Robert D’Oilly, the Conqueror’s Castellan (Governor of the Castle), was initially viewed as a “robber of the church and poore continuing soe to be till such time he received a vision from the Virgin Mary, which, converting him, his hard heart was mollified and he became a nourisher of the poor and a builder and repairer of churches”.
The castle was built on low-lying ground which was unusual for defence. However, it commanded the Thames, the ancient highway, and it still stands out as a landmark at points on the tow-path. In 1140 King Stephen’s constable, D’Oilly, declared his support for the Empress Matilda. The castle was subsequently beseiged by Stephen’s troops, who captured and burnt the city. After careful planning, Matilda managed to escape across the frozen Thames, dressed in white so that she could not be seen against the dazzle of the snow.
An outbreak of a particularly virulent and mystifying form of gaol fever, the Black Assize, swept the castle in the assizes in 1577, killing over 300 people, including the Chief Baron and the High Sheriff. As a result of this, subsequent courts were moved to the town hall.
The Chancellor of the University had the right to use the castle gaol to discipline rebellious clerks and scholars in the 13th century. However, in 1334 the gaol was so full that the constable asked that only serious offenders should be committed there.
During the 18th century the imprisonment of an infamous highwayman, Dumas, attracted much interest, particularly in the University. A French prisoner, John Peter le Maitre, known as Mara, was committed for his attempted theft of coins from the Ashmolean, and it is thought that he and the revolutionary, J P Marat, may have been one and the same. Celebrities who have been associated with the Prison in recent years have included Brad Pitt, John Thaw, Glenn Close and Gérard Depardieu. All have starred in productions in which the Prison has been used as a location.
Enclosed in the castle walls is an ancient castle mill. Prisoners’ duties included grinding the flour for the Radcliffe Infirmary bakery until the end of the 19th century.
The last public hanging to take place at the castle was in 1863, although executions continued to take place in the private ‘hanging cell’ until the 1950s.
The castle was still a ‘working’ prison until its closure in the 1990s, at which point it was mainly being used as a resettlement institution. For much of the 90s it was used as a set for many films and TV shows, including the classic Gamesmaster. In 1997, the County Council bought it for £9,000. The site was redeveloped and opened in early 2006. It incorporates a hotel (in which the rooms are refurbished prison cells), restaurants, a heritage centre, market stalls and shops. Oxford Castle is a tourist attraction, with characters from the castle's past such as the gaoler and unfortunate prisoners giving guided tours.