In the small historic market town of Royston, Hertfordshire, is a curious artificial cave, cut into the chalk bedrock. Known as Royston Cave since its rediscovery in 1742, local opinion since the 1970s has held that it was a shrine used by the Knights Templar. As one of us (Keith Fitzpatrick-Matthews) is an archaeologist in North Hertfordshire, the local government district in which the cave lies, we are concerned that virtually all the available information about the cave stresses this supposed Templar connection when the evidence for it is very weak. In particular, the various internet resources tend to copy each other and repeat the same stories without supporting evidence. The first hit on Google takes the browser to a page that mentions the Knights Templar, the Masons, James I (alleged without evidence to have been a Mason!) and ley lines; it concludes that “The Cave is a mystery”. We hope to show that it is nowhere near as mysterious as those promoting its ‘mysteries’ would wish us to believe.
We have been asked to point out that the contents of this page are not the responsibility of North Hertfordshire District Council nor do they necessarily reflect the views of the council. Rather, we are concerned that there seems to be little room for discussion of the cave, given its promotion as a ‘mysterious’ monument associated with the Knights Templar, which dominates so much of the publicity surrounding it.
You can also now read this article in Dutch, on Bart Mertens’s site Grenswetenschap.nl: uw daeglĳkse dosis verwondering.
The cave was rediscovered in August 1742, during the construction of a bench in the town’s Merkat House, where the butter and cheese market was held. The workmen digging the foundations uncovered a millstone; on lifting it, the top of the entrance shaft was exposed and, having ascertained by plumb-line that it was 4.9 metres (sixteen feet) deep, they sent down a small boy on a rope to investigate. He reported that there was a cavern with an earthen floor, so a thin man was subsequently lowered into the cave, who confirmed what the boy had reported. After widening the entrance shaft, the workmen set to work emptying the space, using a bucket on a block-and-tackle suspended above the shaft. George Lettis (the bailiff of the manor) and William Lilley (a tailor and shopkeeper), who lived close to the cave, were responsible for encouraging the work. Carrying out the clearance at night, owing to the crowds of people who were hindering their efforts by day, the workmen are said to have removed around two hundred bucket-loads.
Around 2.4 m (eight feet) of soil are recorded as being dug out from the base of the cave (which suggests that 9.4 or so cubic metres of soil were removed, far more than could be accommodated in two hundred bucket loads); the Reverend George North (1706-1772), Vicar of Codicote 1743-1772 and an antiquary with a specialist interest in numismatics, reported that it contained a human skull, a number of other bones (it is not clear if they were human or animal), fragments of a small brown earthenware cup decorated with yellow dots and a piece of copper alloy plate. None of the material was kept, as no-one at the time understood that it could yield useful information. On the contrary, the main aim of those who emptied the cave was to find treasure, perhaps concealed in hidden side passages: to their disappointment, they found neither a network of tunnels nor treasure. On the other hand, the curious carvings uncovered in the lower part of the cave gave rise to speculation about its origins and purpose.
On a visit later in the same year, the antiquary William Stukeley (1687-1765) found a piece of pipeclay bearing a fleur-de-lys, which although described as a ‘seal’ sounds more like part of the bowl of a common clay tobacco pipe. However, the published drawing shows that it was not from a pipe. Pipeclay was used in the Roman period to make small figurines (some of which seem to have been children’s toys, while others were religious trinkets) but was not widely used during the Middle Ages except for providing a white slip to fill impressed designs in decorated floor tiles. Its use became commonplace during the sixteenth century for the manufacture of clay tobacco pipes; during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, it was also used to make wig curlers. It is probably safe to discount this as a medieval object, despite attempts to use the form of the fleur-de-lys to date it stylistically to the Middle Ages.
In 1790, a new entrance was made into the cave by its then owner, Thomas Watson, consisting of a sloping passageway reaching the floor of the cave at a point where there were no carvings. Watson was a wealthy builder who owned the house on the opposite (north) side of Melbourn Street (the former Icknield Way), where the entrance to the cave is still located. He opened the cave to the public, charging 6d (2½p) a visit, which was a considerable sum for the time. It has been open ever since.
