Of all the many wonderful (and often true) stories about Oxford none is more magical or dramatic than the tale of Lady Matilda and her escape from the Tower.
Matilda (1102-1167) was daughter of King Henry I of England. When her father died she was ousted from her rightful inheritance by her rivalrous cousin, Stephen. Anarchy and Civil War ensued. Matilda fled to Oxford for safety. But when Stephen’s forces encircled the castle they appeared to have her trapped …
Snow fell heavily throughout that winter of 1142. One shimmering, frosty night, Matilda, cloaked from head to toe in white, managed to slip silently and unnoticed out of the castle. The medieval chronicler, Henry of Huntingdon, records how she ‘trick(ed) the eyes of the besiegers by her white clothes in the dazzle of the snow’ and made her way ‘across the frozen Thames’, first to Wallingford, then over the sea to France – and safety.
Five centuries later, another monarch, Charles I, was besieged in Oxford – further proof of its centrality in the life of the nation. But by that stage the castle was a ruin (it was eventually slighted by the Parliamentarian forces in 1652). Today, all that remains is the giant grassy mound which once supported its citadel, and the nearby tower (Saxon in origin) of St George’s.
To appreciate the site’s full impact you need to start at the bottom of George Street. There you will find the entrance to Bulwarks Lane. If the name doesn’t give it away, the curve of the walls and the age of the cobbles tell you in an instant that you are walking an ancient route; and as you emerge onto New Street you realise that you have been tracing the course of one of the mighty ramparts that rippled out from the Norman Castle.
For over three hundred years this site was key to the town’s safety. William the Conqueror’s henchman, Robert d’Oilly, built it in 1071 to command the river crossing. Its centrepiece was a giant earthwork or motte some 250 feet in diameter. Like an enormous, upturned, flat-topped, grass-covered pudding bowl it stands over sixty feet above ground level, a path zig-zagging its way to the top (where the 360 degree panorama is worth the £1 entrance fee.) Lowered by a millennium of Thames Valley rain, it is still a remarkable feature.
Gone is the great tower which once crowned its summit, from whose battlements Matilda would once have gazed out upon the surrounding enemy soldiers – and beyond them to the snowy open fields and freedom. In its place stand two fine sycamore trees reminding us of its height.
Matilda never returned to England. She was laid to rest in Normandy a quarter of a century after her great escape. But her spirit lives on in the annals of Oxford history. And her blood too. For it was her son who triumphantly ascended the throne in 1154, when Stephen eventually died. King Henry II was fated to change the destiny of Oxford and of England for ever; but that’s a story for another time …