has acquired the various bynames of ‘Catherine of Aragon’s Closet’ or ‘Queen Catherine’s Closet’ or more loosely, the ‘Queen’s Closet’ – the latter being perhaps the most appropriate if a choice is possible, given the fact that the closet can claim a connection with at least two English queen consorts and one British queen regnant. The Closet is richly ornamented with heraldic symbols and also Catherine of Aragon’s personal badge, the pomegranate. This closet overlooks the Quire, where the burial vault containing the tomb of Henry VIII’s third queen, Jane Seymour is located; on the death of Henry VIII in 1547, his will detailed exact instructions for his body to be placed in the same vault “and interred in the quire of our Colleg of Windsor, midway between the stalls and the high altar, with the body of my true and loving Queen Jane…”

Henry VIII had expressed the desire to be buried at Windsor as early as 1517 when he was married to Queen Catherine of Aragon. To conform to prevailing royal etiquette, Henry’s surviving wife and sixth queen, Catherine Parr, observed the funeral of Henry VIII – from Queen Catherine’s Closet (Antonia Fraser, The Six Wives of Henry VIII, Pg 483). In this case, the Closet was perhaps a royal interpretation of a medieval hagioscope or ‘squint’, by which social divisions or privilege could enable more members of the congregation to participate unseen in the service, through an opening in the wall through which the altar was visible. Charles Knight confirms the royal use of the Closet during ‘installations’ in his famous ‘Windsor Guide’ and mentions that it was repaired during the reign of George III in 1780. He also states that it was in the Closet that George III, Queen Charlotte and the Royal Family attended Sunday service, when they were at Windsor, and when it was refurbished, it was – according to Knight – “furnished with desks, stools,  cushions, curtains etc…” which were all covered with Garter blue silk and the initials ‘G.R’ embroidered on the cushions.

According to the College of St George’s Chapel, Windsor, Queen Victoria regularly used the Closet to attend services when she was at Windsor. Most notable perhaps was the Queen’s use of the Closet to observe the wedding of the Prince of Wales and Princess Alexandra of Denmark on 10 March 1863. Queen Victoria had her own private entrance to the Closet, via a covered walk from the Deanery (Christopher Hibbert: Queen Victoria, A Personal History, Pg 304) which still exists, as told to the present author. Queen Victoria can be clearly seen, looking down from the Closet at the wedding in the Quire below in the painting by William Powell Frith of the event, the Queen having been widowed herself for less than a year and a half. For the wedding, Queen Victoria significantly wore mourning dress and the Garter badge which had belonged to Prince Albert, together with a miniature of the dead Prince. Typically, this was a way in which she could also be seen as having included Prince Albert in the ceremony – a similar parallel may be seen at the marriage of Queen Victoria’s second daughter Princess Alice, who married Prince Louis of Hesse at Osborne House in 1862; the wedding took place in the Dining Room, presided over by the giant portrait ‘The Royal Family in 1846’, by Franz Xavier Winterhalter.

Of the remaining five royal weddings that took place at St George’s Chapel during Queen Victoria’s reign, the Queen seems to have only used the Closet to observe the marriage of the Prince of Wales – because she describes herself as participating in the others (HRH Princess Louise to the Marquess of Lorne, later 9th Duke of Argyll in 1871; HRH Prince Arthur, Duke of Connaught to HRH Princess Louise of Prussia in 1879; HRH Princess Frederica of Hanover to Luitbert, von Pawel Rammingen in 1880; HRH Prince Leopold, Duke of Albany to HSH Princess Helena of Waldeck-Pyrmont in 1882 and HH Princess Marie Louise of Schleswig-Holstein and HH Prince Aribert of Anhalt in 1891).The wedding of Queen Victoria’s third daughter HRH Princess Helena to HRH Prince Christian of Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Augustenburg in 1866 took place at Windsor Castle, but in the Private Chapel and not at St George’s Chapel. It is also of historical interest that a much earlier royal marriage also took place at Windsor, before the wedding of the Prince of Wales and Princess Alexandra of Denmark in 1863 – that of the third Norman King Henry I and his second queen, Adelize of Louvain, took place at Windsor Castle in 1121.

St George’s Chapel was the chosen location for the weddings of HRH Princess Alice of Albany to HSH Prince Alexander of Teck (later Earl of Athlone) in 1904, as well as in 1905 for the marriage of HRH Princess Margaret of Connaught to HRH Prince Gustav Adolph of Sweden, later King Gustav VI Adolph of Sweden. Lady Helena Cambridge married Major John Gibbs, Coldstream Guards at St George’s in 1919 and Anne Abel Smith, granddaughter of HRH Princess Alice, Countess of Athlone married David Liddell-Grainger there in 1957. In more recent memory, Lady Helen Windsor married Timothy Taylor at St George’s Chapel in 1992, as did HRH Prince Edward, Earl of Wessex and Ms Sophie Rhys-Jones in 1999. A special service of dedication took place following the marriage of HRH The Prince of Wales and HRH The Duchess of Cornwall in 2005, and the last wedding to have been celebrated at the Chapel is that of Peter Phillips and Autumn Kelly in 2008.

More recently, the Closet has been used as a viewing platform by broadcasters, to film services at St George’s Chapel – an appropriate continuation of its earlier history, it seems.

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