Oxford Castle & Prison
Few will be able to visit Oxford without taking note of the Oxford skyline. The ‘dreaming spires’ of the churches and colleges that make up the oldest university in the English speaking world are a must-see for any new visitor to the city. But not all notice the existence of St George’s Tower- just as imposing but often overlooked, St George’s Tower is altogether squatter, squarer and more rugged….and also the oldest non-religious tower left standing in England today.
Thought to be initially built as part of the 11th century defences of Oxenforda (the city’s original Saxon name), St George’s Tower is nothing if not sturdy- it’s 9 foot thick stone walls have stood strong for over 900 years- and after the Norman invasion of 1066, the tower found itself incorporated as part of a motte and bailey castle built by Robert D’Oilly, a Norman baron who was given Oxford by William the Conqueror to rule.
Although the original ten sided castle keep has long since been demolished, visitors to the site can still climb the original 900 year old castle motte- built using forced Saxon labour over a period of 8 months in 1071. Three years later in 1074, D’Oilly also began constructing St George’s Chapel at the foot of St George’s Tower. A centre of learning as well as a centre of religion, St George’s Chapel has the distinction of being the very first collegiate chapel in all of Oxford- and was established roughly 100 years before the University of Oxford was first established.
But Oxford Castle was not only a place in which to educate and enlighten scholars- from 1216, it was used as a place to lock them up as well. The first recorded use of the castle as a place of incarceration- for rebellious students of the university- was in 1216 and by 1531, it was being used as a county gaol and continued to be used as such until 1996, over 700 years later.
Many of the old prison buildings still remain- while some have been utilised as modern bars and restaurants (and in the case of the old A Wing, as a boutique hotel in which guests can pay to sleep in a real prison cell), others remain for visitors to explore as part of Oxford Castle and Prisons guided tour. Those looking for something a little different have the option of booking private evening tours and, for the brave, special themed ‘ghost tours’ are also offered.
Year round, those willing to try their hand at escaping a real prison are free to book the site’s ‘escape room’ package, while anyone fancying themselves as an amateur detective will find themselves enthralled by the castle’s Murder Mystery evening package in which guests can interact with characters drawn from the prisons own history. Families with children will find a fresh activity on offer every holiday- from Trick or Treating in October, to Archaeology sessions in the Spring, to Knight School (offering sword play, archery and jousting) in the summer.
With something for everyone, Oxford Castle and Prison looks forward to another year of welcoming new guests of all ages to explore and celebrate its rich and varied history: from castle, to church, from school to prison, who knows what.