St Briavel's Castle


Heritage Category:
Scheduled Monument
List Entry Number:
Date first listed:
Date of most recent amendment:


Ordnance survey map of St Briavel's Castle
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The building or site itself may lie within the boundary of more than one authority.

Forest of Dean (District Authority)
St. Briavels
National Grid Reference:
SO 55861 04559

Reasons for Designation

An enclosure castle is a defended residence or stronghold, built mainly of stone, in which the principal or sole defence comprises the walls and towers bounding the site. Some form of keep may have stood within the enclosure but this was not significant in defensive terms and served mainly to provide accommodation. Larger sites might have more than one line of walling and there are normally mural towers and gatehouses. Outside the walls a ditch, either waterfilled or dry, crossed by bridges may be found. The first enclosure castles were constructed at the time of the Norman Conquest. However, they developed considerably in form during the 12th century when defensive experience gained during the Crusades was applied to their design. The majority of examples were constructed in the 13th century although a few were built as late as the 14th century. Some represent reconstructions of earlier medieval earthwork castles of the motte and bailey type, although others were new creations. They provided strongly defended residences for the king or leading families and occur in both urban and rural situations. Enclosure castles are widely dispersed throughout England, with a slight concentration in Kent and Sussex supporting a vulnerable coast, and a strong concentration along the Welsh border where some of the best examples were built under Edward I. They are rare nationally with only 126 recorded examples. Considerable diversity of form is exhibited with no two examples being exactly alike. With other castle types, they are major medieval monument types which, belonging to the highest levels of society, frequently acted as major administrative centres and formed the foci for developing settlement patterns. Castles generally provide an emotive and evocative link to the past and can provide a valuable educational resource, both with respect to medieval warfare and defence and with respect to wider aspects of medieval society. All examples retaining significant remains of medieval date are considered to be nationally important.

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. St Briavel's Castle was frequently visited by the kings of England including King John, Henry II and Edward II, and had royal apartments especially constructed to accomodate them. These royal associations will give an insight into social organisation in the medieval period, and because of the consequential high profile, may provide additional historical documentary evidence which reflects the status of the castle. Apart from its military function the castle was the judicial centre for the Forest of Dean and an arsenal for locally produced weaponry.


The monument includes an enclosure castle situated on the edge of a steep scarp above the River Wye, where the land falls away sharply to the river to the west. The castle appears to have been sited to control the nearby ford at Bigsweir. The irregular plan of the castle has led to the suggestion that it lies on the site of an earlier earthwork, and that in its earliest form it may have been an earthen motte with a timber or stone bailey, dating to the early part of the 12th century. Although the precise date of its foundation is not known, it appears not to have been in existence when William Fitz Baderon acquired the estate in about 1086, and it is likely that he built the first castle on the site at this time as part of a defensive scheme started by William Fitz Osbern against the Welsh. The first known record of the site dates from 1131. By the later 12th century a square stone keep, which was said to have been over 100ft high, had been constructed on top of the castle motte, and in the 13th century a curtain wall was added enclosing an area of 0.61ha. Between 1209 and 1211 extensive additions appear to have been undertaken to the fabric of the castle, including the construction of a two-storey domestic range on the north west side which is thought to have been the `royal apartments' mentioned in documents of 1227, and which replaced in importance and function the earlier hall which lay on the north side of the ward of the castle. Also at this time the twin towered gatehouse with a defended passage was added. The structure was originally conceived as a keep gatehouse, that is a gatehouse which could be closed and defended against attack from the rear as well as the front. The gatehouse was rebuilt by Edward I in 1292-93 to improve the defences of the castle against Welsh attack and to provide a more prestigeous residence for the Royal Constable. The entrance passage was closed by three barriers each consisting of a portcullis backed by a pair of massive doors. Smaller doors, each protected by its own portcullis, originally led into the side rooms and upper floors of the gatehouse. In the 14th century a chapel was built in the castle ward, replacing an earlier timber chapel. The upstanding remains of the castle, which have survived into the 20th century, date mainly from the early 13th century and comprise a dry moat with a pond in its north east side, rubble curtain walls, fragments of the square keep on the motte, the two-storey domestic range, the site of the hall with its fireplace and the twin towered gatehouse with its defended passage, above which are a group of rooms. The 14th century chapel stands on the west side of the bailey against a building which houses a reused 14th century fireplace. Adjacent to the west side of the castle moat is a level piece of land, the only available flat ground before the land falls away sharply to the west. It has been suggested that this piece of land, called the `Tump', was part of the early castle but there is no direct evidence for this, and it appears to be outside the limits of the moat. This area is not, therefore, included in the scheduling. It is possible that the outer edge of the moat on the north and east side may extend under the road and the George public house, but it is considered that disruption of the archaeological levels in subsequent road construction and by the cellars of the George, have removed archaeological deposits in these areas, and they are also not included in the scheduling. The castle was the Crown's administration centre for the Forest of Dean, and there were many royal visitors to the castle throughout the early Middle Ages. These royal visitors included King John, who visited on five separate occasions, Henry II who made four visits between 1220 and 1230, and Edward II who stayed there in 1321. The castle also fulfilled a number of administrative functions and was the seat of legal administration for the area; the Hundred Court, the Court Baron of the manor and castle, the Court of Criminal jurisdiction and the Mine-Law Court were all held there. All offenders from the 96 bailiwicks of the Forest were brought to the castle to be imprisioned. The castle remained in use as a courthouse and prison long after it had lost its military function. It also served as an arsenal for locally produced weaponry. With the conquest of Wales completed in the late 15th century, the importance of the castle rapidly declined. In 1680 the unused parts of the castle were demolished. The keep collapsed in 1752, by which time the great hall had also been demolished, leaving only the former royal apartments and the gatehouse still in use. In 1777 the east tower collapsed and destroyed the adjoining buildings. The castle was used as a debtors' prison until 1842, and the gaolers are said to have run an ale house there from 1702. The castle, having been allowed to decay, began to be restored in the late 19th century, and was rendered habitable in 1906. In 1952 it was occupied by the Youth Hostels Association, and is now a Youth Hostel. The castle is a Listed Building Grade I and is in the care of the Secretary of State. A number of features are excluded from the scheduling; these are all modern fitments and fittings inside the castle and those attached to the castle fabric, the temporary building and cycle shed which adjoins the south side of the chapel, the cobbled surface of the drawbridge, the wall around the outer part of the moat and the wooden gates and gateposts which give access to the moat, the stonework around the pond in the moat and notice boards. The ground, fabric and walls beneath all these features is, however, included.

MAP EXTRACT The site of the monument is shown on the attached map extract.


The contents of this record have been generated from a legacy data system.

Legacy System number:
Legacy System:


Gloucestershire County Council, Gloucestershire County Council SMR,
Gloucestershire County Council, Gloucestershire Historic Towns Survey, St Briavels Arch Assess, 1999, forthcoming
Gloucestershire County Council, Gloucestershire Historic Towns Survey, St Briavels Arch Assess, 1999, forthcoming
Gloucestershire County Council, Gloucestershire Historic Towns Survey, St Briavels Arch Assess, 1999, forthcoming
Herbet,, Victoria County History of Gloucestershire, forthcoming
information board in castle,


This monument is scheduled under the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Areas Act 1979 as amended as it appears to the Secretary of State to be of national importance. This entry is a copy, the original is held by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport.

End of official listing

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