Bocardo Prison

Bocardo Prison

The Bocardo Prison in Oxford, England existed for over 600 years until its demolition in 1771. It had medieval origins dating back to the 11th century when Oxford was under Norman rule. The prison was located next to St. Michael’s Church at the North Gate of the old city walls.

Notable Prisoners

Some of the most famous prisoners held at Bocardo were the Oxford Martyrs – Thomas Cranmer, Hugh Latimer and Nicholas Ridley. These three Protestant clergymen were seen as heretics by Queen Mary I and were imprisoned here before their execution in 1555.

Execution of the Oxford Martyrs

The Oxford Martyrs were burned at the stake just outside Bocardo Prison in Broad Street, Oxford on October 16, 1555. A memorial still stands today to commemorate their execution. The Martyrs are considered heroes of the Protestant Reformation in England.

Imprisonment of Quakers and Others

Bocardo Prison also held Quaker religious prisoners in the 1650s for disturbing the peace. The early Quaker preacher Elizabeth Fletcher was among those held there. In 1612, three men were detained for their alleged involvement in the sensational Jacob Barnet affair which purported that an imposter child was placed in the royal bedchamber.

See also  HM Prison Inverness

Demolition in the 18th Century

After over 600 years of use, Bocardo Prison was demolished in 1771 due to a road construction project. The demolition was part of a wider redevelopment initiative in Oxford led by John Gwynn to modernize the city. This marked the end of the prison’s long and notorious history.

Architecture and Layout of the Prison

The North Gate and Watchtower

Bocardo Prison was housed in the rooms of a Saxon watchtower by Oxford’s North Gate. The gate and tower were built by the Norman baron Robert D’Oyly in the 11th century as part of the city walls. The gate itself was also called Bocardo Gate.

The Prison Cells Over the Gate

The prison cells were located in the upper rooms directly over the gate’s archway. Prisoners would be housed in these cramped rooms with small windows facing outward. The positioning over the busy gate meant constant noise and commotion.

Charitable Donations Box

A wooden box was placed inside St. Michael’s Church next to Bocardo where people could donate money for the relief of the prisoners. However, conditions remained harsh despite this form of charity.

The Name Bocardo

Logic Syllogism Mnemonic Device

The term Bocardo is used as a mnemonic aid for remembering a certain syllogism (logic argument) form studied by philosophy students. The syllogism patterns are named Barbara, Celarent, Darii, Ferio, and Bocardo.

Folk Etymology of the Name

According to folklore, Bocardo got its name because it was considered a prison difficult to escape from. This matches the logic diagram named Bocardo which was hard for students to learn. However, the real origins are unclear.

See also  HM Prison Featherstone

Legacy and Significance

Relics and Artifacts

The door from the cell where Thomas Cranmer was imprisoned has been preserved and is now displayed in St. Michael’s Church. It serves as a relic of the Oxford Martyrs. Archaeological digs have also uncovered artifacts from the old prison site.

Impact on Oxford’s Development

The demolition of Bocardo Prison was part of a large 18th century reconstruction of Oxford that shaped the city we know today. It enabled both new construction projects and better traffic flow.

Place in English History

As a medieval-era prison, Bocardo holds an important place in Oxford’s long history. The executions that occurred there and famous prisoners housed within its walls give it additional historical notability. It is remembered as a notorious jail.


Bocardo Prison witnessed over six centuries of Oxford’s history from its medieval origins to its controversial demolition in the name of progress. The martyrdoms, heretics, and alleged royal imposters held within its walls contribute to its infamous reputation. Though long gone, the remnants and namesakes of Bocardo endure as symbols of Oxford’s past.


Who were the Oxford Martyrs executed at Bocardo Prison?

The Oxford Martyrs were Thomas Cranmer, Hugh Latimer and Nicholas Ridley – three Protestant clergymen burned at the stake in 1555 for heresy under Queen Mary I.

What was significant about the prison’s location by the North Gate?

Its position by the busy North Gate meant prisoners had to endure constant noise and commotion from traffic through the gate. The rooms over the gate archway also made for cramped, uncomfortable cells.

See also  HM Prison Greenock

How does the term Bocardo relate to logic?

Bocardo is used as a mnemonic device for remembering a certain form of logic syllogism. Bocardo was said to be a tricky form for students to learn.

Why was the prison demolished in the late 1700s?

It was torn down in 1771 due to a road construction project and an initiative to redevelop Oxford under the architect John Gwynn. This marked the end of 600+ years of history.

What relics of Bocardo Prison still exist today?

The door from Thomas Cranmer’s cell has been preserved and is now displayed in St. Michael’s Church, providing a direct relic of the famous Oxford Martyrs.

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