Oxford Castle dates from 1071 and stamped the authority of England's new Norman rulers on the town. It changed the layout of this area but incorporated an earlier watch-tower (c.1020) which became the tower of St George's Church.
The castle was besieged in 1142 and again in 1216 but its military value later declined and by 1388 it was described as ruinous. There was a prison in the castle by the 12th century and this role dominated the site from the building of the county jail (1785-1805) until Oxford Prison finally closed in 1996.
Oxford Castle was built five years after the Norman Conquest by Robert d'Oilly, the sheriff of Oxford. It occupied the western edge of the town, overlaying Saxon earth ramparts and incorporating a watch-tower into St George's Church (founded in 1074). Existing houses had to be destroyed and the main road from Carfax to the west was diverted.
The Norman castle was of the motte and bailey type; the motte (or mound) is still clearly visible beyond the Living Room bar. A ten-sided stone keep replaced the early timber keep on the mound in the 13th century. The bailey, an open space inside the castle walls, extended north from here to Bulwarks Lane and east towards Queen Street. In King Stephen's reign, in 1142, his forces besieged the castle in a battle for the throne. His rival, Empress
Matilda, famously escaped by fleeing down the frozen Thames dressed in white. In 1216, Fawkes de Breauté held the castle for King John against a baronial army.
The castle was later allowed to decay but it was refortified during the Civil War in the 1640s before being destroyed as a stronghold in 1651.
Eight centuries in jail
Oxford Castle was used as a prison by the 12th century and this role long outlived the castle's military value. In 1642-6, when Oxford was the Royalist capital, Parliamentary prisoners were housed here in appalling conditions. The prison was in a small building beside St George's Tower until a new county jail was built on the site in 1785-1805. The former A Wing - clearly visible from here - was built in 1856 and a separate women's prison was built in 1849.
Oxford jail was a state prison from 1877, out-of-date and overcrowded for many years before it closed in 1996. The Oxford Castle site, hidden away for centuries, was restored and opened to public view in 2001-06. Prison buildings were then converted into the award-winning Malmaison Hotel, while Oxford Castle Unlocked reveals Oxford's less well known history, rich with tales of great escapes, betrayal and romance.
The toy castle
Old County Hall, beside the castle access road, was built as an assize court in 1841 in the style of a toy castle. The court room has an underground tunnel that links it directly with the prison. Prisoners found guilty were 'sent down' - so originating a phrase still in use.
Today the building is used for Council debates and meetings. The Hall replaced the Shire Hall in the castle where courts were held until 1577. At the so-called Black Assize in 1577, jail fever (typhus) developed while Rowland Jenks, 'a saucy foul-mouthed bookseller', was being tried and over 300 people died.
Prisoners used to march through these gates on their way to jail.
Punishment was harsh even for minor crimes. Under some laws you could be hanged for stealing anything worth more than five shillings.
Oxford medical students were allowed to dissect the bodies of executed criminals. There were sometimes fights over who owned the corpse.