Debtors and Royalists: the Dungeon of the Curfew Tower

Between 1227 and 1230 three towers were built along the western Castle wall at the direction of William de Milleriis for the total cost of £432 14s 4d. Their completion marked the entire replacement of the wooden defences of the Castle with stone, an attempt to strengthen fortifications after the Barons’ siege of 1216 against King John. The foundations of the Clewer Tower extend into the original Norman ditch and its basement has served many functions over the centuries, including a storage and gathering space, a room for the singing school, the sitting room of a bell-ringer and more ominously, a dungeon. Today the Clewer Tower is more commonly known as the Curfew Tower but its basement is still referred to as the dungeon.

Accessed by separate steps leading down to the entrance, the dungeon consists of a large chamber with a vaulted ceiling and seven rectangular recesses around the sides that were converted around a century after its initial construction to hold prisoners. Windsor historian St John Hope wrote: “In 1322-3 some slight repair was made to the steps and a door within the Clewer tower for keeping prisoners there”, citing Royal Pipe Rolls.[1] He further explains that the dungeon had an earthen floor, and one of the cells reportedly once housed a poacher who nearly succeeded in digging his way to freedom prior to being hanged the next day.

Prisoners’ offences ranged from debt to sorcery and the dungeon alone could not house all of the prisoners at Windsor Castle. They were also kept in the houses of Poor Knights’ (now Military Knights) and the Prince’s Tower.[2] These locations and the dungeon were all put to use during the Civil War period when Windsor Castle was occupied by the Roundheads who “crammed the Lower Ward with Royalist Prisoners”.[3] Accounts from the first six months of the War indicate that numbers kept in the dungeon varied greatly, ranging from less than twenty up to as many as 165 at once.[4] It is also likely that some of the numerous Scots prisoners held at Windsor Castle during the summer of 1648 were locked up in the dungeon.

The average soldier in the dungeon would have experienced a dark and overcrowded imprisonment. They received a biscuit, cheese and butter to the value of threepence daily, and their beds were made of straw. Scratched coats of arms on the basement walls indicate that some prisoners were members of the gentry.[5] These prisoners of a higher rank were expected to pay a weekly fee that would have contributed to ensuring that their imprisonment was slightly more comfortable than the common soldiers’.[6] The Civil War was the last time in which the dungeon was used as a prison.

Repairs were frequently made to the Tower and its basement over time. In the eighteenth century, the north-east quarter of the dungeon was partitioned off to form a living room for the bell-ringer and this space was later used by the singing school of the Chapel.[7] In the following century, it was most often used for storage and referred to as ‘the crypt below the Curfew Tower’ rather than as the dungeon. Notably, the organ was stored in the space during the restoration project of the 1920s and the glass of West Window during the Second World War.[8] In 1977 plans were made to lay a wooden floor, fit new windows, repair the doors and install electricity and heating. The cost of these refurbishments was met half by Her Majesty The Queen and half by the Dean and Canons of St George’s Chapel. Afterwards, the space was used as a meeting place for the Ladies’ Group and the Youth Club and in the early 1980s it was even used as sleeping quarters for a visiting school.[9]

Today the space is known as the Dungeon but its modern use is much happier than its name implies. Members of the College use the space for wedding receptions and children’s parties. It has also been frequently used for exhibitions, such as the Mantles of the Orders of Chivalry, Queen Victoria’s Accession, Coronation and Jubilees, as well as a Celebration of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.

Tatiana Sollis, Work Experience Student

[1] St John Hope, Windsor Castle an Architectural History Part I (Country Life: 1913), p. 92
[2] Owen Morshead, “St George’s under the Commonwealth,” in Friends’ Report, 1958, p. 24; St John Hope, Part I, p.95.
[3] Morshead, “St George’s under the Commonwealth”, p.22.
[4] Owen Morshead, “Royalist Prisoners in Windsor Castle” in The Berkshire Archaeological Journal LVI (1958), p.9.
[5] Morshead, “Royalist Prisoners in Windsor Castle”, p. 8; Stephen Brindle, Windsor Castle: A Thousand Years of a Royal Palace (Royal Collection Trust: 2018), p.209.
[6] Brindle, Windsor Castle, p.208.
[7] St John Hope, Windsor Castle an Architectural History Part II (Country Life: 1913), p. 526; SGC VI.B.12 Register of Chapter Acts, 20 April 1877.
[8] SGC VI.B.13 Register of Chapter Acts, 9 April 1921.
[9] SGC VI.B.19 Register of Chapter Acts, 26 July 1983.

The King's Free Chapel. The Chapel of the Most Honourable and Noble Order of the Garter. The Chapel of the College of St George.