Windsor Castle Badly Damaged by Stubborn Fire


Windsor Castle, the home of Britain’s Royal Family for more than eight centuries, suffered “enormous” damage from a tenacious fire that raged for hours Friday.

Each time firefighters reported that the blaze was under control, it appeared to erupt again--as it did at 7 p.m., almost eight hours after it began. The blaze, which caused a dozen injuries but no fatalities, was reportedly contained by late Friday night, but authorities said it could continue to burn until midday today.

When the fire broke out, Queen Elizabeth II was not in residence at her favorite weekend home, just west of London. But she raced there Friday afternoon on her 45th wedding anniversary to help evacuate priceless furnishings, even as the fire continued to burn.


The queen was “shocked and absolutely devastated” by the damage, which is expected to run into the millions of dollars, said her second son, Prince Andrew, the Duke of York.

Prince Andrew was in his Windsor Castle apartment when the fire began about 11:30 a.m. Friday in the private chapel of the complex, which is so vast it has more than 1,000 rooms. He estimated that at least half a dozen pictures from the royal art collection of old masters were damaged or destroyed when the blaze first began.

The castle is like one great museum and has been added onto by various sovereigns since William the Conqueror started the complex as a wooden fortress soon after the Norman conquest of England in 1066.

Friday’s fire spread through St. George’s Hall, scene of many sumptuous state banquets. The blaze damaged priceless tapestries, paintings, furniture and woodwork. Smoke and water caused further damage.

Castle officials said there was no evidence of arson or a terrorist attack. But authorities said it might take days to determine the fire’s cause.

Prince Andrew, who is separated from his wife, the Duchess of York, and sometimes stays in the castle, surveyed the damage and told reporters: “I heard the fire alarm, and when I came out of the room I could see the smoke. My reaction was shock and horror at the fact that it took hold so quickly.”

He said he joined dozens of people who pitched in to retrieve works of art from the sprawling stone castle, which overlooks the town of Windsor from a hill on the Thames River.

After the queen arrived from Buckingham Palace in London to supervise the removal of royal household effects, an aide said the monarch was “enormously upset. She is like any mother watching her home burn down.”

Thousands of tourists and townspeople in Windsor watched more than 225 firefighters with 35 fire engines battle the stubborn blaze that swept through private apartments in the castle’s northeast wing. The North Terrace area, where the fire started, is farthest from Windsor’s main street, which was sealed off to traffic and visitors. Soldiers in battle dress--including guardsmen from the Household Division--arrived to help fight the fire and to evacuate the Royal Family’s possessions.

By midafternoon, crews believed that they had the blaze under control. But after dusk, bursts of flame spurted from the castle’s roofs; Brunswick Tower was blazing well into the evening.

Experts cited several problems in fighting the fire in the historic structure: Windsor Castle, they noted, has huge rooms and other vast spaces--including long corridors--with timbered ceilings; the blaze raced through such open areas. Further, the castle apparently had no sprinkler system. Although crews thought they had extinguished it, the fire apparently retreated into gaps and voids between the castle’s wood paneling and its stone walls. There, eight hours after it started, it rekindled.

Dean Landsdale, 21, a decorator working at the palace who was treated for burns, was quoted by the Associated Press as saying the chapel was an inferno. “The curtains were on fire and walls were burning--it was all going up,” he said. “We dragged paintings into the gallery. I dragged three or four out with other people, then I touched one and felt my hands burning.”

Prince Andrew said he believed that many works of art and decorative objects were saved. But he said it was “inevitable” that some were destroyed. He said he personally had removed to safety “pictures, clocks, tables--all sorts of ornaments.” Household servants and soldiers formed lines to move furnishings and paintings from the building--and books from the royal library--into the safer courtyard all afternoon.

“It is heartbreaking,” said Roger Carter, a local official. “The damage is an absolute tragedy.”

Smoke from the fire could be seen for miles--by drivers on the main expressways leading from London to the West of England, and by passengers on planes flying in and out of the capital’s nearby Heathrow Airport. Later, in the gathering darkness, flames could be seen spouting from the landmark’s ramparts, battlements and towers.

Windsor is believed to be one of the world’s oldest, largest, still-inhabited royal castles. Its historic noteworthiness extends to the modern era, when it lent its name to the current branch of the Royal Family.

The queen owns what is regarded as one of the finest private art collections in the world, and much of it is housed in Windsor Castle. It contains porcelain, furniture, tapestries and paintings, including works by Holbein, Rubens, Van Dyck, Rembrandt, Gainsborough and Canaletto, as well as drawings by Leonardo da Vinci.

One of the castle’s most striking features is St. George’s Chapel--which is not the same as the private chapel where the fire started. St. George’s Chapel--one of the finest examples of “perpendicular” Gothic architecture, a unique English style distinguished by broad windows and elaborate, fan-vaulted ceilings--was built between 1475 and 1525. Many past English sovereigns are buried there, including Henry VI and Henry VIII and George V and George VI, the latter grandfather and father of Queen Elizabeth II.

The chapel is home to the Order of the Garter, Britain’s most prestigious order of chivalry, founded in 1348 by King Edward III. The Knights of the Garter still hold their annual service there.

The original, wooden Windsor Castle was built around 1070 as one of a chain of strongholds. It later became a royal residence. King John journeyed from Windsor Castle to nearby Runnymede in 1215 to set his seal on the Magna Charta.

In the early 19th Century, King George IV moved the private apartments from the northern side, where they had been built for safety, to the brighter southern and eastern sides. The Gothic-style St. George’s Hall, destroyed in Friday’s fire, was part of those renovations.

The castle also was a favorite residence of Queen Victoria, who is buried nearby with her husband, Prince Albert.

Parts of Windsor Castle are open to the public when the queen is not in residence, and a million people visit annually to see its elegant rooms and art collection.

Phillipa Glanville, an official at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, said the damage represented a “major loss to Britain’s and the West’s art heritage.”

During World War II, the present queen and her sister spent much of the period of heavy German bombardment of London at Windsor Castle, which survived the wartime blitz intact.

As they normally do, the queen and Prince Philip were to spend the weekend at Windsor Castle, where a major, multimillion-dollar refurbishment program was scheduled to be completed soon. The queen also spends a month at Windsor each year at Easter, plus a week in June for the Royal Ascot races.

This was the second major fire at a royal palace in six years. A 1986 blaze severely damaged Hampton Court apartments, west of London, but they have since been restored.

Fire Threatens Living Quarters

The Windsor Castle fire was confined to the northeast corner of the upper ward, an area that contains the Royal Family’s living quarters. The castle serves as a weekend retreat for the Royal Family. Prince Andrew, the queen’s middle son, was at the castle but was not hurt. A. Private and state apartments: Apartments for the queen, other members of the Royal Family and guests. B. Upper Ward: Site of the royal library, which contains a priceless collection of drawings by Leonardo da Vinci Michelangelo, Raphael and other masters. C. St. George’s Chapel: Contains the bodies of Henry VI, Edward IV, Henry VIII, Jane Seymour and others. D. Round Tower: The building’s centerpoint visible for miles, it is one of the oldest parts of the complex.