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  • Writer's pictureAlex Beeton, PhD

A Brief History of Oxford Castle & Prison

What is Oxford Castle & Prison?

Oxford Castle & Prison is a thousand-year-old castle and prison with a turbulent history.

Oxford castle tower

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Oxford Castle & Prison History

Oxford Castle is one of the oldest and most haunted parts of the city. Today, however, it offers a mix of history and conviviality. The castle and prison are open to tourists but in the old castle complex there are a number of restaurants, bars, even a hotel.

All this is a far cry from the intention of the original founder of the castle, Robert D’Oyly, a Norman baron charged by William the Conqueror with building a castle in Oxford. D’Oyly did so in the early 1070s, with the aim of intimidating the locals and helping to secure Norman rule in England following the Battle of Hastings. The castle would originally have been a large motte and bailey construction, with a keep on the castle mound (which is still visible), designed to keep the local populace in check while also reminding them who the new rulers of the city were.

D'Oyly’s castle made use of what was already there. Castle Mill Stream, the branch of the River Thames flowing nearby, allowed a moat to be created. St George’s Tower, which is still standing, is actually believed to predate the Norman Conquest and to have been a watch tower from late-Saxon times.

Oxford castle and prison stocks

As a fortification in a major English city, the castle played an important role in various medieval sieges and wars. A famous, if possibly apocryphal, story concerns the Empress Matilda, who fought a brutal civil war with her rival for the throne of England, Stephen of Blois. Matilda was besieged in Oxford Castle in 1142 and by December decided she needed to escape. According to legend, with the river frozen and the ground blanketed in snow, Matilda dressed in white camouflage and walked away undetected.

By the 1300s the castle was falling into disrepair. It became an administrative centre, serving as a jail and a criminal court. In this role, it was the site of the infamous ‘Black Assize’ of 1577. During a court session held at the castle that summer, 300 people including the chief baron and sheriff died due to illness. Although the wave of deaths was likely due to an outbreak of typhus, some have since blamed it on the curse of one prisoner, Roland Jenks, a ‘foul-mouthed and saucy’ bookbinder who was bitter about his incarceration.

From Tudor times, the castle functioned chiefly as a prison. This was especially true after the Civil Wars, when it was deliberately ruined by Parliament to prevent it from being used by the Royalists. Further damage was done early in the 18th century when the keep was demolished, and the top of the castle mound changed to its current form.

After the Civil Wars, Christ Church owned the castle and leased it to wardens who, as was customary at the time, profited by charging prisoners for board and lodging. The site was taken over by Oxford County Justices in 1785 and continued as a prison until the 1990s. Over the course of centuries, Oxford Castle has accrued a whole host of resident ghosts who may perhaps be encountered on one of the specialist tours conducted here.

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