WINDSOR, England (Reuters) - When Meghan Markle walks down the aisle at St George’s Chapel in Windsor to marry Prince Harry, she will be following in the footsteps trod by England’s royals for nearly a thousand years.
The American actress and Queen Elizabeth’s grandson marry on Saturday at the chapel at Windsor Castle, the oldest and largest inhabited fortress in the world.
Dripping with historical connections to the royals, the chapel at the castle contains the remains of 10 British monarchs, including the queen’s father George VI along with those of her mother and sister Princess Margaret.
Harry himself was baptized there in December 1984 while his father, heir-to-the-throne Prince Charles, had a blessing after his marriage to second wife Camilla in 2005.
“It is in a sense the chapel where the (royal) family go on very special family occasions, sometimes happy ones, sometimes sad ones,” royal historian Hugo Vickers said.
“As she (Markle) walks down from the altar, she will walk over the tomb of Henry VIII and Charles I and (Henry VIII’s third wife) Jane Seymour.”
The chapel was commissioned by Edward IV in 1475 and completed 53 later in the reign of Henry VIII. Throughout the building, its royal links are clear from vaults and tombs of long-dead monarchs to the 6ft 8inch long sword King Edward III was believed to have wielded in battle.
It is also the spiritual home of the Order of the Garter, the oldest chivalric order still in existence which dates back to 1348 and the reign of Edward III whose select group of members have included the likes of Britain’s World War Two leader Winston Churchill.
To this day, the banners and helmets of the knights of the order hang over the quire’s wooden stalls where each knight ever appointed has a small brass plaque.
“It’s a very beautiful place, it’s one of the finest examples of perpendicular architecture you will ever see,” Vickers said. “It’s very glorious with the banners of the knights of the garter which are very colorful in the quire all around them.”
The castle itself, on a huge site occupying the equivalent of 268 tennis courts, dominates Windsor and is just a short distance from the exclusive Eton College where Prince Harry and his elder brother William went to school.
It has been a royal residence since 1066 when William the Conqueror, the Norman king who invaded England and from whom all subsequent monarchs trace their lineage, built a castle. Forty monarchs since then have called it home.
In latter years, it has been a residence rather than a fortress, but remains close to the hearts of royals. Elizabeth’s great grandmother Queen Victoria, who ruled for 64 years, proposed to her husband Albert at the castle and they spent their honeymoon there.
The current 92-year-old queen and her husband still spend most of her weekends there.
Inside its thick walls, where the couple will hold their wedding reception, are grand state rooms where portraits of past monarchs and famous British war leaders adorn the walls along with large displays of weaponry and armor.
Part of the castle was badly damaged by fire on Nov. 20, 1992, the queen’s wedding anniversary.
It was part of a “annus horribilis” (horrible year) for the 92-year-old monarch, which saw the breakdown of three of her four children’s marriages and growing disapproval of what detractors called a royal soap opera.
But, similar to the reputation of the royals, which sank its lowest level in the aftermath of death of Harry’s mother Princess Diana in 1997, the castle has been restored to much of its former glory.
The reception will take place in the castle’s huge and impressive St George’s Hall, one of the rooms that was badly damaged by the fire and which traditionally plays host to state banquets.
Reporting by Michael Holden; Editing by Guy Faulconbridge and Andrew Heavens