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Oxford Castle & Prison

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With 1,000 years of history Oxford Castle & Prison has seen many faces come and go, but some remain long after their first departure!

Oxford Castle & Prison

  • One of the most historic and haunted buildings in the British Isles. Stories of witchcraft, murder, suicide, and death stain this foreboding location and its almost 1000 year past!

    Built in 1071 by Norman baron Robert D'Oyly, Oxford Castle was in existence as a prison up until as recently as 1996. The last public hanging at the prison was in 1863 and the last hanging within the prison walls was in 1952. 

    Legend talks of the 'Oxford Castle Curse', described as the Black Assize of 1577, when a curse was placed on the court, the Jury and the city by Rowland Jenke after his ears were cut off. Hundreds of people died mysteriously within the space of a few weeks and sinister human remains were recently discovered within the well chamber, which has been dated back to the late 16th Century. Although there are no absolute conclusions, it is thought that they could belong to the victims of Rolwland Jenke's curse.

    By the mid-12th Century, Oxford Castle had been significantly extended in stone. Inside the walls the tower included a crypt chapel, which may be the site of a previous church. The crypt chapel originally had a nave, chancel and an apsidal sanctuary. It is a typical early Norman design with solid pillars and arches.

    After the Civil War, Oxford Castle served primarily as the local prison. As with other prisons at the time, the owners, in this case Christ Church College, leased the castle to wardens who would profit by charging prisoners for their board and lodging. The prison also had a gallows to execute prisoners, such as Mary Blandy in 1752.

    For most of the 18th Century, the castle prison was run by the local Etty and Wisdom families and was in increasing disrepair. In the 1770s the prison reformer John Howard visited the castle several times and criticised its size and quality, including the extent to which vermin infested the prison. Partly as a result of this criticism, it was decided by the County authorities to rebuild the Oxford Prison.

    In 1785 the castle was bought by the Oxford County Justices and rebuilding began under the London architect William Blackburn. The wider castle site had already begun to change by the late 18th Century, with New Road being built through the bailey and the last parts of the castle moat being filled in to allow the building of the new Oxford Canal terminus. Building the new prison included demolishing the old college attached to St George's Chapel and repositioning part of the crypt in 1794.

    The work was completed under Daniel Harris in 1805. Harris gained a reasonable salary as the new governor and used convict labour from the prison to conduct early archaeological excavations at the castle with the help of the antiquarian Edward King.

    In the 19th century the site continued to be developed, with various new buildings built including the new County Hall in 1840 the Oxfordshire Militia Armoury in 1854. The prison itself was extended in 1876, growing to occupy most of the remaining space. In 1888 national prison reforms led to the renaming of the county prison as HM Prison Oxford.

    Since 1954, the oldest parts of the castle have been Grade I listed buildings and Oxford Castle, as it stands today, includes the remains of the Saxon St Georges Tower, Motte and Bailey mound, the D Wing of the prison and the Debtors Tower.

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