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Oxford Must Visits: Oxford Castle
16th March 2016
A part of any of the Campus Oxford programs we offer is not in any way related to classroom learning and swotting over books. In order to offer a well-rounded experience to all, we encourage students to get out and explore not only the area around them but other environments outside the learning centres.
For students who choose an Oxford University based program – a Gap Year, the Summer Program or our Social Entrepreneurship Program – the city has plenty to offer, in terms of cultural immersion and entertainment and certainly the chance to immerse themselves in living history.
Castles play an important part in the UK’s history and heritage in general ans it is favorite pastime of both residents and tourists to explore them and soak in all of the history, drama and heritage they contain. Perhaps it is because it is overshadowed somewhat by the fact that it shares a city with one of the most hallowed universities in the world, or perhaps because it has served primarily served a rather mundane function, many people do not release until they get here that Oxford has a castle of its own, and one that is well worth a visit at that.
A Brief History of Oxford Castle
A Grand Castle for a War Hero
After the Normans successfully conquered England in 1066 William the Conqueror was rather generous in dividing his new lands among his favored nobles. He granted large parts of what is now Oxfordshire to one Baron Robert D’Oyly, a noted war hero, who immediately set about building himself a fortified castle to keep the unpredictable locals at bay. He positioned his castle to the west side of the town of Oxford , using the natural protection of a stream of the River Thames on the far side of the castle, now called Castle Mill Stream, and diverting the stream to produce a moat.
From Castle to Jail
By all historical accounts it was a grand and impressive fortification and as it passed through the family it only got grander. Until around 1350 that was, when a lazy grand nephew allowed the castle to fall into disrepair. The funds needed to repair it were excessive and out of the reach of the family. Some 75 years earlier King Henry III had decreed that part of the castle be turned into a prison, specifically for holding troublesome University clerks and students and so now that function was extended and it also became the administration of the county of Oxford, a jail, and a criminal court.
Eventually, in a strange twist of fate, the castle became the property of the academics, being sold by James I to the the very wealthy Christ Church College. The college did little to change anything. They leased out the property to a series of wardens and it was used as an active prison all the way up until 1996. Now, with some of its remaining sections having been restored it serves as an interactive tourist attraction that makes for a wonderful day out, an opportunity all of our Campus Oxford students have, if they choose.
Oxford Castle Lore
Just because so much of its existence saw it serve as a place of imprisonment rather than a base for nobility or royalty does not mean that Oxford Castle does not have a lively and fascinating history:
The Siege of the Empress Matilda
One of the events most tied to Oxford lore was the forced imprisonment of the Empress Matilda within the castle walls.
The events occurred during the reign of the much disliked King Stephen. The castles then owner, Robert D’Oyly The Younger, was a supporter of the woman who intended to try and seize the throne, the Empress Matilda. To aid her in her campaign she was offered the use of Oxford Castle and made it her base of operations.
Stephen responded by marching unexpectedly from Bristol in December, attacking and seizing the town of Oxford and besieging Matilda in the castle. He built two siege mounds beside the castle, called Jew’s Mount and Mount Pelham, on which he placed siege engines, largely for show, and proceeded to wait for Matilda’s supplies to run low over the next three months. The fact that he did so shows just how strong Oxford Castle’s fortifications were, as the King felt he had no chance of breeching them.
And yet she escaped, legend has it, by way of scaling down the walls and sailing away in a boat that was waiting for her on the near frozen Thames.
The Black Assizes
After Oxford Castle became a full time prison and it added assizes, courts which exercised both civil and criminal jurisdiction. Known as Shire Hall it became a very busy place, with hearings held far more often than in other towns, something that the townspeople often blamed on the ‘ill-behavior’ of the university students.
Normally this was a great thing for the county as they collected a great many fines, but when the plague hit Oxford in 1577 a tragedy occurred. A lengthy trial was in session and, before people knew what was happening to them , the Lord Lieutenant of Oxfordshire, two knights, eighty gentlemen and the entire grand jury for the session all died within a few days of one another, many of them while in the courtroom. The incident was dubbed The Black Assizes and after the bodies were removed the courts were sealed and never actively used again.
The Tragedy of Mary Blandy
While in use as a jail Oxford Castle did boast a busy gallows, but the most famous person to meet their end on it was not a burly student or a dastardly townsperson but an educated young woman of just 33 years old.
Mary Blandy was the daughter of a prominent family, with her father Francis being an Oxford academic. By all accounts she lived a quiet, pious life and was well respected and well liked. Until, that is, she met a dashing Scottish soldier Captain William Henry Cranstoun, with whom she fell head over heels in love.
Mary told her family the pair would be marrying soon, but her father discovered that that was unlikely to happen, because the good captain already had a wife and child in Scotland. When faced with the information Craunston swore he was in the process of having the marriage annulled but Francis simply did not believe him and made that quite clear.
What really happened next was never clear. In court Mary claimed that Craunston wrote her a letter and enclosed a ‘love potion’ that, if she placed it in her father’s food, would calm his emotions and he would agree to the continuation of their relationship. Unfortunately, the potion was arsenic and Mary’s father was dead by the end of the night.
The Blandy trial was, in a way, the OJ Simpson trial of its day. The nation’s press descended on Oxford and covered every minute of the trial, reporting every day on the evidence and writing editorial after editorial about whether or not Mary was what she appeared to be in court, a demure, slightly confused woman who had been taken in by a conman or if she was in fact a cold blooded murderess putting on a great act. Whatever the nation believed the jury believed the latter, and on Easter Monday, 6 April 1752, she was hanged outside Oxford Castle prison for the crime of parricide, in front of a huge crowd.