A Visit to Oxford Castle

I visited Oxford Castle as a paying visitor, and they had no idea I would go on to write a review. Thank you to the team there for looking after me on my visit!

All information is correct at the time of writing, please check details online before you visit.

Oxford Castle had been on my radar for a while. It's amazing, to be fair, that I hadn't been before. I live about half an hour away, I love history and and I used to work in Oxford. 

I stepped off the early morning train and walked through Oxford's rain-slicked streets, the warm amber light of coffee-houses spilling out onto the wet pavement. I sipped a coffee, through bleary, puffy eyes, at Pret a Manger in Cornmarket Street - a fifteenth-century timbered building it shares with a hat shop next door. I have a while before my ticketed time, so I Google all about the Castle on my phone. 

It was founded by a Norman, in 1071: Robert d'Oilly. This is when the distinctive mound was dug, by Oxford's city-dwellers, and the tower of St George was built. This is almost all that remains of the Medieval castle - it was converted to a prison in the 1600s and was in use until the mid-1900s. Brad Pitt has filmed here, and so has Glenn Close. It has a café and entrance is by guided tour only. The Empress Matilda escaped from here, on a snowy night in 1142, while it was besieged by King Stephen's forces during the Anarchy. I slurped the last of my coffee, snapped my phone case shut and headed back out into the wispy drizzle. 

Oxford Castle and Prison, Jo Romero

I arrived ten minutes before my tour time, and made sure to add a guidebook to my order. The ticketing process was easy - all ordered online, at home, in minutes. I was greeted with a cheery hello, was checked in and asked to wait for the tour to begin. 

Alex, our guide, arrived dressed in seventeenth-century uniform and ushered us into the bottom of St George's Tower, the oldest part of the castle. We learned about the castle's beginnings, how the castle was constructed for defence and how it served as a prison later on. 

Walking up the 101 steps to the top of the tower - you could wait at the bottom if you wanted to, if you had young children with you or for health reasons - we stopped off at Empress Matilda's room and saw the very window where, legend has it, she escaped out of during the siege of 1142. I was already pretty awestruck at this point, Matilda being one of my history heroines. 

Up the spiral staircase we trudged and as we reached the top, we spent a while enjoying the views over Oxford - it was a grey and drizzly day, but we could still see out along the skyline, taking in the spires and towers of the various churches and colleges that pierced the sky. 

One of the highlights of my visit was the Crypt - noticably cooler than ground floor level - with cobbles, beautiful pillars and vaulted ceilings, it was atmospherically lit with a soft glow of (electric) candles and fairy lights. Apparently it's haunted, too. 

As we continued to tour the prison part of the castle, we learned about some of the stories of Oxford's prisoners, The Black Assizes and some Tudor skeletons that were discovered here. There were some young children in our group and Alex did a great job of keeping them all engaged as well as us (ahem), older visitors. 

There were things I was apprehensive about before my visit. The 101 steps to the top of the tower was one of them - it's not actually that bad. It's up a steep, spiral staircase (if you're going up, you're at a deliberate disadvantage by the way than when you're on the way down - blame the genius of the Norman castle builders) and although the steps are uneven there's a handrail alongside which helps. If you feel up to it, it's definitely worth the climb. As I said, it's much easier coming down. 

Panoramic of the top of Oxford Castle, Jo Romero

I also thought the visit would be over with pretty quickly, and underestimated the amount of history that I'd be presented with. The tour actually lasted around 50 minutes. I never felt rushed or that I hadn't got everything out of any one room. I had no idea I'd see the crypt, which was amazing. And I learned so much. The displays were really thoughtfully put together and the tour included a lot of facts that you don't read in history books or on the internet (I'm not spoiling it for you here, you'll have to go and visit yourself). 

On the day I visited, the café was closed - I can't remember if it was because of Covid or the Christmas break - but if you're planning to eat just check the website before you go. If it is closed, there are plenty of places to grab a bite at one of the bars or restaurants in the Castle Quarter itself or the centre of town is about a 10-minute walk away (if that). 

Oxford Castle and Prison, Jo Romero

My ticket cost £14.45, which I thought was really great value for money. And get the guidebook, it's only just under £4 extra and it'll help you remember some of the facts from the tour when you get home. The visit really brought the people and stories of Oxford Castle to life and it'll be a day this history nerd looks back on happily for a long time. 

Thank you again to the team at Oxford Castle. You can follow them on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter and find more information - and book your tickets - on the Oxford Castle website

Have you visited the castle? Did you trundle up the 101 steps to the top of St George's Tower? Did you see a ghost in the Norman crypt? Let me know all about it in the comments below! 

If you liked this, you might also like: Oxford's Oldest Coffee Houses, Spending a Day - and Night - At Warwick Castle and 9 Afternoon Teas for History and Heritage Lovers

Oxford Castle was standing proud during the Wars of the Roses conflict in the mid-fifteenth century. I explore a number of women linked to the wars in my book Forgotten Women of the Wars of the Roses, published by Pen and Sword. They include Margaret de Vere and Elizabeth de Vere, both Countesses of Oxford.  Order your copy here. 

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