It stands almost 800 feet (240 m) above sea level on the edge of a limestone plateau above the valley of the River Wye, above an ancient meander of the river. To the west, Cinder Hill drops off sharply into the valley.
The village, once known as 'Ledenia Parva' (Little Lydney), is sheltered behind the crumbling walls of its 12th century moated Norman castle, which was garrisoned by Miles of Gloucester for King Henry I as early as 1130.
The castle was later granted to him with the Forest of Dean in July 1141 when he was made Earl of Hereford.
St Briavels Castle has been a Norman fortress, a Royal castle and hunting lodge of King John of England, and was also visited by Henry II, who made the castle the administrative and judicial centre for the Forest of Dean. It has also been a prison, a school and a private house, but today it is a youth hostel.
Little is known about the origin of St Briavels. The name is thought to be from a much-travelled early Christian missionary, Brioc, whose name also appears in places as far afield as Cornwall and Brittany.