The History of Oxford Castle
The juxtaposition of busy Oxford centre and the looming ancient castle is immediately obvious, especially on a bustling Saturday night.
Oxford Castle is a partly ruined Norman castle built in 1071 by Baron Robert D'Oyly. There is debate as to whether there was an earlier fortification on the site due to evidence of earlier Anglo-Saxon habitation. The Domesday Book does not show any record of demolition, which suggests that the land was clear when the castle was built. However, houses may have been destroyed during the Norman seizure of the town. During the 12th and 13th century, parts of the castle were replaced and extended in stone, the first of such work being St George's Tower.
Empress Matilda returned to England in 1125 after the death of her husband, European King Henry V. She stayed at Oxford Castle until it was besieged by her cousin King Stephen. Being Stephen's rival to the throne, she had no choice but to escape. Legend has it, she was lowered from St George's Tower by ropes and escaped along the frozen river, dressed in white robes to disguise herself against the snow.
By the 14th century, the castle was falling into disrepair and had little military use. This is when it became the jail and criminal court for Oxford. assizes were held here until plague broke out in 1577. The plague is known as the Black Assize of 1577, others call it 'The Oxford Castle Curse'. Sir Robert Bell, amongst others presided at the trial of Rowland Jenke, 'an impudent talker… for speaking injurious words against the Queen'. It is said Jenke had both his ears removed as punishment and cursed the Court, the Jury and the City in return. Bell and at least three hundred others lost their lives during the plague.
After the English Civil War of 1642, Oxford Castle's primary role was as the town prison. The prison was infested with vermin, and prisoners were charged by the guards for their board and lodging. The prison also had gallows on site to execute prisoners. Mary Bland is one of the most well known prisoners to be held and subsequently lose her life at the castle. She was hanged on 6th April 1752 for poisoning her father with arsenic. In her defence, she claimed she thought she had bought a love potion to encourage her father to approve of her relationship with William Henry Cranstoun. She was found guilty but speculation around her innocence continued on into the 1800's. Many more executions have taken place over the years, some self inflicted, such as Thomas Hadden who hanged himself in his cell on 16th July 1782 after being found guilty of robbing mail.
The last hanging at the prison was in 1952 and the castle ceased acting as a prison in 1996.