In 1853, the local antiquaries Joseph Beldam (1795-1866) and Edmund Brook Nunn (1833-1904) excavated the floor of the cave, allegedly discovering material that demonstrated that the cave was constructed before the medieval period. Unfortunately, Beldam’s account of the discoveries is brief and he does not elaborate on what they were, although his confident identification of the structure as a Romano-British tomb suggests that he had discovered items of Roman date. A subsequent excavation of the floor in 1976 revealed a possible posthole, although it is not clear how this had been overlooked by Beldam and Nunn.
Description of the cave
The cave is a bottle-shaped circular chamber carved into the solid chalk bedrock of the town. It lies close to the intersection of Icknield Way and Ermine Street, the two ancient roads forming the crossroads around which the town of Royston developed during the Middle Ages. The cave was originally around 5.2 metres (17 feet) in diameter and 7.7 metres (25 feet 6 inches) in height, with a narrow shaft some 0.6 m (two feet) long leading up from the centre of the ‘dome’ to ground level (which seems to have been cut some time after the cave was discovered but before the 1880s). During the nineteenth century, the upper part of the ‘dome’ was removed and replaced with brickwork and steel plates. When first found, the cave was entered through a vertical shaft 0.6 metres (2 feet) in diameter and 4.8 metres (16 feet) deep, which had toe holes on the sides to aid access. The lower, cylindrical, part of the chamber is around three metres (10 feet) high and the lower part of it walls is covered in carvings made in low relief. Around the edge is a low step, some 0.2 metres (eight inches) high and 0.9 metres (three feet) wide, its inner face forming a regular octagon; to the north-east, beneath the original shaft entrance, is a feature known as the ‘grave’, cut through the raised step to a depth of around 0.9 m (three feet) and some 2.3 m (seven feet six inches) long. In the ‘dome’, immediately above the grave, another shaft leads upwards, its entrance partly blocked by ashlar and brickwork (and which was completely blocked at the time of initial discovery).
It is the existence of carvings around the base of the chamber, below the cornice, that has provoked the most interest and controversy. Since its initial discovery, it has been clear that the scenes depicted in low relief are overwhelmingly religious in character, with crucifixion scenes and easily recognisable saints. The style is crude and the work was evidently undertaken by people unskilled in carving. In places, there are signs of alteration and it is therefore likely that the carvings were executed by a number of people over many years. This raises important questions about the authenticity of some of the carvings, as no detailed visual record was made of them before Joseph Beldam wrote an account of the cave in the middle of the nineteenth century, more than a hundred years after the cave was first rediscovered; Stukeley’s drawings from 1742 show less detail than Beldam’s and suffer from the imaginative ‘restoration’ of details such as hairstyles. His booklet was not published until 1784, eighteen years after his death, and the reasons for the delay in publication are not apparently known.
Beldam divided the scenes in the cave into fifteen groups, beginning with the ‘High Altar’ on the west wall (the identification of this carving as an altar was made by Stukeley, who conjectured that it was placed on the ‘wrong’ side of the cave to be as close as possible to the cross that stood in the market place above). Here, the Passion of Christ is depicted, with Jesus on the cross, attended by two people who have been identified as the Virgin Mary and the Beloved Disciple (John). The scene is muddled by the presence of additional figures, which Beldam suggested were added later. The other scenes identified by Beldam are the legend of St Christopher, the legend of St Catherine of Alexandria, a major effigy of the same St Catherine (separated from the legend by the ‘High Altar’), the Invention of the Cross by St Helena, the Holy Family, a major effigy of St Laurence, the Conversion of St Paul, King William the Lion of Scotland, Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine, a shrine to St John the Baptist and St Thomas à Becket, King Henry II of England, King Richard Cœur de Lion and Queen Berengaria, and a group of people identified as a genealogy. Some of these identifications are certain (St Catherine and St Laurence, for instance), while others (the various Plantagenet English monarchs, for instance) are much less so.
Beldam used the iconography of the carvings to suggest a date. Noting that the men do not wear beards and that none of the knights appears fully coated in plate armour, he suggested that the carvings date from the twelfth or thirteenth century. The presence of King Richard Cœur de Lion and Berengaria – if the carvings do represent this royal couple – would suggest a date after 1191, when they were married. On the other hand, some have claimed to see plate armour of fourteenth or fifteenth century type and two dates have been carved on the walls of the cave: a single year figure of 1347 carved into the dome and not recorded before Beldam, and a brief inscription reading Martin 18 February 1350. It is unclear how authoritative these figures are. Beldam was sceptical of the 1347 date and conjectured that it may have been altered from 1547. The use of arabic numerals in the middle of the fourteenth century, while not impossible, would be unusual; the precisely contemporary graffiti in the tower of nearby Ashwell church uses the more usual roman numerals to express dates.
