Among the list of the weirdest hotels on Tripadvisor’s top ten list, Malmaison ranks at fifth and it also manages to be one of the most sought after locations to stay at in England presently. Its most prominent rooms are former prison cells which were a part and parcel of Oxford Castle and is, of course, a tourist attraction and in quite good shape as ruin remains can be for England.
The next full county entry on this blog will be castles of Oxfordshire so this will give you a small taste of what is coming up. Oxford Castle which was built in 1071 by Norman Baron Robert d’Oilly (or d’Oyly depending on which account you read) sits smack dab in the middle of the Oxford metropolis today and is the only prison in the U.K. to be converted into a hotel. However, it’s not just a hotel. The redeveloped site includes apartments, bars, restaurants, events venues and a visitor centre which has its own web site Oxford Castle- Unlocked.
This is one of the few castle sites in which you can make yourself at home at an historically authentic castle- as a one stop deal. It’s all here and you can stay as long as you like. The features of the historic site include the square, imposing Saxon-built St. George’s Tower (which is stepped inwards at several places up to its height) with a crypt underneath that features Romanesque columns, the original motte and bailey remain (sorry, the wooden keep is gone, of course) which has a winding path to the top where you can see out over the entire town. During Henry II’s time polygonal and round keeps came into vogue so Oxford’s decagonal (12-sided ) shell was an original experiment with a relatively new form. A vaulted well chamber which dates from the 13th century is also there. (The surrounding walls once resembled that of Troy in shape and the angles.) An 18th century Debtors’ Tower and Prison D-wing are also featured in a tour of the castle and there is a lot of history to relate on the tours covering one thousand years of violence, executions, great escapes, betrayal and even romance.
One rather especially famous escape was that of Princess Matilda (a.k.a. Empress Maud) in 1142 when King Stephen besieged the castle. She was given support as the heir to the throne by Robert D’Oyly. After the siege lasted for several months she was lowered over the walls, completely dressed in white (as camouflage in the snow) and crossed over the castle mill stream (the Thames!) to freedom. Interestingly enough, she was Henry I’s only legitimate child !
The castle was officially recorded as a prison in 1230 although it is thought that it had been used as such, as far back as the castle’s beginnings. Then it was purchased by Christ Church College during the reign of King James circa 1611. By 1770 it was condemned by John Howard because conditions from gross neglect had made it uninhabitable even as a prison ! The Government reacquired the entire site and a major redevelopment was started with new buildings which in part were designed by a prison architect by the name of William Blackburn.
By 1800 it was reappointed as a County Hall with a remodeled County Jail and Court. It was at this point that the Debtors’ Tower came into existence, the Governor’s House and Office and the A, B, C and D wings along with punishment cells and an exercise yard. In 1878 this became Her Majesty’s Prison of Oxford and at times housed three men to a cell.
When it was closed as a prison in 1996 it became the property of the County Council and became a popular place for Hollywood filmmakers. Bad Girls was made there in 1999 and Spy Game in 2001 among many others as well. By 2004 the County Council, with the help of Trevor Osborne and the Oxford Preservation Trust, added the new tourist site after signing a 200 year lease and in May of 2006 the Queen officially reopened the site as the Oxford Castle Heritage project.
Exploration of Oxford itself will yield many delights, by the way. It abounds with magnificent museums such as the Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology on Beaumont Street and the Pitt Rivers Museum , an ethnographic museum and best known for the grand architecture and its period atmosphere. There are two other major museums and the not-to-be missed Botanic Gardens at the University which is the oldest botanic garden in Britain and this splendor dominates the heart of Oxford. Don’t forget to stop by The Eagle and Child pub- it was a favorite haunt of C.S. Lewis !
With forthright affection,
The Castle Lady !