Date of Publication: 12 June 2019
In the third blog post of our Oxford history series, we take a brief look at the history of the notoriously fearsome Oxford Castle.
Known as Oxford’s Oldest New Quarter, Oxford Castle’s impressive history spans over ten centuries. A classic motte and bailey castle, during its existence, it has served time as a royal castle, a centre for justice, and for several hundred years – a horrific Gaol – which was hidden away behind 5-metre-high stone walls.
Still surrounded by those same prison walls, the 1000-year-old building is now home to a multitude of great restaurants, bars, a boutique hotel, smart residential apartments, an education centre and lots of green space.
But what is the history of this extraordinary site? How did it come to be? We take a brief look at some of the most important dates in Oxford Castle’s history.
Firstly, a few facts…
- When it was built, the castle was strategically constructed near to the River Thames, on the western edge of Oxford town’s defences.
- Like many of the iconic Oxford attractions, the castle has featured heavily in film and TV. Some of its starring roles include; 102 Dalmatians (2000), Spy Game (2001), Bad Girls (1999) & Lucky Break (2001)
- It was one of the first motte and bailey castles built after the Norman’s invasion in 1066.
- Rumour has it that when it was operating as a prison, one of the punishments for prisoners was to make them climb the 101 stairs up to St George’s Tower over 5000 times a day!
- It was the very first collegiate church founded in an English castle.
The Early Years
1066: After scoring victory at the Battle of Hastings, William the Conqueror is reigned King of England.
1071: Before William the Conqueror took control of England, Oxford had already established itself as a prosperous Saxon burh (a walled town). As one of the richest towns, William decided to build a castle mound within the Saxon walls.
Having fought alongside him during the Norman Conquest, Robert d’Oilly lead the construction of the castle for William. The initial build was just an earth mound – which is still standing today at around 20 metres tall – and would have been surmounted by a wooden palisade.
1073: Within a few years of its creation, Robert d’Oilly built the first stone fortifications, including a stone keep which stood proudly on the top of the mound.
1074: Managed by a college of canons, D’Oilly also founded a chapel at Oxford Castle, which he dedicated and aptly named after St George.
From very early Norman times, the canons always included scholars, so it is not too much of an exaggeration to believe that St George’s Chapel was the starting point from which Oxford University grew.
Oxford Castle Under Siege
During this, Maud’s army had been surrounded within the castle, and it seemed as though they would have to surrender imminently. However, with artful skill and precision, Maud was carefully lowered over the castle walls during the night. Wearing a white nightdress and wrapped in a white cloak, she camouflaged herself against the snow as she crept through the king’s army camp to safety.
1216: The only other siege in the castle’s long history came not too far after in 1216 when King John’s rebellious barons held the castle against the king. King John was able to force the defenders to surrender, but his death later that year meant that the triumph was meaningless.
Oxford Castle As A Prison
1230: After the Civil War, Parliament decided that most of the castle’s defences were unusable for military purpose. As a result, like many smaller castles around England, Oxford Castle was converted for use as a prison, gaining a fearsome reputation as a brutal gaol.
1642 – 1651: During the English Civil War, the castle was refortified and garrisoned, but was eventually destroyed by Parliamentary troops who wanted to remove any Royalist loyalty symbols.
From here, the prison buildings were repaired and extended and the castle remained the site of the Gaol.
1770: After a long and in-depth prison report by John Howard, the castle buildings were condemned as unfit for human habitation. As a result, the site was taken by the Government and a major redevelopment programme took place.
1800: The site then became home to a new County Hall and remodelled County Gaol and Court. Within the walls were the Debtors’ Tower, the Governor’s House and Office, 4 Wings, Punishment Cells and an Exercise Yard.
1878: The Prison Commissioners took control over the site and established Her Majesty’s Prison.
1996: The prison closed for the last time.
May 2006: After acquiring a 200 year lease from the County Council and the Oxford Preservation Trust, Trevor Osborne gained permission to develop the Oxford Castle Heritage Project, which secured a sustainable future for the site.
Eager to find out more? If you’re in Oxford, why not serve some time and immerse yourself in an interactive history lesson with the Oxford Castle and Prison tour. More information can be found here.
Alternatively, why not check out our other ‘History of Oxford’ blogs here.