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Royston Cave is a small artificial cave in Royston in Hertfordshire, England. It is located beneath the crossroads formed by Ermine Street and the Icknield Way. It is protected as both a scheduled ancient monument and Grade I listed building. It has recently been speculated that it was used by the Knights Templar, who founded nearby Baldock, but this is unlikely, despite its enormous popular appeal. It is more likely that it originated as a cell for anchorites from the nearby Augustinian Priory, although a recent suggestion is that it was the town's earliest prison, perhaps dating from the late fifteenth century. It is open to the public in the summer months on Saturday, Sunday and Bank Holiday afternoons between Easter and October.
Royston Cave is a circular, bell-shaped chamber cut into the chalk bedrock. It is 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, comparable examples exist only in the former Czechoslovakia and the former Palestine. Some of the figures are thought to be those of St. Catherine of Alexandria, St. Lawrence and St. Christopher.
Royston Cave has been the source of many speculations, although it is hard to determine much about its origin and function.
- Knights Templar: It has been recently speculated that the cave may have been used by the Knights Templar before their dissolution by Pope Clement V in 1312. Although claims have been made that this religious-military institution of the Catholic Church held a weekly market at Royston between 1199 and 1254, the market charter was in fact granted to the Augustinian Canons of the town. It has been speculated that the cave was divided into two floors by a wooden floor, the evidence consisting of a single posthole and what may be beamslots to secure the platform to the walls. Two figures close together near the damaged section may be all that remains of a known Templar symbol, two knights riding the same horse. However, as the image has been repaired in modern times, this cannot be confirmed. In 1953, the architectural historian, Nikolaus Pevsner, wrote that the date of the carvings "is hard to guess. They have been called Anglo-Saxon, but are more probably of various dates between the C14 and C17 (the work of unskilled men)". This would place the carvings after the time of the Templars; certainly the figures in armour are wearing full plate, which would date them to a century after the Templars' demise.
- Augustinian store house: It has been claimed it was used by Augustinian monks from the local priory, who would have required a cool store for their produce and a chapel for their devotions. The idea that it might have been a meeting place for recusant Catholics during the Reformation of the 16th century has little to recommend it.
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 to build footings for a new bench for the patrons and traders. He discovered a buried millstone and dug around it to remove it. He found a shaft leading down into the chalk.
When discovered, 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 as it only contained a few old bones and fragments of pottery. Today's archaeology could have analysed the soil in depth. The Reverend G North's description of a brown earthenware cup with yellow spots discovered in the soil filling the cave sounds like a well-known early post-medieval type, no earlier than the late 16th century.
The cave is at the junction of an ancient east-west track, the Icknield Way, and the north-south Roman road, Ermine Street. Icknield Way was used during the Iron Age and traces of its side ditches have been excavated at Baldock. It has been claimed to run from the Thames Valley towards East Anglia, although this has recently been called into question. The modern day A505 between Royston and Baldock more or less follows its route.
Today the entrance is not by the original opening, but by a passage dug in 1790; one can still appreciate the sculptures, perhaps 800 years old, which are still in good condition. However, due to damp conditions in the cave, insect larvae have recently been found to be infesting and damaging to the carvings (2010).
It is thought that the sculptures were originally coloured, but little trace of this is visible now; in the mid 19th century, Joseph Beldam could still see the yellow dress of St Catherine and the red of the Holy Family. They are mostly religious images, such as the Crucifixion and various saints. St Lawrence is depicted holding the gridiron on which he was martyred. A crowned figure holding a wheel appears to be St Catherine, and a large figure with a staff and a child on his shoulder represents St Christopher. A figure with a drawn sword could 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 sometimes found on medieval churches so its inclusion with religious symbolism is not out of place.
The uncertain antiquity of these sculptures adds to their interest and offers visitors a chance to speculate on their origins. There are a number of holes, sometimes directly beneath the sculptures, which are thought to have held candles or lamps which would have illuminated the carvings.
- English Heritage. "Royston Cave (1015594)". National Heritage List for England.
- English Heritage. "Royston Cave (1102013)". National Heritage List for England.
- Beamon, S 1992 The Royston Cave: used by saints or sinners? Local historical influences of the Templar and Hospitaller movements. Cortney Publications, 1);
- Pevsner, N & Cherry, B 1971 The Buildings of England: Hertfordshire." Revised edition. Penguin, p 282
- Harrison, S 2003 'The Icknield Way: some queries' in Archaeological Journal 160, 1-22, p 15
- Guide to Royston Cave (pamphlet) Local History Series 1999 Royston and District Local History Society.
- Beldam, Joseph. The Origins and Use of the Royston Cave, Being the substance of a Report, some time since presented to The Royal Society of Antiquaries (John Warren, 1884). Available on Google Books .
- Nikolaus Pevsner, The Buildings of England: Hertfordshire, 1953.
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.
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Royston Cave.|
- Royston Cave
- Tradition versus History - from Local History News
- Royston Cave at Showcaves
- Article on the cave by Philip Coppens
- Opening times and contact details
- Sheela na Gig depicted in the cave
- an article by a local archaeologist