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St. Catherine of Alexandria

High above the large cross on the western side of Royston Cave, thought to be the site of its main alter, stands Saint Catherine, holding the infamous spiked wheel associated with her martyrdom. This honorary position in the cave, in relation to the alter, may suggest that St. Catherine is the person to which Royston Cave is dedicated.


Here, Catherine holds the wheel in her right hand, displays a cross on her dress to signify her as a saint, and wears a crown. Female martyrs usually wear a crown to symbolise their metaphorical marriage to Christ - a life dedicated to virginity for His sake. In St. Catherine’s case it also symbolises her rank as a princess.


St. Catherine © Royston Cave


Dr. William Stukeley (1687-1765), notable historian and antiquarian, who visited Royston Cave shortly after its discovery, attributed Catherine’s prominence in the cave to the victory obtained by the Crusaders at the Battle of Montgisard on the plains of Ramla. The battle occurred on St. Catherine’s feast day on 25th November, 1177.


Despite being heavily outnumbered, the Crusaders were victorious against Saladin in what became one of the most notable battles of the Middle Ages. The Knights Templar attributed their unlikely success to St. Catherine and memorialised the occasion by erecting a monastery on the battlefield, dedicated in her name. Catherine subsequently gained prominence throughout the Western world and became revered by the Templars, who named a number of churches after her.


Stukeley added that Lady Roisia, to whom he attributed the origin of Royston Cave, carved the figure of St. Catherine as gratitude for her protection of Roisia’s son, William de Mandeville, Earl of Essex and lord of the local manor of Newsells, who is said to have fought at the Battle of Montgisard.


Stukeley believed that the panel on the cave’s northern side, to the left of St. Christopher, was also dedicated to St. Catherine. He suggested that the large rectangular recess cut into the wall represented her prison, with Catherine seated at one end and reclined at the other; that the outstretched hand beneath the reclined figure, now crumbled away, represented her devotion to religion and the protection of God; and that the bird carved above the panel depicted the holy dove which brought her food. The two large niches beneath this panel would have held candles which Stukeley suggests were lit on Catherine's feast day each year. Joseph Beldam (1795-1866), local writer and antiquarian, agreed with this theory, although these days the northern panel is more commonly believed to depict the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.


Northern Panel © Royston Cave


Recent studies of the style of Catherine’s crown depicted in the cave show that it does not resemble any other known examples of medieval crown. This crown is formed of five uprights, all joined by arches of uneven height. Above the central upright is a diamond shape or, possibly, a fleur-de-lis. Based on the style and form of Catherine’s crown, it’s been suggested that this carving is unlikely to date from before the second half of the 14th century. This casts doubt on the theories provided by Stukeley and Beldam.


Alternatively, those who believe Royston Cave to be of Pagan origin claim that the figure depicted in Royston Cave is not St. Catherine but Persephone, Queen of the Underworld. They suggest that the geomantic position of the cave is correct for an entrance to the underworld, centred at the crossing-point of the Mary and Michael Ley lines and the two major Roman roads, Icknield Way and Ermine Street.



The Legend of St. Catherine


Saint Catherine of Alexandria was born c. 287 AD in Alexandria, Egypt. She is believed to have been born into nobility, possibly a princess, and from a young age she devoted herself to study. She was said to be very intelligent and an avid scholar. Around the age of 14, Catherine experienced a vision of the Virgin Mary and the Child Jesus, who placed a ring on her finger. She subsequently converted to Christianity and dedicated her life to the Church.


Caravaggio, Saint Catherine of Alexandria, c. 1598-99 © Fundación Colección Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid.


When the Roman Emperor Maxentius began persecuting Christians, Catherine visited him to condemn his cruelty. She argued so forcibly that, rather than order her execution, Maxentius summoned 50 of the best philosophers to debate her and promised them great rewards if they could outsmart her. Catherine spoke so eloquently in defence of her faith that, one after another, the philosophers admitted defeat and converted to Christianity.


Unable to defeat her with words, the Emperor ordered Catherine to be arrested and tortured but she refused to abandon her faith. While in prison, it is said that Catherine was visited daily by a dove, who provided her with food. Following her imprisonment, Maxentius made a final attempt to seduce Catherine by asking her to marry him. She refused, saying she was married to Christ and that her virginity was dedicated to Him.


The Emperor ordered her to be executed on a breaking wheel. The breaking wheel was an ancient form of torture in which a person's limbs were tied to the spokes of a wheel while their bones were shattered with a club. It was a brutal punishment that resulted in a slow and painful death. Catherine went to die willingly but, according to legend, the wheel shattered when she touched it. Maxentius ordered her to be beheaded instead. It is said that, instead of blood, a milk-like substance flowed from her neck. She was 18 years old.


It is believed that angels then took her body to the top of Mount Sinai, Egypt. In the 6th century, a monastery was established there in her name. St. Catherine’s monastery still remains today and is one of the oldest monasteries in the world.


During the medieval period, when her story became widely circulated, Catherine became one of the Church’s most famous and popular saints. Her popularity increased further still at the beginning of the 15th century when Joan of Arc claimed that Catherine had appeared to her in a vision and counselled her. St. Catherine’s feast day is celebrated on 25 November by most Christian churches.


Many chapels were placed under Catherine’s patronage, and nearly all churches had a statue of her. She is the patron saint of philosophers, students and unmarried girls, among others. During the Middle Ages, Catherine was used as an example of 'proper' feminine behaviour; a model of virginity and chastity to which women of the time aspired.

Catherine was also a popular subject in art, particularly during the Renaissance. She is always represented as young, beautiful and crowned, often with a palm, book or sword in her hand. Her most recognisable symbol is the spiked wheel associated with her martyrdom. She is usually depicted holding or standing next to the wheel which often appears broken. Known fondly as the Catherine wheel, it now most famously gives its name to the spinning firework.


In reality, there are no surviving primary sources proving Catherine’s existence, so the legend of her heroic virtue exists only in tradition and storytelling. Catherine doesn’t seem to have even been mentioned before the 9th century and the historical accuracy to her story is doubtful. It has been suggested that perhaps Catherine’s story may actually be based on the life of the Greek philosopher Hypatia (d. 415 AD), with the roles of Christians and Pagans reversed. The idea that Catherine's life was either based on or confused with the life of Hypatia, or a similar figure, has become a popular theory among modern scholars.


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References


Stukeley, W. (1743). Palaeographia Britannica I: or, Discourses on Antiquities in Britain. 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

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. (1992). Royston Cave: Used By Saints or Sinners? Baldock: Cortney Publications.

Houldcroft, P. (1998). A Pictorial Guide To Royston Cave. Royston: Royston and District Local History Society.

Catholic Online (Unknown). Saint Catherine of Alexandria, Catholic Online, viewed 23rd November 2020, <https://www.catholic.org/saints/saint.php?saint_id=341>

Encyclopaedia Britannica (2017). Encyclopaedia Britannica, viewed 23rd November 2020, <https://www.britannica.com/biography/Saint-Catherine-of-Alexandria>

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