|Oxford Castle, 2006. Bottom, from left to right: St George’s Tower; D-Wing; Debtors’ Tower; A-Wing with hotel. Centre, from left to right: Castle Mound; restaurants; County Hall. The photo shows how the regeneration project has opened up the 1.2 hectare site to New Street, facing Nuffield College on the opposite side (Photo: Barnard’s Badger, Flight 9.9.06b 011, Wikimedia).|
Oxford on a cold winter night in 1142, just before Christmas: the Empress Matilda has barricaded herself into the castle. She is surrounded by her enemies who have built two siege mounds to launch the final attack. Time is up: a last chance for Matilda to reflect on her extraordinary life. She had been married to the Holy Roman Emperor Henry V and crowned at St Peter’s in Rome. Years after the emperor’s premature death, her father Henry I of England nominated her as his heir, but her cousin Stephen challenged her succession and pursued her until she found herself trapped in Oxford. Here she is with an army of trustworthy knights who are holding the fortress.
But now she tries the most daring escape. In the middle of the night she is lowered down the castle walls by her loyal companions, crosses the frozen Isis and escapes through enemy lines, allegedly wearing a white cloak as camouflage in the snow. Escape she did, even if some details may have been embellished by storytellers. However, the Empress Matilda was very much a person of flesh and blood and remained a player on the national and international stage, including efforts to mediate between her son Henry II and Thomas Becket before his murder. But it is the picture of the lady in white against the backdrop of Oxford Castle that immortalised her.
Medieval architecture has a place at every European nation’s heart, royal castles in particular. Here the kings of old would entertain and hold tournaments. Banners would proudly fly in the wind and the whisper of courtiers and noble ladies be heard across immaculate lawns. Oxford Castle has never been such a place. Throughout its history, from the Norman Conquest to our own age, it has been a stronghold, a prison, the Alcatraz of its time. Matilda’s escape would remain the exception. Unlike Windsor Castle down the Thames, it did not enjoy a reputation for glamorous interiors. It was dungeon and tread mill rather than ancestral gallery and banqueting hall. Royal by name rather than by occupation, the kings were happy to pass it on to hereditary constables. Oxford Castle developed into a grim place, as fort, administrative centre for Oxfordshire and county gaol, with increasing emphasis on the latter. For inmates, the castle walls would be inescapable and often the last they saw on earth. Although rubbing its shoulders with the heart of Oxford, it remained a world apart, impenetrable, until it formally ceased operation as a prison in 1996.
In 2001 I accompanied Richard Griffiths on an inspection of Oxford Castle. Griffiths had been appointed heritage consultant for the conversion of the castle from prison to hotel with restaurants, bars, shops and flats, working in conjunction with Alan Baxter, ADP, Dixon Jones and others to regenerate this quarter of Oxford. When we passed the gates it felt like cutting through the briars separating the outside world from Sleeping Beauty, as the castle and prison had been cut off from civilian life for over 900 years. We made our way to the remains of the crypt near the bottom of St George’s Tower, once attached to the dismantled collegiate church of 1074. Geoffrey of Monmouth appears as magister among the canons here between 1129 and 1151, well in time to witness the Empress Matilda’s adventure. It would have been around 1136 in this very place that he wrote the Historia Regum Britanniae, which includes the first known reference to the legend of King Arthur. We gazed respectfully on the Romanesque capitals that were almost certainly familiar to Geoffrey when he gave us Arthur and Merlin.
How to pay reference to a location of such importance? St George’s Tower is just as significant as the repositioned crypt, architecturally and historically. It is likely that its surviving foundations belonged to the defences of the Saxon town Oxonforde long before they were integrated into the Norman castle in 1071–73. Every piece of coral rag is a primary source, witness of the dark ages. It was clear to us that in the context of such rare fabric only the least intrusive structure should be inserted, to allow future visitors access to a platform on top of the tower with views down on Oxford.
