The ancient church of St John the Baptist must have arisen soon after Henry I moved the Royal Court to the Castle site from Old Windsor to ‘New Windsor’. By the reign of Henry II (c1110), the church was clearly established as there are references to its existence and its previous incumbents. In 1168 it also looked after a leper colony, the Hospital of the Blessed Peter, beyond the Western reaches of the town, near to the present day King Edward VII hospital, in the area still known as Spital.
In 1543, three Windsor martyrs, Churchwarden Henry Filmer, Robert Testwood and Anthony Pearson were burnt at the stake nearby in Deanery Gardens.
Windsor Parish Church c1760 by Margaret Yardley, ARCA
A charity school was established in the church in 1705 and, in 1726, a school building was erected in the churchyard, perhaps according to the designs by Wren; it is now a Masonic Lodge. In 1784 came the ladies’ school. These schools became the Royal Free Foundation in 1859 when a building was constructed on Bachelor’s Acre (now a park and playground). Queen Anne Royal Free First School, St Edwards Royal Free Ecumenical Middle School and Princess Margaret Royal Free Upper School (closed in 2000) are the successors and present day Royal Free Foundation.
The ancient building had Saxon arches and Norman work and by the 18th century it was ‘a vast building with 10 side altars and several chantries’ and perhaps 8 gabled roofs. A central tower, surmounted by a wooden cage containing the bells, supported a small spire.
By all accounts, in 1818 the high cost of repairs to the old building (£1400) brought forward plans for a complete rebuild at a cost of £14,000. Charles Hollis was appointed architect and, between 1820-22, the new building was erected with cast iron columns that were floated down the Thames. The ribs that support the 84’ x 60’(25.5m x 18m) roof are also cast iron. The new church, gothic in style with a pinnacle tower containing the bells, was finally consecrated on 22nd June 1822 by the Bishop of Salisbury.
The walls of present building follow the plan of the mediaeval church; the old vaults of the previous church lie beneath. During building work to the West end of the church, the old floor covered in grave slabs was revealed; lead coffins were discovered deposited on shelves in the vaults beneath the ancient floor. During reconstruction of a boundary wall of one of the properties adjoining the churchyard, burials dating back to mediaeval times were found by a team from Berkshire Archaeological society.
In 1870 the Chancel and the Apse were added by the noted church architect Samuel S Teulon. HRH Princess Christian and 70 clergy attended the opening.
The chancel screen was added in1898 as a thank offering for the 60 year reign of Queen Victoria. In 1906 the Hunter Organ was installed. To allow for its installation, the North side gallery was reduced in length.
The removal of some of the back pews has created an area for displays and/or refreshments.A kitchen and toilets were added in 1995.
The Millennium Project in 2000 enabled the removal of the fixed choir and clergy stalls so that a raised platform could be added to accommodate the many concerts that are held during the year. This work, together with new movable choir and clergy stalls and altar rails, was partly funded by the Royal Albert Institute Trust. In addition, tiered staging was purchased for musical and community events.
To the right side of the stone steps leading up to the main West Door, a replica of the lion and floriated cross of Idonea de Audele, Abbess of Burnham (1316-34), mounted on the original stone grave marker, can be seen. She was buried in the original building near to the present pulpit. The Abbey at Burnham is still a living and worshiping community of the Sisters of the Precious Blood, an Anglican order re-established in the twentieth century. The design is also repeated in the glass doors that lead into the church. These doors are the Royal Borough’s war memorial to the fallen of the second world war.