One of the largest and most prominent carvings in Royston Cave is a figure thought to represent St Christopher, which stands directly below the entrance shaft on the northern side of the cave. He is depicted with the Child Christ on his left shoulder and is holding an uprooted tree as a staff in his right hand. St Christopher has been painted, sculpted and carved in this same pose since the 6th century. His effigy was usually placed near the entrance of sacred buildings, as a symbol of baptismal admission to the Christian faith, so it makes sense that his carving is at the cave’s entrance.
St Christopher began life as a man called Reprobus. Reprobus was born in Canaan, in the Middle East, and is said to have been 7.5 feet tall. Wanting to serve the most powerful person he could, Reprobus served the King of Canaan until he realised the king feared the devil, at which point Reprobus decided to serve the devil instead. He joined a group of thieves whose leader claimed to be the devil but, when Reprobus noticed the leader feared the crucifix, he learned that there was someone even more powerful than the devil. Reprobus later met a hermit who taught him about Christ and the Christian faith. The hermit suggested Reprobus should lead a life of prayer and fasting but Reprobus refused, instead choosing to serve God by offering to work at a river and helping travellers to cross it.
One day, a child approached the river and asked Reprobus to help him cross it. During the crossing, the river started to rise and the child became so heavy that Reprobus struggled to carry him effort. When they finally reached the other side, Reprobus exclaimed that the child seemed to weigh as heavy as the whole world, to which the child revealed himself as Christ.
Reprobus was renamed Christopher, meaning Christ bearer, and preached the word of God, converting thousands of people to Christianity. The Roman Emperor Decius imprisoned him and tried to lead him into sin with beautiful woman. Instead, Christopher converted the women to Christianity. After several failed attempts by Decius to kill him, Christopher was beheaded in c. 251 AD.
St Christopher only really gained popularity in the 7th century. Churches and monasteries were named after him and, in English churches, St Christopher is depicted more than anyone except the Virgin Mary. He is the patron saint of travellers, floods, lightning, gardeners, storms and toothache, and his feast day is held on the 25 July each year. Today, some people wear pendants with St Christopher’s image on, as a symbol of protection and guidance through life.
As patron saint of earthquakes, William Stukeley, an historian who visited Royston Cave just after its discovery in 1742, believed that the St Christopher in the cave was carved in response to an earthquake in England in 1185. This event is said to have been followed by a solar eclipse, storms and fires. Stukeley compared the cave’s St Christopher with a painting of him in Westminster Abbey, drawn c. 1250.
To the right of the entrance shaft are two further figures, side by side. Another figure, now destroyed, could be seen kneeling below them, with a smaller figure straddling their neck. Joseph Beldam, who studied the cave in the mid 1800s, believed that this scene depicted Mary and Joseph placing Christ on the neck of St Christopher, as they prepared to cross the river. Unfortunately, these carvings have mostly disappeared so we only have old drawings for reference. Beldam suggested that the river itself was represented by the grooved channel beneath the northern shaft, scored to imitate water, which descends in between these figures and that of the larger St Christopher, which Beldam compared to a figure cut into the chalk at Guildford Castle. Beldam concluded that Royston Cave was a wayside hermitage used to guide travellers through Royston’s crossroad, which may explain St Christopher’s prominent position.
In 2012, Philip Lankester, an art historian specialising in Middle Ages, believed that, based on comparisons with other depictions of St Christopher in England, it is likely that the Royston Cave carving dates from the mid to late 1300s. Comparisons in form and style can be made with a St Christopher painting found at Corby Glen, Lincolnshire, with similarities including the knee-length drapery gathered at the waist, the slight s-shaped stance of the saint, the positioning of the child, the tilt of the head and the outstretched arm.
There are many, like Joseph Beldam, who have suggested that the cave was originally a pagan site that was successfully Christianised by adapting and changing its carvings into the saints we see today. If this were the case, the carving of St Christopher may have originally been intended to be the Greek god Hermes. Hermes was the protector of heralds and travellers, not too dissimilar to St Christopher, and was able to move freely between the world of the mortal and divine. He was sometimes shown with a sheep on his shoulder and holding a staff. Hermes’ servants were called hermits and they became spiritual guardians of the road.
By the 4th century, the Romans adopted Hermes into their own religion under the name Mercury. Stone markers called Herms, showing the carved head of Hermes and a phallus, were often placed at boundaries or crossroads. With Ermine Street, a major Roman road, and the ancient Icknield Way forming a crossroad above the cave, it seems plausible that St Christopher was intended as a Herm.
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.
Beldam, J. (1877). The Origin and Use of The Royston Cave. Third Edition. Royston: Warren Bros.
Beamon, S.P. (1992). Royston Cave: Used By Saints or Sinners? Baldock: Cortney Publications.