Stories of Oxford Castle
Date: 21st February 2006
Speaker: Mark Davies
The talk was given by Mark Davies and took place at The Courtyard Centre, Launton Road, Bicester.
Oxford Castle has never been prominent with a limited history and having never featured in any significant battle, had any famous residents or important events. The Castle hasn’t played a national role but played an important social role as a prison in Oxford. Evidence relating to the Castle’s history can be found in the Court Rolls at the County Records Office.
The castle originated as a Saxon fort built to defend the city. The Normans built their castle on the same site. The St George’s Tower remains as a major feature of this structure. The tower contained a chapel and had a watermill attached (demolished in the 1930s). A Heritage Lottery Grant has been used to refurbish the St George’s Tower. Empress Matilda escaped from the Castle in 1142 during the war with King Stephen who was besieging the town. The gypsy Elisabeth Boswell managed to escape twice from the Tower in the 1770s whilst imprisoned there.
Oxford Castle was owned by the Crown but it was sold to speculators by James 1st in 1615. It was bought by Christchurch College and domestic dwellings were built close to the walls. It played no significant role during the English Civil War in the 1640s. Gallows were housed in the Castle grounds from 1511 to 1766. Nine of the eleven women executed were hung for infanticide.
Felons and debtors provided a different category of prisoner. Thomas Salmon was a notable Bicester debtor housed at the prison in 1725. Public executions took place at the Castle between 1587 and 1863. Local murders executed included George Strap and Noah Austin. Those executed were often used as anatomy subjects such as Giles Covington whose skeleton can be found in Oxford Museum.
Daniel Harris was responsible for the reconstruction of the prison after his appointment in 1788. He was an engineer, architect and builder. Oxford city had purchased the prison site from Christchurch College in 1787. The reconstruction was completed in the 1790s using prison labour. This was needed as the prison was overcrowded with the ending of transportation so there was a need for increased accommodation. Salaries were not paid to jailers at this time, they relied upon the prisoners to fund their wages. Harris used the prisoners to help build major projects such as the Oxford Canal and local turnpike roads.
Skeletons were found on the site during a recent archaeological dig associated with the current redevelopment of the site. The meeting closed at 8:35 pm.