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St Briavels Castle

Gloucestershire, England
SO 559046

Map link for St Briavels Castle

Miscellaneous notes complied by John Cotton

Ring-work south of the church, with rubble curtain wall and fragments of square keep which collapsed in 1752. The castle mentioned in 1129-30 is probably the earthwork a mile to the north (559288), since the present site was then in Lydney Parva.

It presumably took the place of the 'Old Castle of Dene' (vetus castellum de Dena) mentioned in a charter of Henry II to Flaxley Abbey. Its history during the next 20 rears is obscure, but like the Forest of Dean in which it was situated, it fell during the reign of Stephen into the hands of the Earls of Hereford, (In September 1139, the empress landed in England with her brother, Earl Robert, and one of whose earliest moves was to travel to Gloucester to try to win Miles of Gloucester over to the Angevin cause. In this he was completely successful and Miles became one of Maud’s staunchest supporters. His immediate reward was a grant from her of St. Briavel’s castle and the whole Forest of Dean.) and it was not restored to the Crown until after the accession of Henry II. (M.L.Bazeley,'The Forest of Dean in the Twelfth and Thirteenth Centuries’, Trans.Bristol & Glos.Arch.Soc.xxxiii (1910),p.173.).

It was certainly in the king's possession in the 1160's,but as no accounts were rendered by the custodians of the castle and forest between 1164 and 1195, there is no documentary evidence of any building which may have been carried out during that period. In 1197-8, however, the constable claimed credit for an expenditure of £5 on the castle, and a similar sum was spent in 1202-3 by writ of Geoffrey fitz Peter. King John was a frequent visitor to the castle, which no doubt served him as a hunting lodge, and in 1209-11 £291 12s. 3d. were spent on its buildings by Hugh de Neville, his chief forester. St. Briavel's also had an important military function as centre for the distribution of crossbow bolts made in the Forest of Dean forges and the castle seems to have been kept in good repair throughout the reign of Henry III. The tower and other buildings received attention in 1224-5, and the ditch in 1235-6 and in 1239; in 1236-7 a breach in the tower was restored and a timber chapel was erected before the doorway of the king's chamber; a new drawbridge was made in 1239; in 1246-7 a chamber with a chimney was built for the use of the king’s knights; and in 1249-50 the tower and drawbridge were repaired at a cost of £186 11s 7d. Part of the curtain wall fell down in 1255 and had to be rebuilt, and the palisades were put in order at the same time; 5 years later the sheriff was ordered to repair the farm buildings outside the castle, to plaster the middle stage of the tower, and to rebuild the barricades and barbican with timber from the Forest, all of which he did at a cost to the Exchequer of £76 1s 3d.

One or two of the buildings mentioned in these accounts can be tentatively identified today. (For a plan and illustration see W. Taprell Allen, St.Briavel’s Castle (Trans.Bristol & Glos. Arch. Soc.iii (1878-9).)

The keep collapsed in 1752, and only fragments of it remain, but the chapel (though rebuilt in the 14th century) still stands against a building with a 13th century doorway which is probably the King’s chamber and beyond the latter there is a second chamber with a 13th century fireplace which could well be the one built in 1246-7.

In 1266 the castle of St. Briavel's and the Forest of Dean were granted by Henry III to the Lord Edward his son, and consequently for the remaining 6 years of his reign no accounts were rendered at the Exchequer by the constable. The castle was regularly repaired during the reign of Edward I, some expenditure in 1282-3 and a wall repaired in 1290) and in 1292-3 the existing twin-towered gatehouse was built by the king's order at a cost of £477. No rolls of particulars for this work survive, but in the enrolled account of John Boteourt, the keeper of the castle, shows that between 25 May 1292 and 30 November 1293 he spent £415 8s. 91/2d.'on the construction of a new gateway in the castle by the king‘s writ', plus £62 lls. 03/4d. on the purchase of lead for the roof. The stone was evidently quarried locally, for a few years later Anketin Wither of St.Briavel’s obtained 20 marks in compensation for stone dug in his ground and used by John Botetourt for works in the castle. The gatehouse, with its long passage flanked by half-round towers rising from spurred bases, is a characteristic specimen of Edwardian military architecture, and hence forth constituted the castle's chief strength.

Early in the reign of Edward II the then keeper of the castle, John de Handlo, spent £322 19s. 91/4d. by the king's direction on repairing the walls, towers, bridges and buildings of the castle, and 'on constructing a peel for its greater security'. A later reference to the peel indicates it stood near the keep on the south side of the castle perhaps filling a breach in the curtain wall. In about 1312 (the year of Piers Gaveston's murder) Handlo' s successor John de Wysham spent £11 5s. 3d. on making 61 wooden targes and fixing them on the walls of the castle, apparently as a defensive measure. ('in locacione plaustrorum pro maeremio cariando ad idem castrum pro lxj targils faciendis empcione clavorum stipendiis carpentorariorum faciencium easdem targias, cementariorum circa preparacionem murorum pro eisdem targiis superpendenis..').

