The Discovery of Royston Cave
Royston Cave was discovered by accident in August 1742 by workmen erecting a bench in the market house above. The bench was to be used by traders selling their produce at the cheese and butter market held there.
On digging foundations for the bench, a millstone was found in the ground at a depth of approx. 30 cm. It had a hole in its centre through which workmen lowered a plumb line, a device used to find the depth of water. The line descended to a depth of approx. 5 m.
When lifted, the millstone uncovered a vertical, well-like shaft approx. 60 cm in diameter. Toeholds had been cut into the chalk at equal distances and on opposite sides to form steps like a ladder. A small boy made the first descent, followed by a thin man with a lit candle. They discovered that the shaft was approx. 1.2 m in length and passed into another cavity which was filled with loose earth and debris. This infill of Royston Cave was obviously purposeful and was probably done at the time the cave was abandoned, either to hide evidence of its existence or because it was simply no longer useful.
In the expectation of finding treasure, the shaft was enlarged and two hundred bucket loads of earth were emptied from the cave. The discovery aroused local and national interest and workmen were reportedly forced to work at night due to a growing crowds of spectators. Mr George Lettis, the bailiff of Royston Manor, and Mr William Lilley, tailor and salesman who lived in the adjoining house, were recorded as the chief movers in opening and emptying the cave.
Almost immediately after the Cave was discovered, it was visited by Reverend George North at the request of the Society of Antiquaries, of which he was a member. Rev. North stated in a letter to the Society that Royston Cave was not only different from what he anticipated but from anything he had seen before.
No scientific archaeological investigation was made at the time but, according to Rev. North, the contents included a skull, some decayed bones, fragments of a small drinking vessel of ‘common brown earth marked with yellow spots’ and an unmarked piece of brass.
At the time of Rev. North’s visit, the workmen had not yet reached the bottom of the cave and no carvings had been discovered. Therefore, North’s observations were from a higher level and his account is incomplete. In a letter to the Society he enclosed a rough illustration of the cave’s appearance at that stage. The letter and drawing will be published to our website later this month.
Rev. North remarked that the ceiling dome had either been repaired or strengthened with stones and tiles and that it came within approx. 30 cm of the street above. He also noted the appearance of the top of an arch, opposite the shaft through which he entered. He concluded from its narrowness that it was designed as a vent or air hole. This is now known as the Eastern Shaft. Rev. North believed Royston Cave was ‘the work of remote ages, and certainly [made towards the beginning of] the existence of a town on the spot.’
On 15 October 1742, a letter was written to Dr. William Stukeley describing Royston Cave:
‘You being a person very curious in things of antiquity, I thought it would [please] you to give a short account of a place thought to be a very great curiosity…in removing a stone the workmen found it was hollow and that there was in fact a large cavity beneath the street. So they then imagined that some very great treasure was hid in that place, but only found a skull and some human bones…some think it was for a place of worship in the earliest times of Christianity…but all think it a great curiosity.’
Dr William Stukeley was one of England’s first field archeologists. He visited, studied and reported on heritage sites across the country, notably Stonehenge and Avebury. Stukeley arrived in Royston on 19 October 1742 to find the cave entirely cleared, revealing the extensive carvings in the lower part of the chamber. Stukeley made sketches of the cave and its carvings which he published with an account of the discovery in his 1743 book, ‘Palaeographia Britannica: or, Discourses on Antiquities in Britain. No. I’. While not always entirely accurate, his drawings are a good comparison with what exists today.
Stukeley recorded the finding of no additional artefacts except a small seal of pipe-clay, marked with a fleur de lys, which came into his possession shortly after his visit. The skull, described by Stukeley as female, remained in its place, although by now it had been broken into several pieces and its teeth had been taken as souvenirs by townspeople. The decayed bones had, for the most part, been carried away with the debris. In the subsequent years, all remaining artefacts were either sold, taken or distributed elsewhere and the current locations of them are now unknown.
Stukeley described Royston Cave with great enthusiasm:
’The light of the candles scarce reaches the top and that gloominess overhead increased the solemnity of the place. All around the sides it is adorned with imagery, in [low relief], of crucifixes, saints, martyrs and historical pieces.’
Stukeley concluded that Royston Cave was, in his opinion, the private chapel of Lady Roisia, after who the town is thought to be named, and that it was her skull that was discovered. However, Stukeley only saw the cave from the bottom and by candlelight so, like Rev. North, his studies are imperfect. With the subsequent discovery of a date (1347) by its eastern shaft, it is a shame that neither carried out a more careful inspection of the cave at the time.
Royston has been welcoming visitors to its cave ever since. It became the town’s premier attraction, advertised at the time as ‘the greatest curiosity of the kind in Europe’, and people still travel across the country to see it. Without record of its origin or purpose, the cave remains an enigma, 280 years after its discovery, and is still considered to be one of the most unique and mysterious sites in Britain.
Since the recordings made by Dr. Stukeley and Rev. North, various features of Royston Cave have changed. A new access tunnel was dug in 1790 and the original entrance shaft was sealed, most of the brickwork concealing the Eastern Shaft was removed, the domed ceiling was destroyed and replaced with brick, and the cave walls have been damaged by natural erosion and vandalism.
Beamon, S. (1992). Royston Cave: Used By Saints or Sinners? Baldock: Cortney Publications.
Kingston, A. (1906). A History of Royston. Royston: Warren Bros.
Beldam, J. (1898). The Origin and Use of The Royston Cave. Fourth Edition. Royston: Warren Bros.
Stukeley, W. (1743). Palaeographia Britannica I: or, Discourses on Antiquities in Britain. London: R. Manby