The loveliest and most enigmatic area of Gloucestershire, the Royal Forest of Dean, is wonderful to visit just about any time but is especially stunning in Spring and Autumn when everything is renewing or changing before winter. There is a plethora of iron and bronze age hillforts to be visited here along with interesting Roman ruins. In the 18th century visitors to the area around St Briavel’s exclaimed over the “beautiful and romantic scenery that surrounds these ruins.” Along the far west and running in a southward direction, this gateway to south Wales had to be used, in a fashion, to fend off retaliatory Welsh raids. Gloucester was considered vulnerable and so you’ll find very little of medieval military leftovers even though the evidence was once as thick as the forest itself. Don’t forget that some castles were once quite formidable but possibly abandoned early rather than late.
Castle Tump at Dymock, directly ten miles west of Tewkesbury in the northwest corner of Gloucestershire above the Forest of Dean, is a motte all of 14 meters high with a bailey along the southeast. It was eradicated during the Anarchy when the castle was given to William de Braose ( son-in-law of Miles de Gloucester ) by Henry II circa 1160. Today a farm is located near the site.
Some miles south and right on the Wye River border which separates Wales from England, English Bicknor Castle’s remains consist of a motte at the center of two concentric outer bailey walls, producing a circular castle 150 yards in diameter seated near Symond’s Yat and Lower Lydbrook. The existence of Bicknor is documented in the Domesday book of 1086 and once known as Bicanofre but was recorded as a hamlet in 1066. (There is a Welsh Bicknor indicating a division of the city.) The motte was placed against the southwest corner of the site, where the ground slopes as a natural embankment rampart. A square stone keep may have been built at a later stage atop the motte. At the beginning of the Anarchy the castle was controlled by Miles de Gloucester but Bicknor miraculously escaped destruction and was still in full use at the beginning of the 13th century. Further conflict is undocumented as is the castle’s certain demise. For age and location, the castle is literally neck and neck with a small Norman parish church dedicated to St Mary which has beautiful internal stone masonry along with sculpture from the beginning of the 12th century and loaded with interesting 14th and 15th century artifacts. The original church tower was seated centrally and built from the soft local sandstone which became unsafe but was sited within the outer courtyard of the motte and bailey castle. Only the exterior stonework of St Mary’s 13th century west tower is original, however. Norman masonry has been found within the motte, suggesting at least part of the castle was builtin stone and while nothing is left of the castle’s actual structure today, the location is still identifiable. This typical early Norman defense work may have been built in the reign of Henry I of England or King Stephen during the first half of the 12th century and was demolished or destroyed by the late 14th century, but why and how is not documented. Legend has it that it may have faced destruction during the rebellion of Owain Glyndwr.
Head southwest, a short distance toward the north bank of the River Severn near Cinderford and you’ll find Littledean Camp, Glasshouse Woods and Howle Hill Camp. Littledean and the rest were Norman castles constructed to protect local villages and they worked as a type of screen to also protect the city of Gloucester from Welsh incursion. Littledean was concentric but small- sixty feet in diameter- equipped with an inner and outer bailey with a high vallum (rampart) wall originally fifteen feet in height with the motte integrated with the outer wall. Diversely, Glasshouse Woods was an 11th century ringwork designed most likely as an outpost to Littledean and Howle Hill.
Another site along the north bank of the River Severn, a short distance away in a south direction, Newnham-on-Severn is a quiet and pleasant village which claims a good example of a platform motte of a castle. Location of this motte is questionable because the Severn would have provided more than enough protection, very much like a wide moat so it’s presence would have been unnecessary. It may have had a small tower with an outer wall at some point. You’ll find it located near the village church and the view from the river bank is idyllic.
A 12th century Norman stone castle, Little Camp Hill, located within beautiful Lydney Park high on a hilltop above a floodplain, was uncovered back in the 1930s during an excavation revealing a curtain with an entrance flanked by a small tower keep with inner and outer baileys. Laid out to the natural shape of the hill, nothing was above ground but the outline was pentagonal with uneven angles and had a rectangular tower with a gateway, an additional tower and curtain walls. Its construction is attributed to William FitzOsbern and the entire park has been under the ownership of Benjamin Bathurst since 1719. The remains of a Roman temple also grace the site along with gardens, deer park and 17th century Lydney House. Some people believe that features of Lydney Park, such as Dwarf Hill, were inspirational to J.R.R. Tolkien’s books describing Hobbiton! info, call: 01594 845497
a. gatehouse b.King’s chambers and chapel c. keep d. Hall range
e. the Peel f. tower g. moat (yellow)
Overlooking the Wye Valley near Tintern Abbey in Wales, you’ll find the remains of St Briavels Castle which occupies a spur right on the edge of the border built by royal mandate of Empress Matilda for Miles de Gloucester, the Earl of Hereford, in 1141. As a moated Norman enclosure castle of the 12th century it has much more to show us than most castles today and the fact of its formidable appearance is also a miracle considering its proximity to Wales. As a matter of fact, nothing English is quite that close and is still, technically, English except for English Bicknor ! By sight, it’s best known for its massive round twin-towered gatehouse which was built by Edward I in 1292 and 1293 costing what was then a huge sum of £477. The royal architect, James of St. George, carried out the planning and building of the site as it was at that time. During the time of Henry II a square great tower keep was added but began to collapse by 1752 from stone pilfering and finally completely fell down in 1777.
