Oxford Castle | History, Architecture & How To Visit

Oxford Castle, located in the historic city of Oxford, England, is a great example of the rich history of the medieval era. Standing for nearly a millennium, the castle’s foundations reach back to the 11th century during the Norman conquest of England.

Through the passage of time, it has held various roles, morphing from a military fortress to a royal palace, prison, and educational site. Visitors are invited to explore the fascinating stories it comprises and delve into the remnants of its past.

The castle’s notable architecture, including the St. George’s Tower and the crypt of St. George’s Chapel, demonstrates the importance of its strategic location within the River Thames valley.

These well-preserved structures give insights into the medieval construction and design techniques utilized throughout the centuries. Key figures, such as the legendary Empress Matilda and infamous Oxford Gaol prisoners, have contributed to the intriguing tales that still echo within the castle walls.

An atmospheric addition to Oxford’s diverse collection of landmarks, the Oxford Castle continues to enchant visitors with its unique blend of historical significance and stories from the past.

Oxford Castle

The History Of Oxford Castle

Origins and Medieval Period

The Oxford Castle dates back to the 11th century when it was founded by Robert D’Oyly, a Norman baron following the conquest of England by William the Conqueror. To establish dominance, a motte-and-bailey castle was constructed on the current site.

Throughout the 12th and 13th centuries, the castle underwent several renovations and expansions. Of particular note is the St. George’s Tower, believed to have been built around 1074. The tower served as the castle’s main entrance and a prominent look-out point.

The castle’s chapel, St. George’s Chapel, played a significant role during this period, most notably when King Henry II held his first parlement there.

Oxford Castle also served as a prison, with the earliest recorded use dating from the 13th century.

Civil War and Prison Era

In the 17th century, the Oxford Castle played a crucial role in the English Civil War. The castle served as a Royalist stronghold and held out against Parliamentary forces until its surrender in 1646.

After the Civil War, the castle continued to serve as a prison, progressively growing in importance. An example of its expanded use was the addition of a Debtors’ Tower in 1785.

Major transformations in the prison complex took place during the 19th century under the guidance of the prison reformer John Howard and influential architect William Blackburn. Key highlights include:

  • 1848: Construction of a new entrance building
  • 1860: Addition of wings and improvements to infrastructure

Modern Developments

Following the closure of the prison in 1996, the site underwent significant redevelopment in the early 21st century. The transformation included the preservation of important historical elements, such as St. George’s Tower and collaborative efforts to create a popular tourist destination.

Key developments during this period are:

  1. Establishment of the Oxford Castle Unlocked heritage site
  2. Conversion of the old prison into a chic hotel called the Malmaison Oxford Hotel
  3. Creation of eateries and leisure spaces around the Castle Quarter area

Visitors to the Oxford Castle today can experience a blend of rich history and modern developments, offering a unique perspective on the significant role it has played throughout the centuries.


Norman Mound

The Norman Mound is the oldest and most prominent feature of Oxford Castle. It is a large, artificial mound that dates back to the 11th century. The mound was constructed using motte-and-bailey architectural style, which was popular among the Normans. A wooden keep once stood atop the mound, providing a strong vantage point for its defenders.

St. George’s Tower

St. George’s Tower is another important structure within the castle grounds. The 12th-century tower is built with Ashlar stone, which gives it a distinctive appearance. It stands four stories tall and consists of the following features:

  • Ground floor: Storage room with a well, providing a secure place for essential supplies.
  • First floor: Chapel dedicated to St. George, featuring beautiful decorations and a carved stone basin.
  • Second and third floors: Living quarters for the castle’s residents.

The top of St. George’s Tower offers stunning panoramic views of Oxford, making it a popular attraction for visitors.

Prison Buildings

The Prison Buildings at Oxford Castle reflect the site’s long history as a place of incarceration. Development of the prison complex began in the 18th century, with various expansions and alterations taking place until its closure in 1996. Some notable architectural features of the prison buildings include:

  1. Debtors’ Tower (built in 1785): A three-story tower designed to house debtors separately from other prisoners.
  2. Governor’s House (built in 1805): A grand Georgian building that served as the residence for the prison governor.
  3. Cell Blocks (built in 1848): Utilitarian structures designed for the confinement of prisoners.

The prison buildings showcase a fascinating blend of architectural styles, reflecting the changing attitudes towards crime and punishment over the centuries.

Cultural Impact

Literary References

Oxford Castle has been the inspiration for several literary works. The Ballad of Reading Gaol by Oscar Wilde is one such example. Wilde was imprisoned in the nearby Reading Gaol, allowing him a closer view of the historic site, influencing his writing. Another famous author, J.R.R. Tolkien, also drew inspiration from the Oxford area. The imposing structure of the castle is believed to have influenced his depiction of Minas Tirith in The Lord of the Rings.

