A Letter from George North. 1742.
Codicote. 28th Sept 1742.
On Sunday last I [received] a letter from Mr. Ducarel, inclosed in a frank from you, desiring me in the name of several Brother Antiquaries to make inquiry concerning a vault found at Royston, upon which I went over yesterday, and found it not only different from what I apprehended, but indeed from any thing I ever saw before. The workmen are not yet at the bottom by 8 feet, therefore can give but a very imperfect account of it. I have enclosed a rough draught by way of section, to which I must for illustration’s sake refer you.
At the intersection of the Ermine and Icknield Street there stood Roises Cross before there was any town, the stone into which it was fixed being still there. That part of the Ickneild Street which is on the E. Side of the main street, or London Road, is used as a cheese market; in which a few paces E. By S. of the Cross stone this remarkable Cell is, discovered after this manner.
In endeavouring to drive a stake, at about a foot they could drive no further, upon which they searched and found a millstone (as at A) and observed that the dust round it ran away downwards, thereby proving a cavity underneath: which mill-stone being removed they found like a well-hole, which for several feet was empty and then chalky rubbish, which having drawn up, they came at about 12 feet to a hole (at B) which opened into another cavity filled up with the same chalky stuff. This with great labour and greater danger they dug away and drew up in baskets, by the hole BA, till they found the shape and dimensions of a Cell, in the form as represented E C F. From the arch or crown at C, they have emptied 20 feet perpendicular, and by searching find that from C to D, where they come to the firm rock is 28 perpendicular it is not perfectly circular where we stood, being 16 feet diameter one way, and 18 in another part. There are already discovered, tho 8 feet from the bottom, several figures raised in Relievo in the rock on the right and left hand side of the Passage B. On the right hand side are 2 rude figures of men and women; on the left, a large man or woman with a child on its arms or shoulders, like a Christopher, then a large hand reaching at a bird flying (but these two are graved or indented and seemingly not so ancient) next, our Saviour on the Cross between two thieves; then two portraits, one with a crown on its head. The whole exceeding rude, without any taste or proportion and the evident work of very remote ages. The whole cell, or Hermitage or whatever you will please to call it, is hewn with great labour out of the natural rock of chalk stone, upon which the whole town stands. A part of the Rock at G is faulty, and there it is repaired, or I should say strengthened at first, with free stone and tiles placed edgeways.
Almost opposite to the entrance B seems to appear the top of an arch, which the work men imagine will lead them to the ancient way into it, for the hole at B (where I went down) was when first found, no ways large enough to admit any body; but seems designed only for a vent or air hole. The top or crown work at C was curious composed of tile work and within a foot of the street and directly close to the groundsel of the door of a house.
The priory stood SW a little distance off, and some imagine there may be a way thither, which a week or ten days will discover, I am very well satisfied (tho several, as in such cases, have been endeavoured at) that nothing has been found more than a human skull, and the remains (which I saw) of a small drinking cup of common brown earth spotted with yellow; and a piece of brass without any figure or inscription on it. There is no tradition in the town concerning it to lead to the design of it. It appears to be a work of great antiquity; probably much older than the town, for it must certainly have been dug before the houses near it were erected; which we may suppose were the first built of any, because so near the cross which was there before the town. The town is not mentioned in Doomsday Book; but was so considerable soon after, that H. Richard the first in his first year, granted the Canons of the Priory, before founded by Eustace de Merc, knight, a fair for all the week of Pentecost, and in every week of the year four markets according to the Customs and Liberties of the Canons of Dunstable.
The times of this cell being filled up was, I imagine, after the fire, which happened here in 1405. 7th Henry 4th by which the town was almost consumed. Had it been long since, most probably, some memory or tradition of it had been preserved; whereas after such general conflagrations many things are lost and buried in obscurity. The spindle hole of the millstone being placed so exactly in the centre of the well hole A, induces me to think it was not intended to be lost for ever. I have not sent any draughts of the figures on the wall, because but a small part of them appears as yet: and I have taken care to have a full account of whatever shall be found from the Bailiff of the Manor.
I hope this account will be acceptable to you, when the rest is discovered I will inform you of all particulars.
Thank you to the Society of Antiquaries of London for permission to transcribe this letter and reproduce the attached image. You can find a digitised copy of the entire minute book in their online catalogue; https://collections.sal.org.uk/sal.02.004.