There are many marks, symbols and scratchings on the walls of Royston Cave that are not associated with the larger carvings. While most are graffitied names and dated, carved by visitors since the cave’s discovery in 1742, some are thought to have more specific meaning.
It’s common to find a variety of manmade marks on old buildings. Some, for instance, are made by the carpenter or stonemason that worked on its construction. Carpenters marked the wooden beams used in timber framed buildings to distinguish where beams were to be placed during assembly, and stonemasons marked the stones they had cut to identify who should be paid.
Beyond these builder’s marks, you may also find protection symbols. Protection symbols, or apotropaic marks, were drawn or scratched with the belief that these symbols had the power to avert bad luck or evil influences. These marks are often called ‘witch marks’, but this term can be misleading as they were also used to deter hauntings, demons and thieves. Protection symbols can be found in churches too, which means the people who made them thought there was need for extra protection, beyond those provided by God.
Protection marks are typically found near openings or thresholds such as chimneys, windows, and doors, to prevent the evil entering the property, site or structure. Even in places such as caves, marks have been found near places where a draught could be felt – seen as the boundary between the physical and spiritual worlds. Creswell Crags caves in Derbyshire, for example, have hundreds of protection marks placed high on the walls and ceilings and by dark holes and large crevices. Creswell Crags is believed to be the largest collection of apotropaic marks in the UK.
There are many different types of protection marks, from pentagrams to mesh patterns, but some are more common than others.
The first, and oldest, protection symbol is known as the daisy wheel or hexafoil. To produce this design, you would need a fixed two-point compass - a stone mason’s dividers or sheep shears could have been used. A circle was made, followed by a six-petalled flower carved or drawn within the circle, using the fixed two points for spacing. Some were rotated and repeated to make a more complex pattern.
The next most common protection symbol was the Marian mark, thought to be a representation of the Virgin Mary. These marks may look like a ‘W’ but are actually two overlapping ‘V’s, thought to represent the Virgin of Virgins. Marion marks can also be inverted to create an ‘M’. The worship of Mary was a very important part of pre-reformation religion and these marks were made in the hope that Mary would protect their location.
From Marion marks to concentric circles, if you look closely, Royston Cave features a lot of shapes and symbols carved into its chalk walls which many interpret to be witch marks, either contemporary with the cave’s construction or carved since the cave’s discovery, to protect the town against any evil spirits that unearthing the cave may have released.
In Royston, there are records of four woman being executed as suspected witches, at a similar time that King James I used Royston as his countryside retreat. James believed that witches were trying to kill him, and his reign encouraged mass hysteria across England and Scotland. In 1597, James wrote Daemonologie, a book about how the devil operated in the world and, in 1604, he passed a law making witchcraft punishable by death, which popularised witch hunts and trials. In Knole House, Kent, various protection marks were discovered carved into the wood of a room which supposedly accommodated James I.
Clarke, D. (2020). Marks of the Witch: Britain's ritual protection symbols. Fortean Times (392), 36-43.
Hoggard, B. (2019) . Magical House Protection: The Archaeology of Counter-witchcraft. Oxford: Berghahn Books.
National Trust (Unknown). Witchmarks at Knole and the Gunpowder Plot. National Trust. Viewed Sep 2023. < https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/visit/kent/knole/witchmarks-at-knole-and-the-gunpowder-plot>