Date of Publication: 12 June 2019
In the third blog post of our History of Oxford series, we take a brief look at the history of the notoriously fearsome Oxford Castle and Oxford Prison.
Known as Oxford’s ‘Oldest New Quarter’, the impressive history of Oxford Castle and its prison spans over ten centuries. During its existence, this class motte-and-bailey castle site 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. Oxford Castle and its Prison remains one of the most popular tourist attractions in the city, with fun activities and learning opportunities available for people of all ages.
But what is the history of this extraordinary site? How did Oxford Castle come to be? And why did it become home to Oxford’s Prison for such a significant amount of time? We take a brief look at some of the most important dates in the history of Oxford Castle.
A few facts about Oxford Castle
- When it was built, Oxford Castle was strategically constructed near a stream which was part of the River Thames, on the western edge of Oxford town’s defences.
- Like many of the iconic Oxford attractions, the castle has frequently featured in film and TV specials. 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 Normans’ invasion in 1066.
- Rumour has it that when it was operating as Oxford 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.
Oxford Castle: The Early Years
The origins of Oxford Castle date back to Medieval England times, when William the Conqueror (then reigning as the King of England) sought to imprint his power by building castles in some of the country’s most prosperous towns.
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, and name it Oxford Castle.
Having fought alongside him during the Norman Conquest, he nominated Robert D’Oilly to lead the construction of Oxford Castle. Over time, D’Oilly’s loyalty to William earned him the position as one of the foremost landowners in the whole of Oxfordshire, and was confirmed as hereditary royal contableship for Oxford Castle.
Strategically, D’Oilly chose to position Oxford Castle to the west side of the town, using a small stream of the River Thames as protection from potential enemies. Today, the site of this stream is called Castle Mill Stream, which you can still visit.
When it was first constructed, the initial build of Oxford Castle was simply 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 for Oxford Castle, including a stone keep which stood proudly on the top of the mound.
1074: Managed by a college of canons, D’Oilly also then founded a chapel at Oxford Castle, which he dedicated and aptly named after St George.
From very early Norman times, a group of canons had always included scholars. Therefore, it is not too much of an exaggeration to believe that St George’s Chapel which formed part of Oxford Castle was where the initial groundwork laid to establish the University of Oxford which we know of today.
Oxford Castle Under Siege
By the time of the Anarchy which broke out in the 1140s, Robert D’Oilly the younger (Robert D’Oilly’s nephew) had inherited Oxford Castle.
1142: Probably one of the most notorious moments in the history of Oxford Castle came during the height of the Civil War between King Stephen and his cousin, Queen Maud – who was a rival to the throne.
After initially supporting King Stephen and his efforts, Robert declared his support for Empress Matilda (Maud), allowing the Empress to base herself and her army at Oxford Castle.
In the Autumn of the year, King Stephen marched to Oxford from Bristol, with the aim of seizing the town of Oxford and besieging Maud in Oxford Castle. He set up two siege mounds beside the castle, where he waited for Maud’s supplies to run out over a three-month period.
Eventually, Maud’s army grew weak and ended being surrounded within the castle by December – with it seeming more and more likely that they would have to surrender imminently. However, with artful skill and precision, Maud was carefully lowered over the walls of Oxford Castle during one cold winter’s night to escape before chaos broke out. 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. Eventually, Maud safely reached Abingdon-on-Thames and surrendered Oxford Castle to King Stephen the next day.
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 Becoming Oxford Prison
After weak foundations and many years of conflict, Oxford Castle and its defences were left unusable for the military. And so, like many of the Medieval castles in England which had been left to ruin, Parliament ordered that Oxford Castle become Oxford Prison, where it operated for centuries.
1230: After the Civil War, Parliament intervened in the operations of many Medieval castles in the country, including Oxford Castle, where they decided that most of the castle’s defences were unusable for military purposes. As a result, like many smaller castles around England, Oxford Castle was converted to Oxford Prison, where it gained a fearsome reputation as a brutal gaol.
Today, Oxford Prison is still rumoured to be haunted by dangerous prisoners, including a notorious highwayman named Isaac Darkin, and Anne Greene, who was allegedly hanged in 1650 but somehow survived the ordeal.
1577: Up until the mid-16th Century, Oxford Prison held regular Assizes (civil and criminal courts) during its operation as a county jail. However, in the year of 1577, the plague broke out during one session in what became known as the ‘Black Assize.’ This, tragically, led to the death of the Lord Lieutenant of Oxfordshire, two knights, eighty gentleman and the entire grand jury for the session, which included Sir Robert D’Oilly – a relative of the founder of the castle.
After this date, Assizes ceased to be held at Oxford Castle.
1642 – 1652: After operating as Oxford Prison for many a century, Oxford Castle was temporarily used again for military purposes during the third English Civil War. During this time, Oxford Castle was refortified and garrisoned, but was eventually destroyed by Parliamentary troops who wanted to remove any Royalist loyalty symbols.
After this, the prison buildings were repaired and extended and the castle remained the site of the Gaol. Though, it’s questionable as to whether these buildings were ever repaired to a safe and habitable condition.
1770: Eventually, after a long and in-depth prison report by John Howard (the official prison reformer of the time), Oxford Castle and the Oxford Prison 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: By the beginning of the Victorian era, Oxford Prison, previously labelled inhabitable, was transformed into a modern institution by the County authorities, led by direction of London architect, William Blackburn. Building the new Oxford Prison included demolishing the old chapel attached to St George’s tower and repositioning part of the crypt.
1805: The work was completed under Oxford architect Daniel Harris in 1805. Once it was finished, Oxford Prison 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.
1840 – 1876: Over the course of the 19th Century, Oxford Prison was continually developed and new buildings added, including the new County Hall and the Oxfordshire Militia Armoury in 1854.
Eventually, the prison had been extended enough to house a significant number of prison inmates, including children. The youngest was a seven-year-old girl, who was sentenced for seven days after stealing a pram.
1888: After the 1888 national prison reforms, the Prison Commissioners took control over the Oxford Prison and established Her Majesty’s Prison (HM Prison Oxford).
1996: Eventually, Oxford Prison closed its doors for the last time and the site was reverted to Oxfordshire County Council.
Oxford Castle in the 21st Century
After closing its doors in 1996, Oxford Prison remained dormant until 2006 when it was transformed into a hotel and attraction.
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.
The Oxford Prison buildings and Oxford Castle Site have been preserved where possible, allowing for guided tours of its most historic buildings. Today, you can explore the site’s most famous areas, including the original earth mound which was formed back in the 11th Century.
Find Out More About Oxford Castle and Oxford Prison
Alternatively, if you want to find out more interesting facts about the city which we call home, why not check out our other History of Oxford blog posts.