The castle consists of a medieval motte, a Saxon Tower, a Norman church crypt and extensive eighteenth century (and later) prison facilities. The Oxford Castle unlocked attraction allows access to all of these although some elements of the prison are now used in a commercial capacity with exterior access only. A second Saxon Tower, now part of St Michael’s church on Cornmarket Street.
Saxon Tower. St George’s Tower was part of the Saxon burh and later incorporated into the defences of the Norman fortification.It was in here that the Parliamentary prisoners were held in squalid conditions during the English Civil War.
Car Park (Nearest)
Worcester St, OX1 2BX
Cornmarket St, OX1 3EY
Notes: Castle is well sign-posted and the tall motte and tower are clearly visible as you approach. Ample (pay and display) parking in central Oxford with the nearest car park to the castle shown above.
Oxford Castle was constructed in 1071 re-using earlier Saxon defences. It saw action during the Anarchy where it was the scene of Queen Matilda’s dramatic escape from King Stephen in the midst of a snow storm. Later Oxford served as the Royal capital during the English Civil War and thereafter was used as a prison until 1996.
HISTORY OF OXFORD CASTLE
Oxford was originally established in the eighth century with the foundation of the monastery of St Frideswide. Located at a fording point on the River Thames it was also on a key trading route between the Kingdoms of Mercia and Wessex and soon developed into a thriving market town that had become known as ‘oxen-ford’. The settlement was converted into a fortified burh in the late tenth century as part of the efforts to defeat the Danish Vikings. Four gates provided access into the town each protected by a tall tower; both St George’s Tower (which guarded the west gate) and St Michael’s Church Tower (which guarded the North Gate) still survive. However the defences didn’t prove entirely successful as Oxford was attacked and burnt by the Danes in 1009.
Following the Norman invasion, Oxford was identified as a strategic location. Accordingly William I granted it to Robert d'Oilly, one of his key supporters. He built the castle round 1071 in the form of a large earth and timber motte-and-bailey fortification. The mound itself was partly built over the original Saxon burh wall but this enabled the stone St George's Tower, which that had originally been part of the Saxon defences, to be incorporated into the castle’s defences. The earth ramparts were further strengthened by addition of a layer of clay (to make them slippery) whilst water from the nearby river was diverted to provide a flooded moat. Robert also founded St George’s chapel inside the castle’s bailey; possibly built on top of an earlier Saxon church the crypt of this now demolished structure is still visible (and part of the Oxford Castle Unlocked attraction).
In 1142, during the Anarchy, the castle was besieged by King Stephen. He was the cousin of Queen Matilda, the daughter of Henry I and with whom he had been locked in a bitter civil war over the Royal succession. A surprise raid on Oxford meant Matilda found herself trapped by Stephen's forces at Oxford but she made a daring and successful bid for freedom when she crept from the castle in the middle of winter draped in a white clock to conceal her escape against the snow covered landscape. She fled to nearby Wallingford Castle and Oxford surrendered the following day. William de Chesney was appointed as its new Constable. The accession of Matilda's son, Henry II, saw the castle placed in the control of Roger de Lucy in 1153.
The late twelfth/earl thirteen century saw Oxford Castle extensively upgraded. The motte was heightened and the wooden tower/palisade that originally crowned it was replaced with a ten-sided stone shell Keep (probably similar in style to that seen at Arundel or Cardiff). A chamber for the castle's well was sunk into the enhanced motte. Later a barbican was constructed and the bailey curtain wall rebuilt in stone with additional towers. The upgrades proved timely for the first Barons War erupted in 1215 after King John annulled Magna Carta. Oxford Castle was held on behalf of the King by Fawkes de Breauteacute but baronial forces besieged him there in 1216. The advance of the Royal army saved the site from falling.
After the Barons War the castle assumed a more peaceful role as Oxfordshire’s gaol (although it wouldn’t be formally acknowledged in this function until 1531). Thereafter the military importance of the castle declined and it was allowed to drift into ruin with some of the defences, most notably the barbican, demolished. The castle as a whole was sold in 1611 but was hastily reactivated when the Civil War commenced in 1642.
The initial battle of the English Civil War was fought at Edgehill in October 1642. Although a Royalist victory, King Charles' subsequent attempt to re-claim London from the rebels failed and he made Oxford his wartime capital. The King took over Christ Church college whilst the castle was utilised as a prison for captured Parliamentary soldiers. Under the scrutiny of Marshall William Smith, the prisoners were held within St George’s Tower and the conditions they endured were dreadful. No sanitary facilities were provided effectively meaning dozens of prisoners were left crammed in a small cell wallowing in their own waste.
After the Battles of Marston Moor (1644) and Naseby (1645), the Royalist armies had been destroyed and Parliamentarian efforts shifted to dislodging Royalist garrisons. Oxford, the capital of the Royalists and a key target, was besieged in early 1646 by Sir Thomas Fairfax. It fell in June 1646 and although initially occupied by Parliamentary forces the defences were later slighted to prevent further military use. Aside from the various civil war defences constructed around the town, the medieval walls of the castle were also demolished. Only St George’s Tower was left standing due to its use as Oxford’s prison.
Although the partial demolition of the castle ended its defensive function, the ruined site continued to be used as a county prison for Oxfordshire and Berkshire. It was heavily criticised in the 1770s by the famous prison reformer John Howard and this partially prompted a major rebuilding programme between 1785-1805 with further upgrades in 1876. Aside from the prison other developments also encroached upon the original parameter of the castle; New Road was constructed in the late 1700s, a County Hall in 1840 and an armoury for the Oxfordshire Militia was added in 1854. The bulk of the castle remained occupied by HM Prison Oxford though until 1996 when the site was decommissioned. Today it is occupied by various commercial outlets and a hotel alongside the Prison/Castle museum.
1. The first recorded prisoners at Oxford Castle were detained in 1216; misbehaving students from the town’s University!
2. During the Civil War Oxford Castle was used as a prison for Parliamentary prisoners in squalid conditions. One Edmund Chillenden, a young officer in the Parliamentary army, was held at Oxford from December 1642. He managed to escape in May 1643 and published a pamphlet, ‘The inhumanity of the King’s Prison Keeper at Oxford’.