The Royston Cave
The Royston cave is a small but absorbingly interesting artificial cave in Royston in Hertfordshire, England. It was almost certainly used by the Knights Templar, who are also thought to have founded nearby Baldock. It is open to the public in the summer months.
Above: Plate I from Joseph Beldam's book The Origins and Use of the Royston Cave, 1884.
Royston Cave is a circular, bell-shaped chamber 8 metres (26 feet) high and 5 metres (17 feet) in diameter with a circumferential octagonal podium. The origin of this chamber is unknown. This cave is unique in Britain - if not the world - for its numerous medieval carvings on the walls. They are mostly of pagan origin, but some of the figures are thought to be those of St. Catherine, St. Lawrence and St. Christopher.
Above: Plate II from Joseph Beldam's book The Origins and Use of the Royston Cave, 1884.
It is speculated that it may have been used by the Knights Templar before their Proscription by Pope Clement V in the 1312. The sect held a weekly market at Royston between 1199 and 1254 and travelled there from their headquarters at Baldock, some 15 Kilometres to the southwest. They would have required a cool store for their produce and a chapel for their devotions, and a theory speculates that the cave was divided into two floors by a wooden floor. Two figures close together near the damaged section may be all that remains of a known Templar sign, two knights riding the same horse.
Above: Plate III from Joseph Beldam's book The Origins and Use of the Royston Cave, 1884.
Although the origin of the cave is unknown, the story of the rediscovery is very well known. In August 1742 a workman dug a hole in the Butter Market in order to get decent footings for a new bench for the patrons and traders. He discovered a buried millstone and dug around the curious stone to get the object out of the way. So he found a shaft leading downwards into the chalk.
At the discovery the cavity was more than half-filled with earth. The rumour was, that there must be a treasure buried beneath the soil inside the cave. Several cartloads of soil were removed, until bedrock was reached. The soil was discarded as worthless, it did not contain anything more than a few old bones and fragments of pottery. This is rather unfortunate, as today's archaeology could be able to solve some of the secrets of this place!
The location of the cave is also very interesting: Melbourn Street, once called Icknield Way or Via Icenia, was first used during the Iron Age, possibly 2000 years ago by an ancient tribe of Celts called the Iceni. The most famous Iceni was Queen Boudicca (died 60 AD). At a later date the Icknield way was Romanised by Caesar. It runs from near Falmouth towards East Anglia. - the modern day A505 between Royston and Baldock, follows the route of the Icknield way, until it meets the Royston Bypass.
Today the entrance is not by the original opening, but by a passage dug in 1790 and it is still possible to appreciate the sculptures which are almost as good today as when they were completed, possibly 800 years ago.
It is thought that the sculptures were originally coloured, but little trace of this is visible now. For the most part they represent scenes of religious significance, amongst them the Crucifixion and various saints. St Lawrence is depicted holding the grid iron on which he was martyred. A crowned figure holding a wheel is thought to be St Catherine and large figure with a staff and a child on his shoulder represents St Christopher. A figure with a drawn sword is thought to be St Michael or possibly St George. Another possibly religious symbol is the depiction of a naked woman known as a Sheela Na Gig. This figure is normally found on 11th-13th century churches so its inclusion with religious symbolism is not out of place.
The fact that these sculptures are of uncertain antiquity adds to their interest and offers visitors a chance to speculate on their origins. There are number holes, sometimes directly beneath the sculptures, which were thought to hold candles or lamps which would have illuminated the carvings.
Some theories suggest the cave may originally have been a Neolithic flint mine.
- Royston cave and related caverns, Bob Trubshaw. (External Link).
- The Royston Cave A 'Templar' circular sacred building, Nigel Pennick. (External Link).
- The Royston Cave, Joseph Beldam, 1884. The Full Text of this now hard to find work.
- The Royston Cave, Used by Saints or Sinners? 1992, Sylvia Beamon MA (Cantab). ISBN 0 904378 40 3.
- A Pictorial Guide to the Royston Cave, 1998. Peter T Houldcroft FEng. Published by Royston and District History Society.
- The Medieval Structure Within Royston Cave, Peter T Houldcroft FEng. Published by Royston and District History Society.
- An Investigation of Royston Cave, Sylvia Beamon and Lisa G Donel. Camb. Antiq. 68, 1978.