Lady Roisia's Private Chapel
Royston was formed at the crossing of two ancient tracks; Ermine Street, a Roman road running north to south, and the older Icknield Way, running east to west.
It was common for Romans to erect a sculpture called a Herm at crossroads for the guidance and protection of travellers, and the Anglo-Saxons continued this tradition by erecting crosses for a similar purpose.
It’s widely accepted that at a very early date there was some form of cross or monument established to mark the centre of Royston’s crossroad.
At the time of the Norman Conquest in 1066, no town existed here. The earliest known recording of Royston was in 1184 when it was mentioned in a document from the Pope confirming the establishment of a monastery nearby. It referred to the area as ‘Crux Roisae’, or Roisia’s Cross, named after either the crossroad or the cross that marked it.
In 1189, a market was formed to cater for the monastery's monks, from which inns and houses were built and a town began to grow. Subsequently, Roisia’s Cross became known as Roisia’s Town and has since been contracted to Royston.
Historians have tended to attribute the name of Roisia’s Cross to a noblewoman called Lady Roisia, also translated as Rohese or Rose. It’s believed that she may have erected the cross, or repaired an existing one, to which her name became associated.
Confusingly, however, there have been a few noblewomen called Roisia recorded in the area and it is still unknown to which one Royston owes its name. But there are two we are particularly interested in.
Rohese de Clare
Our first Lady Roisia is Rohese FitzRichard de Clare (c. 1060 - 1121). Her father was Richard de Clare who, according to the Domesday Book, was the eighth richest landowner in England at the time. Rohese’s maternal grandfather, Walter Giffard, was an important Norman baron and one of William the Conqueror’s comrades at the Battle of Hastings.
Rohese married Eudo de Rie (c. 1047 - 1120), also known as Eudo Dapifer. Eudo came to England with William the Conqueror and served as steward of the royal household under William I, William II and Henry I. Eudo was also, importantly, the first recorded Lord of Newsells, the manor which owned the land on which Royston now sits. Newsells’ manor house was only 3 miles from Roisia’s Cross.
As establishing a cross was considered an act of religious devotion and charity, it seems possible that the early owners of Newsells would have had something to do with the cross at Royston.
Rohese had a daughter called Margaret. Margaret married William de Mandeville and gave birth to Geoffrey de Mandeville (c. 1092 - 1144), first Earl of Essex and a prominent figure during the reign of King Stephen.
Both Rohese and Eudo were buried at St John’s monastery in Colchester, which Eudo founded.
Rohese de Vere
Our second Lady Roisia is Rohese de Vere (c. 1110 - 1166). Rohese married Geoffrey de Mandeville, grandson of Eudo de Rie, and so became, by marriage, the granddaughter of our first Lady Roisia. Geoffrey inherited the manor of Newsells upon Eudo’s death so Rohese de Vere became connected to the area as well.
The de Veres were an incredibly powerful and influential family, described as one of the longest and most illustrious line of nobles in English history. Rohese’s grandfather, Aubrey, was the first de Vere to settle in England, following the Norman Conquest, and her father, Aubrey II, was made Chief Justice of England and Master Chamberlain to the royal household by King Henry I.
Rohese’s brother, Aubrey de Vere III, was made first Earl of Oxford by Empress Matilda, daughter of Henry I, having taken her side during the Civil War against King Stephen. Another brother, Gilbert de Vere, was made Grand Prior of the Order of the Hospitallers of St John of Jerusalem in 1195.
Rohese and Geoffrey had four sons; Ernulf, who was banished after the Civil War; Geoffrey, second Earl of Essex who died without children; William, who became earl of Essex following his brother’s death; and Robert.
William de Mandeville (c. 1126 - 1189) was highly favoured by King Henry II, became tenant-in-chief of the manor of Newsells and, in 1176, went on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, associating himself with Knights Templar and Knights Hospitaller. He was highly favoured by Richard I and considered one of the King's most distinguished companions during the Third Crusade.
Following the death of her first husband in 1144, Rohese married Payn de Beauchamp (c. 1120 - 1156), third baron of Bedford, and had four more children. Rohese and Payn founded a priory together at Chicksands, Bedfordshire, in 1150. Following the death of her second husband, Rohese is said to have frequently resided at the priory and is buried in the nuns' Chapter House there.
Lady Roisia’s Private Chapel
William Stukeley was a famous historian who visited Royston Cave in October 1742, two months after its discovery, and concluded that it was the private chapel of Rohese de Vere, our second Lady Roisia.
Stukeley suggested Rohese carved the cave following the death of her husbands and used it as a sanctuary and chapel, abandoning her manor at Newsells to lead a simple and religiously-disciplined life of reading, meditation and prayer. Her grandfather spent his later years in isolation and Stukeley supposed Rohese did the same.
Upon the cave’s discovery, excavators found some human bones which were said to be decayed and, for the most part, discarded with the infill. They also unearthed a human skull which was still in place at the time of Stukeley’s visit. He recorded it as being ‘broken into several pieces’ with teeth that were ‘firm and white’. Its fragments were subsequently taken away by townspeople as souvenirs.
