Nearly 2,000 years ago, the Romans built Ermine Street running south to north, from London to York. It became one of the most important Roman roads in the country and Royston grew where it intersected with Icknield Way, a prehistoric highway running east to west, from East Anglia to Salisbury Plain.
The custom of erecting crosses at crossroads developed early in the Christian era and Royston was no exception. The origin of Royston’s cross is unknown, but it has been attributed to a Lady Roisia. Records, dating from just after the Norman conquest in 1066, mention several noblewomen by the name of Roisia. The earliest was the wife of William the Conquerer’s steward, who owned land in the area. It is possible that she erected Royston’s cross or restored an existing monument. At that time, no town existed and the area was known as Crux Roheyes or Roisia’s Cross.
Following the establishment of the Augustinian Priory here in the 12th century, a market was formed and then a town developed. By the early 14th century, Roisia’s Cross had become Roisia’s Town which was eventually contracted to Royston. The stone that formed the base of the cross now stands at the northern end of the High Street.
Royston was an important place during the reign of King James I. On his journey south, from Scotland to London, to be crowned King in 1603, he stopped in Royston to hunt and returned here frequently thereafter. His hunting lodge in Kneesworth Street still partly exists and is now known as the Old Palace.
Royston Cave is an enigma.
No records of its age or purpose exist. Some theories suggest it was used by the Knights Templar, others by King James I and the Freemasons.
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 volunteered to make the first descent and he found the cave to be more than half 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 the 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. 8m into the chalk that underlies Royston’s ancient crossroad, Ermine Street and Icknield Way. Some believe the cave’s shape to be modelled on the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.
The cylindrical lower part of the cave is approx. 5m 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 its eastern end is a shallow depression called ‘the grave’, although it is not thought to have been used as such.
The purpose of the grave is unclear but some believe that it was used for initiation ceremonies, with entry beneath a carving of a crescent moon, representing darkness and ignorance, and exiting under a light, representing knowledge. The light was probably a form of oil burning lamp called a cresset. The cave’s eastern shaft, decorated with limestone blocks painted red to look like brick, may have been a chimney to take away the smoke.
Post holes can be seen within the wall indicating there may once have been a higher wooden platform that came to a height just below the entrance shaft. An investigation of the floor uncovered further post holes which suggest that the platform was on four 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. The original entrance shaft is closed and now lies under the road.
The 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 which points to a line of thirteen figures, assumed to be Jesus and his disciples.
There is a large panel which seems 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 carving which may be Richard I (The Lionheart), and a figure 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, otherwise known as a Sheila-na-gig, believed to be Pagan symbols for fertility.
There are also numerous smaller carvings in the cave, many of which remain unidentified. A figure holding a skull in his right hand and a candle in his left hand, 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 costumes depicted in the cave, suggest that the carvings were probably done after 1350.
Royston Cave is an enigma. No documentary records of its age or purpose exist and there is no organic material present to allow accurate carbon dating. Some theories suggest it was used by the Knights Templar, others by King James I and the Freemasons. Less popular theories point to Royston Cave being used as a prison or a hermitage.
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 through Europe and many fled or went underground.
With a stronghold in Baldock, approx. 8 miles from here, and frequenting Royston to sell at its market, it’s possible that the Knights Templar used Royston Cave as a secret place of worship.
Royston Cave is frequently visited by Earth energy and Pagan visitors. They believe that the Michael and Mary Ley lines meet inside the cave. Ley lines are thought to connect sacred sites across the world with electromagnetic energy.
The Michael and Mary lines are also said to cross through Glastonbury and Avebury. It’s believed that the Ley lines create a powerful source of healing energy and that the cave has been a sacred place for thousands of years.