Sylvia Beamon was an archaeologist and anthropologist who became a leading expert in underground structures. She first visited Royston Cave in 1967, having moved to Royston in 1961, and became enchanted with the mysteries and theories that surrounded it.
At that time, only three theories about the cave’s origin had been documented. The first, presented by William Stukeley in 1743, was that the cave was a private chapel, cut in the mid 12th century, for local noblewoman Lady Roisia De Vere, while his contemporary, Charles Parkin, concluded that it was a hermitage. In 1852, local historian Joseph Beldam suggested that the cave was a Romano-British construction, first used as a Roman sepulchre, and later converted into a Christian oratory around the time of the Crusades. Each wrote and published a book on the subject.
Unconvinced by these prevailing theories, Sylvia began her own investigations. This was the beginning of five decades worth of research, which ultimately led her to conclude that Royston Cave was primarily used as a temporary storage site for the Knights Templar and that, after disputes with Royston’s priory, it was altered the site to become a private place of prayer fro them, which Templars were required to do regularly each day.
Initially, Sylvia serialised her ideas in the Royston Crow newspaper in 1970. Her research developed and became the foundation for a thesis, which achieved her a scholarship to the Lucy Cavendish College, Cambridge, where she was subsequently awarded a Masters degree.
In 1976, after a joint archaeological examination with Lisa Donel, Sylvia published a co-authored report titled An Investigation of Royston Cave in collaboration with the Cambridge Antiquarian Society. A resistivity test performed in 1972 had shown some anomalies, so it was decided to excavate two diagonally opposed quadrants in the cave’s floor. Compacted soil was removed which unearthed some 18th century pottery shards and pieces of clay pipe. Lisa and Sylvia also uncovered two tiled compass points marking north and south, and later discovered west in the removed debris. Post holes were uncovered as well which led to Sylvia being one of the first to suggest that the cave may have had a partial wooden floor supported by legs, a theory later expanded by Peter Houldcroft in his book The Medieval Structure within Royston Cave.
Two decades later, Sylvia first published her book Royston Cave: Used by Saints or Sinners?. This extensive volume details the cave, its carvings, her Knights Templar theory and the local facts that connect and evidence her ideas. Sylvia’s book remains the go-to for further reading about the cave and her research and resources continue to aid our understanding of the cave today. This book was followed in 1998 by the publication of a simplified guide titled Exploring Royston Cave.
Among her reasonings for linking the cave to the Templars was her claim that some of the patterns cut into its wall, such as the axe heads, hands, hearts and concentric circles, also appear on the walls of Tour Du Coudray in Castle de Chinon, France. This fortress was known to have been used as a prison where five of the dignitaries of the Knights Templar, including their last Grand Master, Jacques de Molay, were held in 1308.
Sylvia also collated documents and data that showed the Knights Templar were established around Royston and had connections to local nobility. They held a stronghold in Baldock, for instance, approx. 9 miles from Royston, which produced most of their crops and food supplies. The Templars would visit Royston regularly too, to sell these goods at Royston’s market, and there are numerous records of disputes between the Templars and Royston priory’s monks over market fees. Sylvia recorded in her investigations that, in 1254, the Master of the Templars sued the prior of Royston’s monastery for ‘imprisoning and beating certain of his men who had come to the market on Knights Templar business’. She also found evidence that Peter de Rochester, who inherited the manor of Newsells, on whose land Royston was situated, had become a Knights Templar and, upon his death, had bequeathed 100 acres of land to them.
Sylvia’s fascination with underground structures evolved and, in 1974, went on to found Subterranea Britannica, now an international society with over a thousand members worldwide, all who share Sylvia’s passion for man-made and man-used underground spaces. Syliva co-authored Ice Houses in Britain in 1990, which is still recognised as the definitive work on icehouses in the country, and published Underground Mythology in 2002. Above ground, Sylvia worked hard to document the history of Royston, particularly after events such as Royston’s Gas Incident in 1991, on which day Royston was nearly blown off the map. She also played an important part at Royston Museum, assisting the Curator with its Collection and coordinating groups for young historians.
Beside her archeological work, Sylvia was a keen local campaigner. She was a key member of The Retreat Parent and Social Group, which improved pathway safety, and founded The Stork group for new mums. This group subsequently became the Royston Community Association and was instrumental in the establishment of The Coombes Community Centre in Royston. Most importantly, Sylvia was a loving mother to 4 children, and nan to 13 grandchildren and 4 great grandchildren.
Sylvia’s books on Royston Cave are currently available to buy from Royston Museum.
Beamon, S.P. (1992). Royston Cave: Used By Saints or Sinners? Baldock: Cortney Publications.