Stukeley identified the skull as female and suggested it belonged to Rohese herself, who Stukeley believed may have intended Royston Cave to be her tomb. Historian John Leland (c. 1503 - 1552), however, records seeing Rohese’s resting place at the priory she founded in Chicksands, Bedfordshire, so that theory appears disproven.
Shortly after his visit, Stukeley reported that a small seal, marked with a single fleur-de-lis, had since come into his possession which he, again, said belonged to Rohese. He made a sketch of the seal and described it as made of ‘white earth like chalk or pipe-makers clay’.
It seems unlikely that Rohese would have dug the cave herself so, if Stukeley’s theory is correct, she probably instructed others to do it for her. It’s more likely that Rohese would have chosen to carve the imagery on the walls, either following notable events or to depict important people.
On the northern side of the cave, below the carving of St Christopher, is a row of figures. Some have crosses on their chest while others have hearts, and some wear helmets on their heads. Although officially unidentified, a prominent theory is that these figures are icons of local nobles and patrons, including; Rohese’s first husband, Geoffrey de Mandeville, her son, William de Mandeville, and Rohese de Vere herself.
Of particular interest here is William de Mandeville, who is thought to have been present at the Battle of Montgisard, Israel, in 1177. It is widely considered as one of the most notable battles of the Crusades. Despite being heavily outnumbered, the Crusaders were victorious and dedicated their win to St Catherine, on whose name day the conflict occurred.
Stukeley therefore believed that the carving of St Catherine in Royston Cave was to show appreciation for her protection of William, who by this point was tenant-in-chief of Newsells, and that the cave itself may be dedicated to St Catherine for the same reason. She certainly holds a very prominent position on the western side of the cave.
Alternate theories for Roisia’s Cross
Many historians believe that Roisia’s Cross predates Rohese de Vere. An alternate theory is that the crossroad was named after the numerous Bronze Age burial mounds which can be seen close by on Therfield Heath. The adjacent long barrow is Neolithic and the oldest standing monument in Hertfordshire.
Danish historian Olaus Wormius (1588 - 1654) described an ancient Scandinavian burial in which the body was burned and the ashes were covered in a large tumulus or barrow. This practise was known as Roiser, and the tumulus itself was called a Roise. ‘De Crux Roisae’, also spelt as ‘Roys’ or ‘Roheys’, certainly has a Scandinavian sound to it and isn’t so easily derived from a Christian name.
Without any form of notable settlement here until the late 1100s, these burial mounds would have been the key characteristic of the landscape for some time. It therefore seems plausible that the structures could have lent their name to the nearby crossroad.
Joseph Beldam, local historian and lawyer who studied Royston Cave in 1852, agreed in part with both theories. Beldam believed that a Saxon cross existed before the Norman Conquest, named after the local burial mounds, but was subsequently rebuilt or repaired by one of our Lady Roisias. He goes on to suggest that the resemblance of the Christian name Roisia to the former Pagan name of the cross may have enabled the monastery to easily substitute them, honouring a member of the family to whom they owed a a lot of of their funding in the process.
Unfortunately, Royston’s cross has long been lost and its current location is unknown. Today, the crossroad is marked by a large stone known locally as ‘Roisia’s Stone’. It has a large square socket in its top and is said to be either; the original base of the cross; a plague stone, to receive road taxes during the plague; or a monument to mark a burial mound. The stone and Roisia’s Cross remain a local landmark and meeting place in Royston to this day.
North, G. (1742). Letter on a Vault Discovered at Royston, Herts. Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of London. Minute Book IV. p. 133-136.
Stukeley, W. (1743). Palaeographia Britannica: or, Discourses on Antiquities in Britain. Number I. Origines Roystonianæ, or, an account of the Oratory of Lady Roisia, Foundress of Royston, discovered at Royston, in August 1742. London: R. Manby.
Parkin, C. (1744). An Answer To, Or Remarks Upon Dr. Stukeley’s, Origines Roystonianæ; Wherein, The Antiquity and Imagery of the Oratory, lately discovered at Royston in Hertfordshire, Are Truly Stated, and Accounted For. London: J. Hoyles
Stukeley, W. (1746). Palaeographia Britannica: or, Discourses on Antiquities in Britain. Number II. Origines Roystonianæ, Part II. or a defence of Lady Roisia de Vere, Foundress of Royston, against the calumny of Mr. Parkin rector of Oxburgh. wherein his pretended answer is fully refuted : the former opinion further confirmed and illustrated. To which occasionally are added, many curious matters in antiquity : and fix copper-plates. Stamford: F. Howgrave.
Beldam, J. (1898). The Origin and Use of The Royston Cave. Fourth Edition. Royston: Warren Bros.
Kingston, A. (1906). A History of Royston. Royston: Warren Bros.
Beamon, S.P. (1992). Royston Cave: Used By Saints or Sinners? Baldock: Cortney Publications.