We climbed the Castle Mound and continued our chronological journey along the surviving walls of the prison complex. As medieval fortification gave way to the prison building in the age of enlightenment, we stopped at D-Wing and its apsidal east end, Debtors’ Tower. Built around 1785 by William Blackburn, leading prison architect of the Georgian era, its regular fenestration reflects innovative thinking along the lines of ventilation and equality – something Parliamentarians imprisoned during the English civil war were brutally denied when the governor forced them to succumb in their own waste. The castle’s exterior appears forbidding, but it is testimony to changing attitudes in the rationalisation of punishment. Coincidentally, Oxford was also the birthplace of methodism, and the Wesley brothers themselves visited the prison as early as 1730. Encouraged by a member of the Holy Club, they returned weekly to pay visits to debtors and felons incarcerated behind the castle walls. Their cells have long gone, as by far the largest portion of the prison dates back to the Victorian era, partially based on the design of Pentonville Prison in the London borough of Islington.
Since the oldest parts of the castle, scheduled monument and Grade I-listed, were unsuitable for a hotel conversion, the Victorian A-Wing was earmarked for hotel use. Here the architectural team faced the task of integrating a modern hotel behind prison walls with small and high-level windows. The solution: rather than lowering the massive stringcourse, an additional narrow window opening should be pierced below every third cell window, providing outside views to every hotel room. The resulting fenestration would reflect the conversion of three cells into one guest room without compromising the stern character of the prison elevation. 
The regeneration, in partnership, by the Osborne Group, Oxfordshire County Council and the Oxford Preservation Trust has strengthened the cohesion of the town centre with a large mixed-use development. It has also given a boost to the local tourism industry. Day visitors can book the Oxford Castle and Prison experience, while resident guests may stay overnight in the former prison cells of the hotel conversion. The location with its unsettling past proves to be popular with tourists, and it has always attracted the interest of film and television crews. The new hotel belongs to the Malmaison Group, named after Napoleon’s last residence in France in 1815. Exclusiveness is at the heart of the hotel chain’s business model, not less so at the core of its Oxford branch. The interior plays the dichotomy of voluntary and involuntary exclusion to its advantage. In that way, by perpetuating the memory of incarceration while combining it with the enjoyment of gastronomy services, it fulfils one of the principles at the heart of the regeneration concept.
From the outset, the vast site has been portioned into distinct zones, each catering for a different clientele: the educational heritage experience (Castle Mound, St George’s Tower, Crypt, D-Wing and Debtors’ Tower); the exclusive hotel experience (converted A-Wing); the inclusive experience of a public space with bars and restaurants (in front of the former prison entrance); and the private sphere of residential accommodation (new development along the southern fringe). By engaging with the site in different ways, the project has triggered the hugely successful heritage-led regeneration of the city centre and released a core part of Oxford that had been off limits for almost a millennium.
Who could have thought earlier this year (2020) that a virus would suddenly turn the world upside down? In Oxford, like everywhere else, residential accommodation has turned from a basis of personal independence into lockdown space, effectively resulting in house arrest for shielding and self-isolating individuals. Hotels, bars and restaurants, established platforms of human communication and interaction, have turned into a minefield of potential infection and enforced social distancing. Isolation has been at the heart of Oxford Castle’s history, including sieges, incarceration and exclusiveness.
Now, with the regenerated site facing up to the pandemic, isolation seems to remain the dominating theme in the life of the castle. As the world looks forward to an end of the pandemic, isolation will hopefully become a thing of the past in the castle quarter and, as far as exclusion is concerned, at Oxford University, too.
This article originally appeared as ‘Reconnecting Oxford Castle’ in Context 166, published by the Institute of Historic Building Conservation (IHBC) in November 2020. It was written by Michael Asselmeyer, a former principal conservation and design manager at the London Borough of Islington and senior lecturer in architecture at the University of Central Lancashire, who worked with Richard Griffiths on Oxford Castle.
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