February 21, 2024

St. Mawes Castle & St. Briavels Castle

St. Mawes Castle

St. Mawes Castle guards the eastern entrance to the estuary known as Carrick Roads. It is the companion of Pendennis and exactly contemporary. These two Henrician coastal forts offer some interesting contrasts. In each a squat round tower is the chief feature, but instead of having a square residential block slapped on in front of it, the St. Mawes tower is elaborated by three attached semi-circular bastions with parapets at a lower level. A distinctive stair turret caps the tower.

St. Mawes is unlike Pendennis but like the majority of Henry VIII’s forts in being low lying and thus able to challenge enemy shipping at close quarters. Both castles share Henry’s other fortifications, the rounded merlons designed to deflect cannon balls, the large embrasures for guns at several levels, and the emplacements for drawbridge and portcullis, the latter showing that the forts were intended to offer some resistance at close quarters if the enemy ever landed. Above the entrance we encounter again a panel of the royal arms. On the rocks in front of the castle is a semi-circular blockhouse matching the one in Pendennis, perhaps erected as an emergency fortification before the real work started.

In terms of size, the castles would appear to have been conceived as equals and their early governors were bitter rivals. With the Elizabethan enlargement of Pndennis, however, St. Mawes shrank into a subsidiary role. Its part in the Civil War typifies this. In contrast with Pendennis Castle’s heroic stance, the royalist governor here wisely judged the castle to be indefensible from the land and surrendered without a shot being fired. The insignificance of St. Mawes has allowed it to survive in a very unspoiled condition. Not only has the stonework suffered very little, but within there is a surprising amount of original woodwork.

St. Briavels Castle

St, Briavels Castle occupies an elevated site overlooking the Wye Valley and the Welsh Border. Niles Fitz Walter, Earl of Gloucester, first built the castle during the Anarchy, but Henry II took possession in 1160 and it remained a royal stronghold thereafter. Kings, especially John, came here to hunt in the Forest of Dean. It between times, it served as the administrative center of the forest, which was important for iron forges, and the castle became a stone house for the innumerable crossbow bolts made there.

A massive gate house dominates the castle, Built by Edward I in 1292, it must have been a good example of the keep gate house theme and a worthy counterpart to the gatehouses of Edward’s Welsh castles. The effect is marred now by the loss of the parapet, long since displaced by pitched roofs, and the destruction of one side of the long gate passage.

Semi-circular flanking towers rise from square bases which retreat back into the wall as short pyramidal spurs. This strengthening of the wall portcullises closed the gate passage, and smaller portcullises even barred the doorways leading into the porter’s lodges. Beneath one of these lodges is a pit prison, and later the entire gatehouse served as a prison for those who had fallen foul of the harsh forest laws. Originally, however, the two upper floors of the gate house contained a hall and other apartments for the constable.

The gatehouse forms one end of the present house, which originated as a suite of royal apartments. Though much altered in the Jacobean period and later, the house preserves a lot of masonry from King John’s time, notably a reset fireplace in the so-called Jury Room. An altered chapel projects into the bailey, but the hall that stood opposite has vanished.