At St George’s Chapel, Windsor is a remarkable Oriel Window which has a fascinating history of its own and a unique connection with royal weddings.
The high, wooden Oriel Window on the north side of the altar was added in the 1510s when Henry VIII made the Edward IV Chantry 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 it also acquired the less common name of ‘Catherine of Aragon’s Closet’ or ‘Queen Catherine’s Closet’. Popularly known as the ‘Queen’s (or Queene’s [sic) Closet’, or more loosely, as the ‘Closet for Ladies’). It is clear that the Oriel Window was designed for female observance, a habit which began with Catherine of Aragon and only ended with Queen Victoria, three centuries later. The wooden Oriel Window allows a wider view than the stone window further into the Chantry and so would have given a good view onto the Quire below. St George’s Chapel, Windsor chiefly refers to it as the Oriel Window.
The Oriel Window claims a rich connection with both English and British queens, including one regnant, Queen Victoria, who used it regularly when attending services at Windsor. St George’s Chapel was begun under Edward IV in 1475 and later completed by Henry VIII in the next century, in the lofty vaulted style known as Perpendicular Gothic, of which it is considered one of the most perfect examples.
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’. To this vault was later added the body of Charles I and an infant child of Queen Anne, all commemorated in a plaque placed in the Quire by order of William IV.“
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 the Oriel Window but did not take part in the proceedings. This would later be replicated by Queen Victoria, to observe not a funeral but a wedding in 1863.
Researching with St George’s Chapel Archives in 2018, I was able to establish that no documents would appear to exist that relate to the Oriel Window’s actual construction. The decoration scheme of the Oriel Window does shed light on certain details of its construction with the intertwined cypher of Henry VIII and his first queen, Catherine of Aragon and the Tudor rose’s linkage with her pomegranate. Interestingly, this helps us to date the period of that construction to between 1511 (the year of the birth of the short-lived Prince Henry) and 1519.
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. St George’s Chapel Archives preserve bills and receipts for “building and plaster repairs” of the Oriel Window from 1785. Henry Emlyn carried out important restoration work between 1782 and 1792, when new stairs were built to easier accommodate the princesses and Queen Charlotte, during which time the windows of the Oriel Window were glazed (IV.B.25; J. Roberts, “Henry Emlyn’s Restoration of St George’s Chapel,” Friends Reports (1976-77), p. 331-38).
Queen Victoria regularly used the Oriel Window to attend services when she was at Windsor. Thomas Willement cleaned both the stone window and the Oriel Window in 1843 and amongst the surviving material that he left, is a document he wrote on the work he carried out at St George’s, An Account of the Restorations of the Collegiate Chapel of St George, Windsor (London, 1844). Most notable perhaps was the Queen’s use of the Window 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, 304) which still exists, as confirmed to the present author.
Queen Victoria can be clearly seen, looking down from the Oriel Window at the wedding in the Quire below in the painting by William Powell Frith of the event, the Queen having been widowed 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, with Prince Albert’s hand spread out towards the ceremony.
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. In her journal, 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).
St George’s Chapel was the chosen location for the weddings of Princess Alice of Albany to Prince Alexander of Teck (later Earl of Athlone) in 1904, as well as in 1905 for the marriage of Princess Margaret of Connaught to Prince Gustaf Adolph of Sweden, later King Gustaf 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 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 Prince Edward, Earl of Wessex and Ms Sophie Rhys-Jones in 1999. A special service of dedication took place following the marriage of The Prince of Wales and The Duchess of Cornwall in 2005, and the last wedding to have been celebrated at the chapel is that of Lady Gabriella Windsor to Thomas Kingston in 2019.
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 of when earlier queens watched from there.
©Elizabeth Jane Timms, 2019