Oxford Castle is a large, partly ruined Norman medieval castle on the western side of central Oxford, England, and was definitely one of the highlights of our Oxford adventure. We had a fabulous guide who told us tales of 1000 years of murder, romance, betrayal, escape and execution that happened right here in the walls of this castle. As this castle has a prison at its heart, it has been a place of incarceration since 1071 and actually continued until the closure of Her Majesty’s Prison Oxford in 1996.
Led by our character costumed guide the history of this castle and its turbulent past took form. The castle was originally built in 1071 for William the Conqueror, to enable the Normans to control the area. In the 14th century the military value of the castle diminished and the site became used primarily for county administration and as a prison.
We climbed the narrow winding stairs up the Saxon St George’s Tower, one of Oxford’s oldest buildings, to enjoy the beautiful 360 degree views of Oxford. It was a little windy out but looking out over the rooftops of this beautiful city made us forget the cold for a moment as the beauty took out breath away.
As we descended into the deep 900 year old underground crypt I thanked my stars that I was not born a century ago and a prisoner in this castle. Here our guide told us stories about Mary Blandy who was a convicted murderess and actually became an 18th century celebrity. One of the most interesting stories was about and Anne Green, who survived her own hanging and narrowly escaped being anatomized by an Oxford medical student in 1650.
The prison was mainly used to house prisoners from Oxfordshire and Berkshire, and also the University’s ‘rebellious scholars’ (as recorded in 1236). From 1613 until 1785, the prison and castle were owned by Christ Church, who leased the jail (gaol) to prison keepers.
One of the most interesting parts of the castle was the 18th century Debtors’ Tower which was also a Prison wing. People like Marshall William Smith, the King’s prison keeper, who in the 1600’s made Oxford Prison as feared and as notorious as Colditz.
In 1785 the Castle was redeveloped and they held public executions. Oxford Prison became famous for Jack Ketch, the public executioner and the man on whom the Punch & Judy hangman character was modeled. The last execution was in 1863.
This was a great way to learn more about the history of Oxford!