Oxford Castle - Unlocked, Oxford
The castle, is as noted in it's marketing material, is "so much more than a castle..." - the site is home to 11th century castle fortification (motte and bailey) was the location of Oxfrod Prison until 1996 and now the home to a rather upmarket hotel.
The castle fortification was originally established by Robert d'Oilly (who died in 1091); it was built some five years after the Battle of Hastings (1066). This provided the Normans with an excellent location to strengthen their grip on the country.
Parts of Oxford Castle are now open to the public. The whole tour costs 6.95 GBP for adults and 5.95 GBP for concessions. This includes climbing the Mound of the 11th century motte and bailey castle with vaulted well chamber, but if this is the only place you want to visit, you pay just 1 GBP.
The tour starts with a series of cells with big blow-ups of ancient illustrations and documents and modern explanations about the kind of crimes that could bring you to this gaol and also prison conditions at different periods. This is enlivened by recordings of actors playing the parts of prisoners and warders presenting their point of view of the system. We can hear people like Marshall William Smith, the King's prison keeper, who in the 1600's made Oxford Prison notorious for its cruelty, Jack Ketch, the public executioner who became the prototype of the hangman in the Punch & Judy show and Anne Green, who survived her own hanging and narrowly escaped being dissected by a medical student in 1650.
You can visit the 18th century Debtors' Tower and Prison D-wing.
From the more recent history you can see examples of prisoners' clothing, and even have the hands-on experience of the various kinds of punishment activities.
The tour includes climbing the 101 steps of the Saxon St George's Tower dating back to around 1040, the oldest building in Oxford, from where you can admire a panorama of Oxford. But, if you don't feel energetic enough or are simply too lazy, you can just look at a screen at the bottom showing the view from the top. The oldest part of the tower is the Crypt, which, together with the tower, was originally part of St George's church, most of which was later pulled down when the prison was built. The Crypt and the other levels of the Castle Prison, except St George's Tower are accessible by lift.
Opening times: daily from 10 a.m. except Christmas Day (last tour at 4.30 p.m.)
If you visited Oxford before 1996, you couldn't have possibly visited Oxford Castle unless you were put in prison there, visited a prisoner or attended one of the court trials.
The history of the Castle spans over 1000 years. Built by Robert d'Oilly for William the Conqueror in 1071, it stood on a motte, i.e. the mound, which is now a Scheduled Ancient Monument. It soon had stone walls and towers added to it, of which only one, St George's Tower remains. A kings' residence, the castle was also used as a gaol and trials by the local assizes were held there.
In 1142 Princess Matilda, Henry I's daughter, aka the Empress Maud was besieged in the Castle by her cousin Stephen who had seized the throne on her father's death. She is believed to have escaped from it and fled across the frozen Thames camouflaged against the snow and ice by her white nightdress.
In later years the castle was less and less visited by kings but was mostly used as gaol, with the gallows for public executions within its yard. The castle suffered severe damage during the English Civil War but in the 1770's was restored and adapted so as to better serve the function of ... prison of course. It comprised the Debtor's Tower, the Governor's House and Office, A, B, C & D Wings, punishment cells and an Exercise Yard. In 1978 it reverted to the Crown and Her Majesty's Prison Oxford was established there, which continued to carry out its duties until 1996, when it was finally closed.
It was then that the castle's revival started. The historic buildings were restored and appropriate architectural additions were made. Some of them have been adapted for a hotel, with restaurants and popular eateries abounding and an art gallery. Tourists can now enjoy a guided tour of the old prison and hear the blood-curdling stories of its gruesome past. The castle has come to life again.
See my next tip for more pictures and details of the tour.
Oxford Castle was built for William the Conqueror soon after the Norman Conquest of 1066, in 1071.
A keep was built atop the mound & towers & walls added to strengthen the defences. Eventually the building held courts, then was also a Prison. It remained a prison until 1996.
The existing buildings are about to be converted, along with the mound to become a hotel/leisure centre complex - although this has been disrupted by recent archaeological finds - see the Castle Mound story accompanying this piece.
Today's Oxford Mail newspaper reported today on the Castle Mound/Oxford Prison site in Queen Street in the City Centre. A hotel, Restaurants & a Heritage centre due to be developed on the Mound site have been delayed due to the discovery of 400 year old skeletons of fever victims from the prison buried in the mound.
More than 300 prisoners were struck with the fever in 1577, resulting in the mound becoming an archaeological site. They suspect that a possible additional 150 skeletons may also be unearthed before the site can be properly developed.
The Osborne Group are the group responsible for purchasing & planning the development, & it is likely that the Oxford Archaeological group will be doing the fine excavation which will ultimately benefit the Heritage Centre.
There is little to see so far, though I am hoping to get a camera there and record a few views next week - Yes, I'm getting a new digital camera!
hmm very interesting place, lots of tourist but very nice city. If you want to visit Oxford you can also drop at the