St Briavels Castle
St Briavels Castle stands at the centre of the village of the same name at the northern edge of the Forest of Dean. During the storm that swept across Britain a few nights ago the castle walls suffered serious damage, with the main wall collapsing completely in one area, so it's time to take a closer look at this castle that still has huge importance to the history and lore of the Forest.
The earliest version of the castle was first built very soon after the Norman Conquest, not for defence against Wales but as a centre of government for the newly declared Royal Forest. Forest Law was tough, no written statutes were adhered to and sentences were summarily made up on the spot. Most cases involved poaching, the taking of firewood and other offences associated with the Forest, as everything in it's confines was the property of the King and reserved for his use. People living in the Forest itself were forbidden from touching it! Magna Carta had little effect on Forest Law and it was only the Charter of the Forest in 1217 that tried to wind back the draconian laws the Normans had imposed and give commoners some rights of access and use.
The Warden of the Forest was the chief of the entire area and under him were the Verderers, his deputies. They were originally named for the role given them by William of Normandy, to protect and preserve “the vert and the venison”, meaning the deer and boar that roamed the Forest and the natural habitat itself. The Warden carried an official hunting horn that he blew at the commencement of court sessions, and still today a stone sculpture of this horn sits atop St Briavels Castle as a symbol of it's status. The four Verderers would sit and decide the fate of those accused of crimes related specifically to the Forest which as the centuries went on included the free mining of iron ore.
The castle went on to be a major hub for other activities too, with the production of crossbow bolts ramping up to such an extent that the castle was the national centre for their manufacture, making 1000 a day. Other iron and wooden goods for use in war such as picks and shovels for sieges were churned out in their thousands, when Richard I went on his second crusade he took delivery of 50,000 horseshoes from St Briavels. Because of this the castle fortifications were seriously beefed up, including the building of the magnificent twin towered gatehouse that still impresses today. The castle went through dozens of different owners over the centuries but managed to avoid being “slighted” during the English Civil War as the then incumbent Philip the 4th Earl of Pembroke declared for Parliament, avoiding the unfortunate fate it's neighbour Goodrich Castle suffered.
As you'd expect, St Briavels Castle has a multitude of alleged ghosts. It was used as a prison all through the medieval era right up until 1842 and boasts an oubliette – a tiny dungeon cell – in one floor. Visitors have felt a choking sensation around their throat, been touched by unseen hands, smelt perfume, and seen countless apparitions including a grey lady, a fully armoured knight and a groaning man crawling on his hands and knees. The castle is used as a youth hostel today and many of it's residents have been kept awake all night listening to various creaks, groans and footsteps. Some of the carved graffito in the old prison area dates from the 1600s.
A tradition that dates right back to when the castle was first built is the “Bread and Cheese Dole”, when bread and cheese would be thrown from the castle walls to the local folk gathered below. This took place every Whit Sunday and is still very much observed today – although this last year's was called off. So a “dole claimant” was somebody resident in the Forest who had the right to receive this benefit but with extra income always the focus, outsiders were permitted to join in if they had paid a penny to the earl for the right to gather firewood nearby. The dole used to be thrown from the neighbouring church wall but the occasion became such a raucous affair that it was moved over to the castle. Like many such annual traditions a small fair grew up around it and drunkenness ensued, with much of the bread and cheese being used as makeshift missiles to be hurled around, with some accounts describing the poor rector as getting the worst of the bombardment as he clambered down off the wall. In time small pieces of St Briavels bread or cheese became lucky charms, imbued with magical powers even, and many Free Miners in the Forest carried such charms with them for protection at work. It was said that a piece of Dole cheese was often placed in a matchbox and put under a person's pillow, then the resulting dreams would show them their future.
I love St Briavels Castle, I like it's unique location as the centre of the village so I was saddened to see the destruction it suffered last week. Looking at it they should be able to clean up the bricks and rebuild it using a cement mix authentic to the era it was built. When things hopefully get back to where they were I heartily recommend the neighbouring pub The George which serves wild boar straight from the Forest. The Bread and Cheese Dole will be back on this year at Whitsun with participants getting in the spirit dressed in medieval garb, and I'll be there
The impressive gatehouse of St.Briavels Castle
The iconic Horn of the Forest sits atop St Briavels
The storm damage to the castle walls from last week, hopefully the stones can be cleaned then rebuilt using authentic mortar
Graffiti from the dungeon area, "William Abbes 1681"
The bread and cheese is doled out from the wall