Gloucester
Speech House
Gloucestershire GL16 7EL
 
 
 

Nowadays, the Speech House is a quality hotel in the centre of the Forest of Dean. This impressive 17th century building stands in splendid isolation, 572 feet (174.4 metres) above sea level, surrounded by lovely woods and where the roads from Cinderford, Coleford and Lydney converge.

There are no settlements nearby so what was the purpose of this building and how did it get its strange name.

The location is important – this spot is the traditional centre of the Forest of Dean. From as early as 1338 the Verderers’ Court of Attachment in Dean was usually held at Kensley House, which stood in the centre of the Forest.

A hundred years later, the Court held there was sometimes held on Speeches Day. The house continued to be used for the Court, and was increasingly called the Speech Court.

In 1669 representations were made to the Treasury for a house to facilitate 'the keeping and holding of forest courts for the preservation of vert and venison, in accordance with the laws of the Forest in pursuance of the Act of 1668'.

Assertions were made that Coleford was the most convenient place and the proposal was to erect a Speech House over Coleford Town House. Approval was obtained and the King signed the warrant to fund the structure, but the Warden of the Forest and one of the Verderers opposed this and urged that the building be placed where the old Speech House stood. The decision was changed and Treasury approved in 1676 warrants to clear trees to build the current Speech House.

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The Building
The building is of Forest stone in the Restoration style and dates from 1676-80. It was formerly known as the King’s Lodge; and the surrounding woodland was called the King’s Walk.
 
Five other lodges were built about the same time bearing names of important local personages - York, Danby, Worcester, Latimer and Herbert. The woodland walks to each lodge bore the same names.
 
The prime purpose of the building was to provide an administrative headquarters for the Verderers of the Forest of Dean. Nobody really knows how far back these ancient caretakers of the woodlands go. The Verderers are popularly supposed to have been the institution of King Canute, but the earliest record in the forest is in 1216.
 
From 1682 the building also provided a venue for the Free Miner's Mine Law Court.
 
These Courts acted as a kind of parliament, managing the forest resources and mining rights. By 1858 the Speech House was primarily used as an inn but still retained its function as an Adjunct Court.
 
Verderers’ Court
The unique feature of Speech House is the presence of the original Verderers’ Court dating from 1696. People come from far and wide to see this beautiful panelled relic of the 17th century. This amazing room is now used as the hotel’s restaurant unless it is required for Court sittings.
 
The function of the Verderers’ Court was to safeguard the Royal prerogative and local privilege, to preserve vert and venison (vert covered everything which had a green leaf, venison included every wild animal of the chase); Also to see that the Fence Month (fawning season- 15 days either side of Midsummer Day) was observed when no dogs nor driving of cattle or swine or anything else which might disturb the deer was allowed. Each Verderer was entitled to one buck and one doe per year.
 
The Verderers’ Court once had the power of life and limb. For killing one of the King’s deer a serf could lose his life, but a man of higher rank would only be fined five shillings.
 
The Wild Creatures Act of 1971 abolished any prerogative right of Her Majesty to wild creatures except royal fish and swans, but preserved the office of the Verderers. Most of the Verderers’ powers have been transferred to the ordinary courts or the Forestry Commission, and they have lost most of their significance and even reason for existence.
 
Nevertheless, the Court is scheduled to sit 4 times a year when matters concerning the Forest are discussed; in reality, sittings are usually adjourned. A total of four Verderers are elected by the freeholders of Gloucestershire at the Gloucester Court. It is a lifetime appointment and each Verderer is paid a Doe and a Buck a year (although none of the present Verderers have claimed their “salary” since taking office!).
 
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Druid Connection
I am indebted to the popular Forest of Dean author, Humphrey Phelps, “The Forest of Dean” (1982) for this extract:
 
“...Arthur cooke suggests a connection with the druids:

‘At first sight these Attachment Courts would appear to be survivals of early forest laws; but there are those who deem them of a far more ancient origin. A well known antiquarian, now deceased, has pointed out the following facts. That the forty-day intervals at which the courts were held – and are so still – constitute an unusual division of time. That the Druid year held three hundred and sixty days, which, divided by nine – a sacred Druidical number – gives the forty days. Are we, as he suggests, upon the track of some old court or meeting held in Druid times?

Then too, are the old holly-trees which stand so thickly in the woods around Speech House wholly the results of plantings in Stuart times, or are the old and twisted stems to some extent descendants of the Druid days? May not the old forest custom, still practised within the memory of at least one Verderer, of facts being sworn to the Court by witnesses who took their oath upon a stick of holly, date from a long-forgotten past?

Moreover, the Druid day began at noon; the Attachment Courts were appointed to be held at that hour. The facts certainly lend colour to the theory of a Druid origin. ...

Humphrey comments:
The holly-stick ceremony, however, belongs to the Mine Court - which has met at the Speech House.”
 
Ghostly & Other Tales
King Charles II, accompanied by his mistress Nell Gwyn, is supposed to have stopped at the Speech House. There may be some truth to this story because there is an weathered escutcheon over the western entrance to the Verderers’ Court Room bearing the initials and crown of Charles II with the date May 1680.
 
There are many stories associated with Speech House and it is reputed to have several ghosts. One is a quiet lady who walks at midnight, and the other a horseman who carries his head in his hands. Personally, I have not felt the cold shiver of the supernatural here but the stories persist.
 
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The Court Room
The room retains most of its original features; in the 19th century the stone flagged floor was replaced with wood and the rails separating the jury from the accused were removed.
 
An open hearth faces the western wall and at the south end there is a low raised gallery or dais of oak. Nineteen pairs of deer antlers still adorn the walls as they have for centuries. On the east wall lie the two royal spades used in 1957 by HM Queen Elizabeth II and HRH Prince Philip to plant two oak trees over the road from the courtroom.
 
In the Courtroom are the Verderers’ brass plaque of the Royal Coat of Arms and the card advertising the Court proceedings.
 
The Hotel
The hotel has 37 comfortable rooms, some with four-poster beds and en-suite facilities. The Bar and Orangery are open to both residents and visitors and serve light lunches, afternoon teas and snacks. The a la carte restaurant is in the historic old Verderers’ Court Room.
 
Contact & Further Information
Telephone  +44 (0)1594 822607 
Mail  This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
 
Getting There
- By Car From Gloucester Take the A48 towards Lydney. At Westbury-on-Severn take the A4151 for about 2 mile (3.2 km) then take the A4151 through Littledean to its junction with the B4226. About 2.5 mile (4 km) further on is The Speech House.  
 
Google Maps - Speech House