Built in the early 12th century, it was the residence of the warden of the Forest of Dean – a royal hunting ground where the game was protected and the king alone allowed to hunt. The castle was in royal possession by the 1160s and was rebuilt, with the small but impressive keep, by Henry II (r.1154–89). The Forest of Dean was important for another reason – it was one of the centres of the medieval iron industry, small scale by present day standards but a vital source of supply for the manufacture of weapons, especially crossbow bolts. The crossbow was the favourite weapon of the mercenaries who were employed in considerable numbers by Henry’s son, King John (r.1199–1216), who built a new hall (now vanished) and an elaborate chamber block at St Briavel’s. . . . Under Edward I (r.1272–1307), thousands of crossbow bolts were produced at the castle in preparation for the king’s Welsh and Scottish campaigns. Edward took care to ensure that his arsenal was well protected, adding the massive twin-towered gatehouse to the castle in 1292.
With the conquest of Wales completed by the end of the 15th century, the castle’s importance declined rapidly and unused buildings were demolished in 1680. The gatehouse became a prison where those accused of committing offences within the forest area were held while awaiting trial. . . . The keep collapsed in 1752, by which time the great hall had also been demolished, and the east tower collapsed in 1777 destroying the adjoining buildings. The castle was still being used as a debtors’ prison until 1842. After centuries of neglect and decay, the surviving buildings were restored and rendered habitable at the turn of the 20th century.
St Briavel’s Castle survives well with its moat, curtain wall, gatehouse and royal apartments in good condition. The upstanding remains are a good example of an enclosure castle of the 13th century. Sub-surface deposits within the castle and moat will contain archaeological information and environmental evidence relating to the castle and the wider landscape. Notice boards explain concisely the history and functions of the various parts of the castle, and it can be visited by the public in its present function as a Youth Hostel, providing a valuable educational resource. The enclosure castle of St Briavels is recorded in the early 12th century, but is thought to have its beginnings in the 11th century as a motte and bailey castle. This long history of use and adaptation will provide evidence of changing approaches to defensive problems and castle building over time. It was one of a sequence of castles along the border, built as part of a defensive strategy against the Welsh. In the 13th century it was strengthened in a huge castle building programme undertaken for the conquest of Wales and the Welsh wars of 1277, 1282-3 and 1294-5. The gatehouse can be seen as part of the sequential development of castle gatehouses formed by projecting mural towers on either side of an entrance passageway which culminated in the grand castles of Harlech, Beaumaris, Caerphilly and Tonbridge.
Fast forward a couple centuries to when King John would visit and hunt in the forest every November, always lodging at St Briavels Castle. He allegedly expanded and renovated the former fortress—funded by the taxes he increased and collected, as is expected of this notoriously villainous monarch. Some of the surviving rooms, hall range, and curtain wall are thought to have been built by him. Some time after John’s death, the castle was turned into a quarrel (crossbow bolt) factory, and soon it became the national center of quarrel manufacture, the resources provided by the iron mines in the Forest of Dean. The castle’s most iconic feature, its magnificent gatehouse, was built around this time by the order of King Edward I.
Court Room in St. Briavel’s Castle & Interior of the Debtors’ Prison in St. Briavel’s Castle
“The Forest of Dean”, H. G. Nicholls, 1858, pp. 114-115
The outer walls and the moat are perfect ; the circumference of the castle, of horseshoe shape, is small, and the exterior of the outer wall does not seem to have ever had bastions, such as most castles of the fourteenth century possess, but to have had the whole area within crammed with buildings. The principal strength was in the gatehouse, as at Abergavenny ; it had two powerful square flanking towers, having rounded outer angles, three storeys each in height, and with a large oblong tower behind them, wherein the defence was concentrated and the numbers of the defenders were economised. One of the most remarkable features about the castle is a large room, somewhat resembling our old House of Lords at Westminster ; but before this part of the castle could be entered there were the two flanking towers to be carried, as well as the large one beyond, built on to them, now dilapidated ; and then there was, besides, the Keep, which fell down into the moat, late in the last century, and which had its own postern.
There are curious and intricate passages and staircases contrived in the walls of the entrance towers. The great Hall has, unfortunately, been destroyed, but the solar, or lord’s chamber, at the upper end, remains, and was some time ago used as a school- room ; it contains a fine fireplace, above which is the well-known chimney, with one of the most beautiful chimney-tops in England. At the lower end of the hall some servants’ apartments have been left, connected with one of the gatehouse towers, which is nearly perfect, and contains some small chambers of this period, each having its own fireplace and chimney.
“The castles of England, their story and structure, vol I”, James Mackenzie, 1897 pp. 376