Early hypotheses about its use
In 1742, after his visit to the cave, William Stukeley published Palaeographia Britannica; or, discourses on Antiquities in Britain no. 1: Origines Roystonianae; or an account of the oratory of lady Roisia, foundress of Royston, discovered in Royston in August 1742. Stukeley suggested that the cave was built as an oratory c 1170 by Lady Roisia (‘Rose’) the younger, wife of Geoffrey de Mandeville and supposed founder of the town. The skull found by the workmen was, he claimed, definitely female and therefore hers. The booklet was not well received, the Reverend Charles Parkin (1689-1765), rector of Oxborough (Norfolk, UK), writing a response, Answer to Dr. Stukeley’s Origines Roystonianae, in which he claimed that the carvings were of Anglo-Saxon origin and that the skull could not be that of Roisia, who was buried at Chicksands (Beds, UK). Stukeley responded with Palaeographia Britannica or discourses on Antiquities in Britain no.II, or defense of Lady de Vere, Foundress of Roiston, against the Calumny of Mr. Parkin, rector of Oxburgh wherein his pretended answer is fully refuted: the former opinion further confirm’d and illustrated. To which are occasionally added, many curios matters in antiquity. Clearly, the cave was going to be controversial from the moment of its discovery.
In 1834, the antiquary John Yonge Ackerman suggested that the cave was originally built as a Roman tomb; Joseph Beldam improved by conjecturing that the cave originated as a shaft, later expanded into a Romano-British columbarium, a chamber used to receive cremation burials. He suggested that later, during the Crusades, it was decorated for use as an oratory attached to a hermitage, remaining in use until the Reformation in the middle of the sixteenth century. Although the hypothesised Roman columbarium never received widespread support, Beldam’s suggested dating and function as an oratory remained the principal accepted explanation for the cave until late in the twentieth century. Occasional dissenting voices were heard: for instance, after the first electric light was installed in 1965, making the carvings more easily readable, the eccentric retired archaeologist Thomas Charles Lethbridge (1901-1971) claimed to discern pagan symbolism among the overtly Christian carvings.
The new ‘consensus’
During the 1970s, a local archaeologist, Sylvia Beamon, began researching Royston Cave. Her results and speculations are published in The Royston Cave: used by saints or sinners? Local historical influences of the Templar and Hospitaller movements. Recognising that artificial underground caverns are uncommon, she set about looking for parallels and found only one, at the late thirteenth-century castle of Sloup, 2 km from Svojkov, north-east of Česká Lípa and south-west of Nový Bor in the Czech Republic. Like Royston Cave, the Sloup chamber is a bottle shaped cave and seems to have been established as a prison in the late thirteenth or early fourteenth century, resembling an oubliette donjon. Documentary evidence shows that underground chambers in the castle were used as a hermitage between 1690 and 1785. Like Royston Cave, there are carvings of a religious nature covering the lower walls of the chamber, which are supposed to be contemporary with its use as a hermit’s cell. It is worth noting that this was much later than the use of Royston Cave.
Next, Sylvia Beamon set about finding parallels for the carvings at Royston. She found that after the arrest of Templar knights in 1308, a group held in the Donjon du Coudray at the Château at Chinon (Indre et Loire, France) is said to have carved figures on the limestone walls of their prison. She claims close similarities between these graffiti and the carvings at Royston. However, they are far from impressive, as a comparison of the two shows; any similarity is perhaps more likely to be a result of the dates of the two sets of carvings rather than their origin in the symbols of a specific religious order. Moreover, the Templar connection with the carvings has been thoroughly debunked by Hervé Poidevin, showing that any stylistic comparison derives from a common date. Nevertheless, the comparisons claimed by Mrs Beamon seem to have been generally accepted and have given rise to a new orthodox opinion that regards the cave as almost certainly the work of the Knights Templar.