In 1318 a further £79 were spent on repairs by the then keeper, Roger Damory, but a good many defects were revealed by a survey carried out in 1323. The peel by the great tower was in ruins, and needed either to be rebuilt or else replaced by a stone wall at a cost of £40. As for the great tower itself, its roof was in need of attention, and so were the roofs of the new gatehouse built by John de Botetourt, of the 'round tower', the hall, pantry, buttery, kitchen, king’s chamber, chapel, wardrobe, knight's chamber, stable and bakehouse. A wall above the king's chapel needed rebuilding, and the masonry of 'the chapel next the great tower' was also defective. As a result the keeper of the castle was authorised to spend £100 on repairs, and in fact spent £101 8s. 43/4d.between 1325 and 1327.

From 1327 to 1331 the castle was in the hands of Queen Isabella. In 1328 another survey disclosed defects whose repair was estimated at £88, (the details are lost) and between 1331 and 1335 over £200 were spent on repairs to the hall, gatehouse, drawbridge and other buildings, including a tower (now no longer existing) 'on the east side of the castle'. From 1345 onwards the keeper was allowed, and regularly claimed, an annual expenditure of £5 on repairs, but despite this by 1362 the roofing of the great tower was once more in a bad state and £80 needed to be spent on the walls. The result was expenditure in 1363-4 of £108. Further repairs to the bridge, gatehouse and 'little tower' are recorded later in the reign.

In 1390 Richard II granted the castle and forest to his uncle Thomas of Woodstock, Earl of Gloucester who held it until his murder in 1397. Thereafter they were held by various grantees, including Thomas le Despenser, Earl of Gloucester (1397-99) John Duke of Bedford (1399-1435) and George, Duke of Clarence (1464-78). In 1434-5 (the last year of the Duke of Bedford's tenure) £6 16s 11d were spent on rebuilding the bridge at the entrance to the castle, but no further works at the King’s expense are recorded up to 1485. DFRenn

The castle was owned by Milo fitz Walter. His son Mahel, who was ‘cruel and covetous’ entertained Walter de Clifford here and a small fire in the castle brought down a stone on Mahel's head which killed him. This may account for the old stone chapel, which was made into a courtroom, being converted back into a chapel at a much later date.
Arthur Clark, The castle of St.Briavel’s 1949

The most conspicuous part of this castle is the magnificent Gatehouse, built c.1292-3 and a very fine example of the royal mason's' work of the period. Two large D-shaped towers flank a strongly defended passage, and unite above to form a roomy block of building. It seems out of proportion to the rest of the castle, and in view of the modest strength of the enclosure, it is not surprising to find that it was designed as a 'keep-gatehouse', i.e. a gatehouse which could be closed and defended against attack from the rear as well as the front. It thus resembles some of the great North Wales castles of Edward I. There were three main portcullises, and a remarkable feature is the use of smaller portcullises to defend the doorways from the passage into the porter's lodges. An unpleasant pit under one of these lodges was probably the Forest of Dean prison. The castle has nothing to do with the defence of the Border, and has no military history. The remainder of the castle consists of an irregular polygonal ward in very poor repair. Its plan seems to indicate that it was built on an early earthwork. It appears in history in 1131. though this first reference may apply to a small earthwork near Stowe Grange, l1/4 miles or so to the north, which is likely to be the first St. Briavel's castle. (A medieval iron snaffle-bit found here is in the Gloucester City Museum.).

Inside the area are some fallen fragments of a separate tower, probably of the 12th century, which collapsed and was demolished in the 18th century The hall range of c.12OO remains, adjoining the gatehouse, although much altered (Youth Hostel Association). It contains a number of original features. A fine hooded fireplace of the 13th century in the Jury Room and a probably 14th century chimney were apparently moved to their present position from elsewhere in the castle. The fireplace has moulded lamp brackets. The stiff-stalk capitals with small leaves suggest a date c.124O. Chimneystack with trefoil heads with crocketed gables and a short spire crowned by the Horn of the King's Forester or Constable, as a finial. On the east wall of the State Apartments, a chapel was built at the end of the 13th century This was long used as a CourtRoom. but retains its piscina. The accommodation here was for the king, when hunting in the Forest. The gatehouse was a prison, and graffiti on the walls of one of the cells show that it was used up to the 17th century: - 'Robin Belcher. The Day will come that thou shalt answer for it for thou hast sworn against me, 1671.'

During the Middle Ages the Forest of Dean was divided for administrative purposes into bailiwicks with courts held at St. Briavel's Castle, where disputes might be settled. Parts of the castle became a debtor's prison, of which the 1832 Commissioners of Inquiry reported: "There is only one window, which is one foot wide... and does not open."


Parts are Norman, dating from the reign of Henry I., when it was erected by Milo fitz Walter, Earl of Hereford, "to curb the incursions of the Welsh". It was, however, burnt not long afterwards and the youngest son of the founder was killed by being struck on the head with a stone, which fell from the top of a tower. The entrance gateway and some other buildings belong to the later part of the next century. It was for long the residence of the Lord Warden of the Forest of Dean.


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