Film and Television

Oxford Castle has also captured the attention of the film and television industry, serving as a picturesque backdrop for various productions. Some noteworthy examples include:

  • Inspector Morse (1987-2000): A British detective drama series, often featuring the castle grounds as a location in multiple episodes.
  • Midsomer Murders (1997-present): A long-running British television series, in which the castle has appeared as a location, adding to the show’s atmospheric setting.
  • The Riot Club (2014): A British drama film set in an Oxford-based elite student society, featuring several scenes within the castle walls.

Through these literary references and appearances in film and television, Oxford Castle has made a lasting cultural impact, leaving its mark on popular culture and solidifying its status as a historic landmark.

Public Access and Facilities

Guided Tours

Visitors to Oxford Castle have the opportunity to explore the historic site through guided tours. Knowledgeable guides provide insights into the castle’s history, architecture, and notable residents. Tours typically last about 1 hour and follow a set route, which includes:

  • St. George’s Tower
  • The 900-year-old crypt
  • The ancient well
  • The debtor’s tower
Age GroupTicket Price

Discounts are available for group bookings and family tickets. It is recommended to book tickets in advance, as tours can fill up quickly. The castle is accessible for wheelchair users, but some areas are restricted.

Events and Activities

In addition to guided tours, Oxford Castle offers a variety of unique events and activities for visitors. These include:

  • Themed workshops for children
  • Outdoor theatre performances
  • Medieval reenactments
  • Holiday events and seasonal celebrations

The castle also boasts several facilities for the public, such as the on-site cafe, gift shop, and exhibition space. For event schedules and more information, it is advised to visit the Oxford Castle website or contact their visitor services team.

Conservation Efforts

Oxford Castle, now referred to as Oxford Castle & Prison, has undergone significant conservation efforts in the recent years to preserve its historic architecture and surroundings. One of the primary organizations focused on this cause is the Oxford Preservation Trust, which has been dedicated to maintaining the castle’s rich heritage.

The Trust has implemented several measures to protect and conserve the sprawling complex. Some of the key initiatives undertaken by the organization include:

  • Restoration Projects: Regular maintenance and renovation of the castle’s structures, such as the St. George’s Tower, the D-Wing, and the well chamber.
  • Guided Tours: Designing and offering guided tours to educate visitors about the historical significance of the castle, promoting awareness on the need for conservation.
  • Access Improvements: Ensuring better visitor access and mobility throughout the site, while minimizing any potential damage to the existing infrastructure.
  • Collaboration with Local Authorities: Working closely with local authorities and experts to develop sustainable and effective conservation plans for the castle.

Oxford Castle & Prison is also home to various events like historical re-enactments and educational activities, further supporting its conservation and preservation objectives. These community-focused events have been instrumental in generating an increased appreciation for the castle’s historical value and fostering a sense of collective responsibility towards its conservation and sustainability.

Conservation efforts at Oxford Castle are an essential aspect of protecting its unique and significant role in England’s history. Through active engagement with organizations like the Oxford Preservation Trust and by fostering community involvement, the hope is to ensure the castle continues to stand as a shining example of British heritage for generations to come.

Notable Figures

Robert D’Oyly: One of the key figures in the history of Oxford Castle, Robert D’Oyly, was a Norman baron. Following the Norman Conquest of 1066, he arrived in England alongside William the Conqueror. Robert was responsible for the construction of the original wooden castle in 1071, which was later rebuilt in stone during the 12th century.

Notable Actions: Robert D’Oyly maintained loyalty to King William during the Rebellion of 1088. As a prominent member of the royal court, he served as a mediator between the crown and the clergy. Furthermore, he initiated the establishment of Osney Abbey and the Church of St. Mary Magdalen.

Empress Matilda: The granddaughter of William the Conqueror, Empress Matilda, also known as Maud, played a significant role in the Anarchy conflict which took place between 1135 and 1153. During her stay at the castle in 1141, the stronghold became a crucial base in her fight against King Stephen, her cousin, for the English crown.

Notable Actions: Empress Matilda’s escape from the castle during the siege of 1142 is an important event in her story. Despite the suppression of her forces by King Stephen, Matilda managed to slip past his guards and cross the frozen River Thames, ensuring her fight for the crown continued.

Hugh de Burgh: Born around 1185, Hugh de Burgh was King John’s right-hand man and remained loyal to the crown during the First Barons’ War. In 1216, he was appointed as the governor of Oxford Castle.

Notable Actions: As a competent leader, de Burgh played a crucial role in defending the castle from French forces during the attack of 1217. Thanks to his effective strategies and leadership, the castle withstood the persistent assaults and ultimately repelled the invaders.

This brief overview of notable figures in Oxford Castle’s history showcases how the fortress played a pivotal role in the power struggles of medieval England. The influence of these key individuals, though separated by different eras, is still felt today in the surviving structures and tales surrounding the castle.

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