The Oxford Prison

From Dreaming Spies:

…the dank and draughty confines of His Majesty’s Prison, Oxford, a part of the castle complex dating back to the eleventh century. The Empress Matilda had escaped over the frozen Thames, but then, she had a great deal of help from within.


A map of the castle, from Wikipedia.

(In fact, Mary Russell has it—gasp!—wrong: Matilda escaped across the frozen Castle Mill Stream, either slipping out from her besieged and be-moated castle through a small gate or lowered down from the walls, all dressed in white against the snow.)

A year ago I flew to England for a wedding that was not far from Oxford, and since I was thinking about writing some scenes inside the old Oxford prison (which ended up not fitting) I booked a room in the Malmaison, a boutique hotel that took over the prison grounds a few years ago. (Malmaison may seem like a very apt name, but in fact this is a small chain, and the “bad house” overtones are in this case a happy accident.) The prison was not closed until the mid-nineties, at which time my husband’s college, St Peter’s, tried to raise the money to buy it as dorms. (I’ll let you think about that for a minute…)

They failed, but the Malmaison bought it, and did a delightful job of preserving the grounds and transforming cramped cells into spacious (if occasionally oddly shaped) luxury rooms, the forecourt and former gallows site into a place for outdoor dining, and the crypt and visiting rooms into a brasserie and a bar.

Prison visiting

The old visiting room, a guards’ window visible at the top.

There’s an informative visitor center, and helpful staff to take you on a tour, and you can even climb to the grassy (it’s slippery!) top of the old castle mound, to sit and admire the view, take your picnic lunch, and meditate on all the history beneath your rump.

Castle mound

The remains of Oxford Castle.

It was one of the most pampered bits of research I’ve ever had to do. And all the time, I wondered what on earth its former prisoners made of the transformation.


Photo from 1883, Oxford Explore.

Oxford prison

Former prisoners must be amazed.


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4 days until Dreaming Spies! Other posts about writing and researching the book can be seen here, or you can read a long excerpt here

You can pre-order a signed copy from Poisoned Pen Books or Bookshop Santa Cruz, and unsigned or e-books from IndiebooksAmazon/Kindle, or Barnes & Noble/Nook.

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  1. Merrily Taylor on February 13, 2015 at 6:59 am

    I think I know where I’m staying the next time I’m in Oxford!

  2. Sara on February 13, 2015 at 7:30 pm

    ….is that a Walsh-continuation-of-a-Peter-Wimsey-/-Harriet-Vane-book reference?

    • Sara on February 13, 2015 at 7:31 pm

      Either that or someone’s going to have a lot of fun with Halloween parties at the jail/dorm. 😛

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