Royston Cave was discovered by accident in 1742 by workmen erecting a bench in the butter market above. A millstone was found in the ground which, when lifted, uncovered a vertical, well-like shaft. Toeholds had been cut into the chalk to form steps. A small boy was volunteered to make the first descent and found the cave to be filled with earth and debris.
In the expectation of finding treasure, the shaft was enlarged and the cave was emptied, uncovering extensive carvings in the lower part of the chamber. No scientific archaeological investigation was made at the time but according to Rev. G. North, who visited the cave shortly after its discovery, the contents included a skull, some decayed bones, fragments of a small drinking vessel and an unmarked piece of brass.
Man-made and beehive shaped; Royston Cave is cut approx. 8 m into the chalk that lies beneath Royston’s ancient crossroad, Ermine Street and Icknield Way.
The cylindrical lower part of the cave is approx. 5 m in diameter. Around its base is a raised octagonal step. It is too low for sitting so was probably used for kneeling and prayer. Dug into the cave's eastern end is a shallow depression. The purpose of this depression is unclear, but some believe it was used for initiation ceremonies.
It's likely the cave was lit by a form of oil burning lamp called a cresset. The cave’s eastern shaft, decorated with limestone bricks, may have been a chimney to take away the smoke.
Post holes within the wall indicate there may once have been a higher wooden platform that came to a height just below the entrance shaft. Further post holes in the floor suggest the platform was on legs. Such a structure would have given access to the line of large niches, seemingly intended for storage.
In 1790, the present entrance tunnel was dug to allow easier access for visitors.
Royston Cave is decorated with extensive low relief wall carvings, some of which may have been originally coloured. The carvings are mostly Christian in depiction and medieval in style.
There are four prominent carvings of saints in the cave: St Christopher, patron saint of travellers; St Katherine, holding a representation of the spiked wheel associated with her martyrdom; St Laurence, holding a depiction of the gridiron on which he was martyred; and a military saint, possibly St George, holding an upturned sword. The sword points to a line of thirteen figures, assumed to be Jesus and his disciples.
There is a large panel which appears to relate to the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Its uppermost carving shows the outstretched hand and arm of God releasing a dove. Immediately below the dove was the body of a shrouded figure of which only the head remains. This may represent the body of Jesus within the Holy Sepulchre prior to his resurrection.
There are two crucifixion scenes; a figure believed to be King Richard I (The Lionheart); and a carving with upraised arms, thought to be King David of the Psalms. The panel to the left of King David is most commonly believed to be a memorial to the last Grand Master of the Knights Templar, Jacques de Molay. Elsewhere in the cave are non-Christian carvings, including the figures of a horse and an Earth Goddess, known as a Sheila-na-gig, believed to be Pagan symbols for fertility.
Many smaller figures and symbols remain unidentified. A figure holding a skull in its right hand and a candle in its left is thought to show a candidate for initiation and may be a clue as to what the cave was used for. A recent study on the designs of the crowns, swords and costume depicted in the cave suggest that the carvings were likely made in the mid-1300s.
Royston Cave remains an enigma. No records of its age or purpose exist. Its origin has baffled visitors and historians alike for centuries.
The most popular theory is that Royston Cave was used
by Knights Templar. With a stronghold in Baldock, approx. 8 miles from Royston, and having visited Royston often to sell produce at its market, it’s possible Knights Templar used Royston Cave as a secret place of worship. Carvings similar to that in Royston Cave have been found at Templar sites across Europe.
King James I's involvement with Freemasonry has long been disputed but some argue that he helped establish it in England, after it originated in Scotland where he was also king. With James owning a large palace in Royston and visiting the town often to hunt, some theories suggest the King used Royston Cave to practise Freemasonry, away from the prying eyes of his court. If that's the case, Royston Cave is one of the earliest examples of a Freemason's Lodge in England.
Some suggest Royston Cave was a hermitage, the
subterranean home of a hermit. A hermit is someone
who lives in solitude as a religious discipline. It was common in the Saxon period for hermitages to be established by the side of roads, so Royston Cave's proximity to the crossroad may not be a coincidence. Some suggest that travellers would pay the hermit to pray for their safe passage and that less notable figures carved in the cave could be effigies of its more generous benefactors.
Lady Roisia's Chapel
Lady Roisia, after which Royston is thought to be named, was the wife of William the Conquerer's steward. They owned extensive land in the area, including the site where Royston sits. Having been attributed to establishing the stone cross at Royston's crossroad, some suggest Lady Roisia used Royston Cave as her private chapel.
Royston Cave is visited by Earth energy and Pagan visitors. They believe the Michael and Mary Ley lines meet inside the cave. Ley lines are thought to connect sacred sites with electromagnetic energy. The Michael and Mary lines are also said to cross through Glastonbury and Avebury. It’s believed the Ley lines create a powerful source of healing energy and that Royston Cave has been a sacred place for thousands of years.
Who were the Knights Templar?
The Knights Templar were a religious and military order of monks, formed in c. 1119 to protect pilgrims travelling to the Holy Land. They were prominent in farming, accepted valuables for safe transit and fought in the Crusades. They became an influential order acquiring vast wealth and land across Europe.
By the end of the 13th century, support for the Knights Templar had dwindled. In 1307, they were declared heretics by Pope Clement V and King Phillip IV of France who, deeply in debt to the Templars, sought to lay claim to their wealth.
Persecution and imprisonment of the Templars followed swiftly throughout Europe, and many fled or went underground.
Many have studied the cave, theorising on its origin and use, and each contributes to our understanding of it.
William Stukeley (1687-1765) was a famous historian and antiquarian who pioneered the study of Stonehenge and Avebury. He wrote two books on Royston Cave suggesting it was the private chapel of Lady Roisia, after which Royston is thought to be named. He believed the human skull discovered in the cave was that of Lady Roisia.
Rev. Charles Parkin
Charles Parkin (1689-1765) was an historian and clergyman. He denied Stukeley's theory. Instead, Parkin suggested the cave was a hermitage associated with the nearby crossroads.
Joseph Beldam (1795-1866) was a local lawyer, writer, historian and advocate for the abolition of slavery. He began investigating Royston Cave in 1852 and introduced the theory that the carvings dated from the period of the Crusades, though perhaps carved within an existing cave of greater age.
Sylvia Beamon (1936 - 2021) was a local archeologist, author and founder of Subterranea Britannica. Sylvia first visited Royston Cave in the 1960s and, unconvinced by the prevailing theories, began her own investigations. Following decades of research, Sylvia concluded that the cave was a copy of the Holy Sepulchre used by Knights Templar either before, or just after, their persecution in 1307.
Peter Houldcroft (1923-2020) was manager of Royston Cave from 1990-2008. He first introduced a link between the cave and Freemasonry and used his background as an engineer to better our understanding of the cave's internal wooden structure.