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The Undercroft at Windsor Castle

Release date: Thursday, 8 November 2018

As part of Future Programme at Windsor Castle, one of the finest medieval spaces in England will be restored and transformed into the Castle’s first permanent café. The Undercroft, on the ground floor beneath St George’s Hall, is one of the oldest surviving parts of the Castle, dating back to the reign of Edward III.

The vaulted Undercroft beneath St George’s Hall.

The vaulted Undercroft beneath St George’s Hall. Photographer: Mark Fiennes

During the 1350s and 1360s Edward III undertook major renovations at Windsor. Unusually for the time, he created the principal royal apartments on the first floor, rather than at ground-floor level. The apartments were built over vaulted spaces, including the Undercroft, and supported by slender octagonal piers. The building works took nine years to complete at the enormous cost of £44,000 (approximately £26 million today). The Undercroft is now among the few surviving parts of Edward III’s additions to the Castle.

Throughout the 14th century the Undercroft served as the Castle’s principal cellar, where barrels of beer and wine were stored on stone or timber butts. Dimly lit with a much lower floor level, the resulting coolness made the vaulted space ideal for this purpose. The finer wines reserved for the King’s and Queen’s tables were probably kept in a different cellar underneath the King’s principal chamber.

The ground floor of the Upper Ward at Windsor Castle after Edward III's renovations.

The ground floor of the Upper Ward at Windsor Castle after Edward III's renovations. ©

During Charles II’s reign, the architect Hugh May divided the Undercroft into several separate spaces. On the eastern side the floor was lowered to allow the insertion of a mezzanine floor, and brick vaults were built to house the Castle’s beer and wine cellars. Above the cellars were the confectionary, the silver scullery, and an eating room for the Royal Chaplains, Grooms of the Bedchamber and Clerks of the Green Cloth who supported the Board of the Green Cloth in overseeing household matters below stairs. The western half of the Undercroft was paved with Purbeck stone and divided by wooden partitions into the great and privy cellars where the King’s own wines would have been stored.

As its primary use was as a wine cellar, the Undercroft had few windows. Hugh May had the difficult task of introducing additional ones. To align these externally with those on the floor above, 13 openings were made across the 18 bays of the Undercroft. Internally this gives the room an unusual character, as some of the windows aren’t centrally placed within the bays between the vaulting.

With the expansion of the Royal Household at the beginning of the 19th century, George IV’s architect, Sir Jeffry Wyatville, was asked to created additional accommodation and offices at the Castle. Wyatville further subdivided the Undercroft to make room for the Lord Chamberlain’s Office, the Servants’ Hall and the Yeoman of the Pantry.

Photograph of the Servants’ Hall in the Undercroft, c.1895, unknown photographer.

Photograph of the Servants’ Hall in the Undercroft, c.1895, unknown photographer. ©

When Queen Victoria redesigned the Castle’s State Entrance in 1866, two arched openings were made in the wall separating the State Entrance and the Undercroft. It is thought that the idea came from Prince Albert, who was keen to reveal the Undercroft’s 14th-century vaulting. The Queen’s architect, Anthony Salvin, re-lined the Undercroft in Bath stone, with detailing to harmonise with the medieval work.

It wasn’t until the devastating fire at Windsor in 1992 that the partitions were removed and the Undercroft reinstated as a single space for the first time in over 300 years. The Castle’s ground floor had absorbed so much water that the walls of the Undercroft had to be stripped back to allow them to dry out. In the process it was discovered that much more of the room’s early fabric had survived than previously thought, and subsequent restoration work turned it back into the great medieval interior it once was. Future Programme continues this process, giving the Undercroft new life as the Castle’s first permanent café for visitors.

An artist’s impression of the new café in the Undercroft at Windsor Castle.

An artist’s impression of the new café in the Undercroft at Windsor Castle. ©