Built in the early 12th century, St Briavel’s was an important royal castle on the frontier with Wales and the administrative and judicial centre 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, who built a new hall (now vanished) and an elaborate chamber block at St Briavel’s.
In spite of this, John only visited St Briavel’s five times in the course of seventeen years, staying no more than eleven days altogether. John’s son, Henry III, also visited the castle from time to time, adding a small chapel to his father’s house. By this time the castle was functioning more as an administrative headquarters and workshop than a stronghold.
Under Edward I, 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. 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.
Edward I added a fine twin-towered gatehouse to St Briavel's in 1292. During his reign the castle was a crossbow bolt factory, using local Forest of Dean iron to produce weapons for his campaigns against the Welsh and Scots.
In the 18th and 19th century, the castle was re-discovered and became a prison. King John’s former bedroom, The Solar Room, was used as court room. One can still find a stone at the castle which shows marks of swords and axes. Yes, this stone was used to relieve people of their heads. The prison was closed due to many local riots. In the 20th century, the castle was completely renovated. In 1948, St. Briavels took on its new and current function: that of a youth hostel.
Many years later the gatehouse became a prison where those accused of committing offences within the forest area were held while awaiting trial.
A number of prisoners’ inscriptions remain which testify to the unwholesomeness of the gaol. Fines were a profitable form of punishment – or mutilation, which served as a public reminder of the consequences of breaking the king’s law. Another form of punishment was the oubliette (which in french translates to “to forget”) The prisoners would be thrown in to a hole in the ground, the gate above them locked and covered up until the next prisoner had the same fate.
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.
Surrounding the castle is the very haunted Forest of Dean, well known for the witches that used to frequent the woods for healing ingredients & even healing waters at St Anthony’s well. A stunning location used for sets for films such as Harry Potter & Lord of the rings. The views from the castle are spectacular, over looking a large portion of the Forest. We are also close to the beautiful Tintern abbey.
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