Originally built as a royal administrative center for the Forest of Dean it was under construction for fifty-four years during the 11th and 12th centuries and became a favorite hunting lodge, of course, for King John who visited every November for that purpose. He built the stone curtain wall between 1209 and 1211 complete with a tower and gateway. The king’s lodgings were also built during his reign and were almost finished before he passed on. By 1228 the castle was used as a factory for constructing quarrels for crossbows and as an arsenal for iron crossbow bolts which were manufactured in the iron forges within the forest. During Edward II’s reign in 1300, the old wooden chapel was rebuilt in stone and in 1310, an extension to the castle wall was constructed at a cost of 40 with a new tower referred to as the Peel which followed the line of the old motte affording extra protection to the keep. Many Kings and their royal favorites had their chance at custodianship, especially during the War of the Roses and as the centuries passed it eventually became a court and notorious debtor’s prison. The conditions became bad enough that a prison reformer by the name of John Howard documented the outrages going on in the castle in 1775. After riots broke out there was a parliamentary investigation in the 1830s and eventual reforms, such as the Debtors’ Act of 1869, closed the castle’s use as a prison although it ceased being used as a prison by 1842. Before the turn of the century extensive renovations started and were finished by 1906. Today, ironically enough, it is a youth hostel and has been so since 1948. As an English Heritage protected site it is open to the public and the castle is listed as a Grade I listed building and a scheduled monument.
St Briavels is a must see for true medieval castle enthusiasts because even though it has been rebuilt many times through the centuries, it was never rebuilt for familial comfort and there was no attempt to make what was essentially a utilitarian castle more ‘fashionable’. It is essentially, therefore, what it was and that’s extremely rare among medieval castles still standing. Considering that Lady Anne Clifford did not have a hand in the rebuilding, it is awesome to see. The former in-filled moat is now a garden, portions of the stone curtain wall still stand where the 66 feet tall polygonal keep once stood along the south side and domestic buildings including a hall, solar and chapel remain along the northwest directly behind the gatehouse. Henry II rebuilt the castle keep in stone by 1160 and used it as a metalworking center. By 1172 he received huge quantities of building materials from the castle! The domestic range was reserved for a castle constable and of course, the King. All of the just mentioned were restored to their current condition in the 19th century. Some remnants that appear to date from the 13th century include a hall range, fireplace and capitals. The hall and solar, as the largest unit in landmass, are two-storeys in height and sit opposite the chapel which dates from the 14th century. These were updated with 17th century features, such as window treatments and the chapel was refurbished. An interesting feature is the Forester’s Horn chimney, set at the end of the domestic range and can be viewed best outside the castle walls. It is a type of sculptured crest of the forest warden’s horn which signifies the castle’s authority through forest law (which is much more severe than regular English law). Some buildings used for imprisonment still stand and show graffiti that dates from 1671 !
The most celebrated feature of the castle, the gatehouse, was described by Pevsner as “magnificent…a very fine example of the royal masons’ work of the period.” It is the most massive and sturdy gatehouse I have seen with two large D-shaped towers flanking a 48 feet deep passage linked above by a large room for a garrison. Defenses with such gatehouses were inside as well as outside and mirrors those at Caerphilly, Tonbridge Wells and the Edwardian Welsh Castles, of course. Edward I took gatehouse security quite seriously so St Briavel’s was equipped with three sets of portcullises. More than likely the huge stores of ammunition and money on the site necessitated the internal security of the castle. By comparison, several Welsh gatehouses such as those at Harlech and Beaumaris had slots for three portcullises but generally only made use of two. Smaller portcullises were installed here to prevent passage to the porters’ lodges. Both towers are reduced from their former height and the drawbridge is sadly gone having been removed sometime in the 20th century.
If you take a good look at the bases of the twin towers you’ll see triangular darkened areas where the defensive spurs once stood and are now removed. These provided additional security by preventing or discouraging undermining during sieges. Goodrich Castle near Ross-on-Wye in Herefordshire has quite a few such spur defenses on many of the towers, which look like little or tall pyramids at the bases of those round towers, giving the castle a rugged medieval aspect that is difficult to forget. St Briavel’s spurs were obviously much smaller and may have been added strictly to prevent undermining whereas Goodrich had to face down siege engines hurling large stones. Chepstow in Wales, not far away, also has the same type of spurs and may have been the model for St Briavel’s- being neighbors, after all! The southeast of the gatehouse was rebuilt after collapsing some years ago and may appear almost new by comparison to the rest of the castle.
stay at St. Briavels Youth Hostel T-0845 3719042