The grand west steps of St George’s Chapel have become an iconic view within Windsor Castle, particularly in recent years when they have featured prominently on occasions of national importance. It is remarkable then that this famous sight is not very old. Until the 1870s, only an uneven earth mound and a narrow flight of steps stood at the west end of the Chapel.
Construction of the west front of St George’s Chapel was completed by 1506. The natural slope of the chalk outcrop on which the Chapel is built means that the ground in the Horseshoe Cloister is significantly lower than the ground at the east end of the building, so the west door is several metres higher than the ground outside it. The earliest surviving pictures of the Chapel show that the builders left only a rugged mound of earth to bridge that gap. By 1749, a flight of nine steps had been constructed immediately in front of the door, but they did not extend all the way to ground level, they had no parapet and they were only as wide as the doors themselves.
In the late-nineteenth century, Chapter Clerk Richard Cope recorded his experience of how hazardous those steps could be. “The old steps were so narrow, small and unsuitable… that it was dangerous for Funeral processions to enter by the west door,” he wrote [SGC VII.9.4]. He went on to recall that he had been present in 1847 at the final funeral to process through the west door (that of Samuel Foster, a Lay Clerk). “I well remember that I had a narrow escape from being thrown off the top step by the Crowd there being no side wall or parapet.”
Perhaps it was this incident which led the Dean and Canons to abandon use of the west door at funerals. For the next twenty-five years, coffins would be carried in at the south door, proceed westwards down the side aisle and then return from the west door up the centre of the nave.
This unsatisfactory solution was still in place at the funeral of Prince Albert, the beloved consort of Queen Victoria, in 1862. The following year, the poor state of the west steps received further high-profile attention when the wedding of Edward Prince of Wales and Princess Alexandra of Denmark (later King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra) took place in St George’s Chapel.
In 1868, the Dean and Canons of Windsor accepted a design by Giles Gilbert Scott for a grand flight of steps up to the west front of the Chapel, which can be seen in the ink sketch at the top of this page, titled S. George’s Chapel. Windsor Castle New Approach to W. End [SGC P.55]. The impressive design is much more suitable for use on ceremonial occasions. It is very close to the design of the west steps today, which have three tiers instead of the two drawn. The work was completed in 1872, but the Purbeck marble steps and Bath stone parapets have twice undergone extensive restoration work: once in the 1920s and once in the 1980s.
A close look will show you that two additional stone animals were originally intended, mid-way up the parapet, but in the end only the lion and the unicorn bearing shields with the royal arms, were added on pillars at either end. The reminiscences of Rupert Hughes, a chorister of St George’s Chapel from 1876 to 1879, recall an unfortunate incident with the unicorn when it was still very new:
“At one time the boys were idling [by the west steps] preparatory to going in for the service. Some unhappy boy – as it turned out afterwards – picked up a pebble from the roadway, shying it at the tapering horn of the Unicorn. Others joined in the mischief and trying to make a hit, never thinking they would make any impression. Someone must have picked up a larger stone and made a better aim for to our horror and utter consternation, the marble horn snapped off at the base and was smashed to atoms. Then there was the worst of troubles, Dean Wellesley and others being summoned to witness the catastrophe. Needless to say all the boys were equally guilty and severely punished and the one who made as it were the bulls’ eye never known.” [SGC M.141]
Kate McQuillian, Archivist & Chapter Librarian