Beyond the Knights Templar: Freemasons and conspiracy theories
To many people, there is a link between the Knights Templar and Freemasonry, which fills numerous books, especially those towards the ‘conspiracy theory of history’ end of the popular market. These links, which were first made by eighteenth-century historians of Scottish Freemasonry, involve tendentious and wrong readings of medieval documents and outright falsification. The links became taken for granted among the more speculative writers of what is unnecessarily kindly referred to as ‘alternative history’ following the extraordinary success of The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail by Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh and Henry Lincoln (Jonathan Cape, 1982), in which not only were these alleged links popularised, but the idea of a bloodline descending from the Christian prophet Jesus first proposed. This bloodline theory has caught the popular imagination, spawning a great deal of fiction and highly derivative pseudo-histories, to the point that it is now described by some as a ‘medieval heresy’, despite no evidence ever having been found for its existence. Mary Magdalene has become a figure of interest among feminist writers and others anxious to find the feminine in early Christianity, a somewhat forlorn and fruitless search.
The current custodian of the cave, Peter Houldcroft (born 1924), is keen to promote what he claims to be its connections with the Templars, the Holy Grail, the Illuminati and any other fringe belief that the journalist interviewing him happens to stress, even to the point of contradicting views expressed in different interviews. It almost goes without saying that there is little substance to his claims. For instance, based solely on the possible posthole discovered in the floor of the cave in the 1970s, he postulates a wooden platform on four legs supporting a platform in the shape of a six-pointed star, one point of which could be swivelled and which held a cresset used to illuminate the cave. There is simply no evidence other than that one, somewhat dubious, posthole.
In a similar leap of imagination, a depiction of a horse is said to represent the Celtic goddess Epona, the adjacent figure is said to be a Sheela-na-Gig, and the nearby sword is a symbol of the Levantine goddess Astarte! Would it be churlish to point out that such things as horses and swords existed in the medieval world and were perfectly mundane objects? It has to be said that Beldam’s explanation of this group as the conversion of St Paul is equally silly. Moreover, there are problems with the supposed Sheela-na-Gig. Firstly, it does not resemble the usual type of this figure, where the hands are generally shown holding open the vagina rather than being placed either side, so is the identification secure? Secondly, Beldam’s depiction of the figure is quite different, showing a robed person apparently feeding the horse. Whilst it can be argued that Victorian sensibilities might have prevented Beldam from showing the pudenda of a Sheela-na-Gig, there would have been no reason to change a naked figure into a robed figure: are we therefore looking at a later alteration of the figure to make it appear ‘pagan’?
The true origins of the cave: a suggestion
It is known that a hermit lived in Royston around 1506, when he bequeathed a sum of money to the parish of Bassingbourn (Cambridgeshire), recorded in the churchwarden’s accounts of the parish, and that a hermitage in the parish of Barkway (in other words, south of the Icknield Way) was acquired by Robert Chester at the Dissolution (he held the manor from 1540 until his death in 1574). During the sixteenth century, the lord of the manor is said to have “buylded up in the myddest of Icknell Streate… a fayer House or Crosse… for a clockhowse and a Pryson Howse; the lord of the manor concerned was the same Sir Robert Chester who had purchased the hermitage. This may well have been when the cave was filled to the depth recorded in 1742, sufficient to cover the carvings, which would then have been seen as popish and superstitious.
Closer parallels for the carvings than those suggested by Sylvia Beamon exist at Carlisle Castle (Cumbria, UK), where they have been dated to the 1480s, while a shrine base at St Issey (Cornwall, UK) is also of late fifteenth century date. They include much the same type of religious depictions, which Stephen Doree conjectured in 1993 to be “intended to give spiritual comfort and consolation”. It was suggested by Joanna Mattingly in 2007, for instance, that the figure identified by Beldam as the uncrowned Queen Berengaria is in fact the uncrowned King Edward V (1470-c 1483), which resembles a depiction of the murdered king in the chantry chapel of Bishop Oliver King (c 1430-1502) at St George’s, Windsor (Berks, UK). Certainly, others have seen the style of the carvings as fifteenth century rather than earlier and Sir Nikolaus Pevsner (1902-1983) was even prepared to see them as being as late as the seventeenth century.
All in all, Royston Cave is a fascinating site. A visit is not easily forgotten as the site exudes an aura of mystery (aided by the guide’s narrative, which stresses the mysterious) and the carvings are memorable for their symbolism, their crudeness and their unfamiliarity. However, the current consensus rests on a number of utterly false assumptions and improbable analogies, but it has the appeal of romance, like so much Bad Archaeology.