After William the Conquerors victory at the Battle of Hastings he set his sights on the already flourishing Saxon burgh or walled town as it was known in Oxford. It was in 1071 that William constructed a castle mound inside the Saxon walls. At the time the castle was under royal control only in name. The Norman monarch’s fancied neighbouring Beaumont Castle at the time. Oxford Castle was left in the custodianship of heritable constables tied to the D’Oilly family.
The prison at Oxford Castle
The original castle was just an earthwork mound or motte. The motte rose approximately 20 metres. In the next few years Constable Robert D’Oilly constructed the first stone ramparts. Included was a stone keep located atop the mound. The keep is no longer there. A well chamber was set beneath the top of the motte in the 13th century.
In 1074 D’Oilly established a chapel dedicated to St George and managed by a college of canons. The castle would become the first collegiate church created in an English castle.
Drama ensued at the castle in the form of a clandestine escape in 1142. The Civil War that was transpiring between Empress Matilda (or Empress Maud as she was also known) and King Stephen was at its pinnacle.
The army of The Empress became surrounded within the walls of the castle; therefore surrender seemed just a matter of time. Maud had other plans that did not include raising the white flag. Members of the army lowered the her over the castle walls during the middle of the night, bundled in a white cloth to act as camouflage in the snow. She somehow made it through King Stephen’s army camp, crossed the frozen Thames and made it to the town of Wallingford undetected.
A second siege occurred in 1216 as King John’s recalcitrant barons held the castle against the king. He coerced the defenders to concede. Unfortunately he died a few months later so his victory proved futile.
St George’s Tower andthe visitor entrance.
Post-Civil War the castles defences were no longer used for military purposes. The medieval stone fortress of St George’s Tower was the only part to remain. Like so many castles throughout the country, the years following the Civil War saw these structures become prisons. Oxford Castle remained a prison until 1996.
St George’s Tower, the Castle Mound and The Debtor’s Tower is all that remains for visitors to explore. The rest of the castle is now converted into the ‘Oxford Castle Quarter” which includes bars, restaurants, a hotel and an art gallery.
photo credits: Jack Tanner and Stefan Jürgensen via photopin cc
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