Oxford Castle - History and Facts | History Hit

Oxford Castle

Oxford, England, United Kingdom

A partly-ruined medieval castle built for William the Conqueror in 1071, Oxford Castle transformed into a prison after the English Civil War. Visitors can immerse themselves in 1,000 years of mystery, intrigue, escapes, ghosts and brutal jailers as well as the origins of Oxford University.

Lily Johnson

18 Jun 2021
Image Credit: Shutterstock

About Oxford Castle

Built by the Normans in the 11th century for William the Conqueror, Oxford Castle has been in almost continuous operation for 1,000 years. After the English Civil War in the late 1650s it was, like many of England’s urban castles, converted into a prison with a fearsome reputation for brutality; a reputation that endured until it ceased operation in 1996.

Oxford Castle history

The initial 11th century earthwork mound was later added to with stone fortifications and a stone keep, and in 1074 St George’s Chapel was built. It was the first collegiate church inside an English castle – in Norman times the canons included scholars in their numbers – and the chapel is widely believed to be the seed from which the prestigious Oxford University grew. One such scholar was Welsh monk Geoffrey of Monmouth, who in 1136 wrote The History of the Kings of Britain, which featured one of the earliest narratives of King Arthur’s legend.

When the English Civil War broke out in 1642, the Royalists made Oxford their capital and in 1646 the castle was successfully besieged by Parliament. By 1652 however, following the execution of Charles I and the re-entry of his son Charles II into Britain, Oxford Castle was slighted to put it out of any possible use by the Royalists.

Following, Oxford Castle served primarily as a local prison. In the 17th and 18th centuries, prison wardens charged their inmates for their board and lodging, and Oxford was no different. For the majority of the 18th century, it was run by two local families but fell quickly into disrepair. The local justices ordered a rebuild in 1785 which included a Debtor’s Tower and it was finished by 1805. Further additions and renovations over the next century were required and in 1888 after the prison reforms it became HM Prison Oxford.

Oxford Castle today

Today, visitors on the guided tour – hosted by costumed guides – can explore the original castle, climb down into the 900 year-old crypt and hear stories of public hangings (the last of which was in 1863). The brutality of 18th and 19th century prison life comes to life as visitors explore the Debtor’s Tower and the origins of the phrase ‘to be sent down’.

Spoilers! When a prisoner was ‘sent down’ it meant he or she was sent into a tunnel leading from the County courtroom into Oxford Prison – there are only two of these tunnels in England.

Oxford Prison is also believed by some to be one of the most haunted places in England and (unverified) reports include ghostly figures wandering through the castle, poltergeist activity, eerie white mists and disembodied footsteps…

Getting to Oxford Castle

Oxford Castle is located in the centre of Oxford and is linked to London, the Midlands, and the M25 by the M40. The Oxford ring road also provides access to Southhampton, Portsmouth, and Bristol via the M34. Oxford train station is a 10-minute walk away, while a number of bus services stop at Westgate, directly outside.

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