Windsor Castle Rises From Ashes to Splendor

Prince Edward debuts a film about the royal residence's restoration after the fire five years ago.

Nov. 20 is a memorable date for the British royal family. It marks not only Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip's 50th wedding anniversary, but also the unveiling of the completely restored Windsor Castle after its devastating fire five years ago.

Nov. 20 is also the date when England will see via television what Windsor looks like today. The United States will have the opportunity to view "Windsor Restored" four days later, Nov. 24, 10-11 p.m., on the Learning Channel. Queen Elizabeth's youngest son, Prince Edward, and his Ardent Productions made the documentary.

The film begins on another Nov. 20, on a chilly winter morning in 1992. Prince Andrew, who was at the castle doing research, was the first member of the royal family to learn of the fire.

"It was the most extraordinary sensation," he explains in the film. "The castle looked like a giant chimney with flames, 60 to 70 feet billowing into the sky. It seemed as if nine centuries of history was going up in smoke."

Prince Charles echoed his brother's thoughts. "So much of my childhood was spent at Windsor. To see one-fifth of it in ashes made my blood run cold."

It was also the favorite home of Queen Elizabeth, who spent much of her childhood during World War II there.

Salvaging treasures

Dickie Arbiter, director of the Royal Collection, says, "Prince Andrew was the first on the scene. Being a military officer, he knew how to take charge, and having grown up in the castle, he also knew where the irreplaceable treasures of the Royal Collection were. The staff and volunteers formed a human chain, passing the priceless manuscripts, smaller paintings, and centuries-old porcelain down the line to safety."

Perhaps, for Charles, Andrew, and Edward, the saddest sight was 15 hours later when the fire was extinguished. Their mother, the queen, was standing among the ashes, looking almost as pale as the smoldering embers.

But this is a story with a happy ending.

Last week, the queen was radiant as she greeted the men and women who restored the castle (the original construction was undertaken by William the Conqueror around 1070). It was her special reception to thank contractors, builders, restorers, workers, and others who supplied the muscle and talent to bring Windsor Castle to greater glory.

As Charles walked through the castle he remarked, "Many of the workers had to learn unfamiliar skills to restore the ancient wood- and glasswork. It's a testimony to their love, skill, and dedication that the results are so spectacular."

The main challenge was St. George's Hall, the enormous area used to entertain visiting world leaders. When the flaming roof and debris crashed through the hall, it demolished everything, including the famous organ.

"Certainly all the paintings in the hall would have been lost forever," Mr. Arbiter says, "except this section was being rewired and a fire detector was being installed. Most of the Royal Collection in this area had been removed, except for three items: a portrait of [King] George III, which was so large it couldn't be taken off the wall, a very heavy sideboard, and the organ. All three were destroyed."

Out of the ashes came some discoveries, even an unknown area near the queen's chapel.

Design by committee

The queen does not own the property - the state does - so a subcommittee was formed to decide on the design for St. George's Hall, the queen's chapel, and the discovered space.

Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, headed the committee, with Charles also on the board. They had three choices: to build something new, to duplicate exactly, or to restore, adding some modern improvements.

Every architect in the United Kingdom wanted the job. One modernist's suggestion featured a fish tank as a centerpiece complete with a wavemaking machine and a floating crown.

While the castle was still smoking, restoration, archaeology, and architectural specialists were inspecting the damage. The committee decided to restore, but knowing the last restoration was in 1820, they needed the addition of modern improvements. Also, the extra space near the private chapel would become the new Lantern Lobby.

According to Arbiter, "The Lantern Lobby supplies the 'wow!' factor. Everyone who has seen it gazes around, and the first word out of his mouth is, 'Wow!' "

The queen raised millions for the restoration. It was 70 percent financed by entry revenue from opening sections of Buckingham Palace to the public, and now Windsor Castle, and 30 percent from the government's Grant and Aid Fund for the upkeep of the occupied royal palaces.

The restoration, a shade over $60 million, came in several months ahead of schedule. The Duke of Edinburgh was the "captain" most workers credit for supplying the energy and dedication.

Edward, who has won accolades for his television documentaries ("Edward on Edward," "Castle Ghosts," and the series "Crown & Country"), says of "Windsor Restored," "This was the most personal documentary I've done."

He went through four years of work-in-progress footage, selecting what would be included in the documentary. Next he decided what new footage to shoot. Less than a week before it appears on TV, he filmed the queen's thank-you reception for the workers and edited that into the finished documentary.

Robin Bextor, Ardent TV director, notes, "There are scenes in the documentary that can never be repeated. Before the furniture or paintings were added, we mounted a crane and camera and show a sweeping shot, with the lens inches from a giant crystal chandelier. Only Prince Edward could have thought up, or been able to get, such a fantastic shot."

TV director Bextor says, "Prince Edward wanted to show some of the ancient techniques workers had to learn to carve the banqueting-hall roof trusses. Windsor Castle doesn't have any right angles, so special skills were required."

Open to the public

The public will be able to view the restored Green and Crimson Drawing Rooms with the floor-to-ceiling bookcases and the intricate marquetry flooring, along with the elegant Octagon Anteroom and the amazing St. George's Hall. These four areas are indistinguishable from before the fire.

Some of the renovations resulted from special queries on what would be an appropriate gift for the golden wedding anniversary.

The military supplied a lighting system for the medieval arches of Windsor; the City of London presented wood carvings, the Queen's Beasts, on the screen in St. George's Hall; and the Commonwealth gave the cast-iron circular design of the Garter for St. George's Chapel, 12 feet in diameter.

Five years later, Nov. 20 is a joyous occasion. The queen will receive a most precious gift, her beloved Windsor lovingly restored for generations to come.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.