By Carole Barclay
|the castle towering over the town|
Royal Windsor on the outskirts of London conjures up sedate images of the castle on the Thames, Eton college, a popular racecourse and Legoland. But behind the veneer of bourgeois respectability lies a much more turbulent past.
Just down the road is Runnymede, where bad King John was forced to sign the Magna Carta in 1215. Charles Stuart was held in Windsor castle during the Civil War before his trial and execution in London in January 1649, and Queen Victoria narrowly escaped death in 1882 when a “madman” took a shot at her outside the royal railway station.
The massive fortress that towers over Windsor has dominated the town since Norman days. Although the bastions and curtain walls still follow their ancient course, the castle has long been a royal palace and what we see today is essentially a Georgian and Victorian gothic fantasy.
The castle was originally built to control a strategic section of the River Thames in William the Conqueror’s day. It was converted into a royal palace a century later and so it remains until this day – but it wasn’t always so.
In the 17th century Windsor was a Puritan stronghold. During the civil war it was occasionally used by Oliver Cromwell as his headquarters and a gaol for Royalist prisoners. In Cromwell’s day the castle became a home for invalided members of the New Model Army and their families, but it reverted to the Crown after the Stuart restoration in 1660.
Wandering the streets you will see relics of bygone ages. Shops that go back to Elizabethan days and a 17th century Guildhall designed by Sir Christopher Wren. The grand central station once used by royalty now just provides a shuttle service to Slough; but the massive concourse has been converted into a Victorian-themed shopping centre that preserves many original features such as the Jubilee Arch and the Royal Waiting Room. Outside one of the cafes in the complex there’s even a full-size replica of the steam engine that hauled Queen Victoria's Royal Train.
Just over the river is Eton college, the paramount public school that has reared the offspring of the ruling class since its foundation in 1441.
The Duke of Wellington said that the battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton and he was probably right. Old boys include Boris Johnson and 19 other Prime Ministers, as well as a predictable bunch of military men, artists and sportsmen. It was also the alma mater of Guy Burgess, who went on to study at Cambridge in the 1930s. There some students embraced the communist ideal. Some joined the workers movement, others fought in Spain. But Guy and his friends, Donald Maclean and Kim Philby, went a step further by taking the principled decision to struggle for peace by working for Soviet intelligence.
The “Cambridge Spies” whose defections rocked the British establishment in the 1950s and ‘60s all ended up in the Soviet Union. Guy Burgess died in Moscow in 1963 and his ashes now lie in his family's plot in West Meon in Hampshire.
Etonians are naturally ‘conservative’ with a small ‘c’ and most of them are imbibed with the ‘One Nation’ Toryism that one would expect from a school where much of its intake comes from the landed gentry. But the school does encourage open discussion and in October 1998 NCP leader Andy Brooks was invited to address a packed meeting of Eton’s Shelley Society on the communist ideal. One or two of the boys even said they considered themselves to be “Marxists”. I wonder where they are now…