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Royston Cave

A Scheduled Monument in Royston, Hertfordshire

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Latitude: 52.0481 / 52°2'53"N

Longitude: -0.0235 / 0°1'24"W

OS Eastings: 535636.400658

OS Northings: 240704.351115

OS Grid: TL356407

Mapcode National: GBR K7Q.DXC

Mapcode Global: VHGNB.JSY8

Entry Name: Royston Cave

Scheduled Date: 18 August 1923

Last Amended: 11 July 1997

Source: Historic England

Source ID: 1015594

English Heritage Legacy ID: 27200

County: Hertfordshire

Civil Parish: Royston

Built-Up Area: Royston

Traditional County: Hertfordshire

Lieutenancy Area (Ceremonial County): Hertfordshire

Church of England Parish: Royston

Church of England Diocese: St.Albans


The cave is located beneath the southern pavement of Melbourn Street near the
crossroads in the centre of the market town of Royston which, broadly
speaking, perpetuates the junction of the prehistoric and Roman trackway,
known as the Icknield Way, and Ermine Street - the Roman Road from London to
York. Although used in the medieval period, the cave was evidently sealed up
and its existence remained unknown until 1742 when workmen erecting a bench
for the butter market in the Mercat House (since demolished) discovered a
millstone closing the entrance to a narrow vertical shaft. This shaft, now
sealed beneath the modern road surface, descended some 4.8m to enter the cave
about half way up the north western side. Toe holds had originally been cut
into the opposite sides of the shaft to ease access, but these were
subsequently lost as the opening was enlarged to remove a large quantity of
loose earth from the cavity beyond.
The cave itself is a man made bell-shaped chamber cut into the middle chalk
bedrock which underlies the town, measuring c.5.2m in diameter at the base and
some 7.7m in height. The roof of the cave is a narrow dome, supported or
strengthened by a tile work crown at the time of its discovery, but since
bricked over leaving a narrow shaft which leads to a grille in the modern
pavement. A step or podium, some 0.9m wide and 0.2m high, extends from the
base of the wall, leaving an octagonal depression in the centre of the floor.
This step is interrupted by an irregular hollow against the north east wall,
which was cleaned out at the time of the cave's discovery and referred to as
the `grave' by William Stukeley, who visited shortly after. It is now thought
to have served as a sump, cut to collect and drain water which permeates
through the walls of the cave. A narrow cornice, decorated with reticulated
markings, runs around the walls approximately 2.4m above the podium,
separating the cylindrical lower section of the cave from the tapering profile
above. Almost the entire area between the podium and cornice is decorated with
an elaborate series of medieval carvings in low relief. These include
representations of The Crucifixion and possibly of the Holy Sepulchre and Holy
Family; unequivocal depictions of St Christopher, St Lawrence and St
Katherine, and figures which have been identified as St George, Thomas Becket,
Richard I and his queen Berengaria, and the biblical King David. Christ and
the disciples are thought to be represented in a crowded panel of figures
above `St George', and other groups of figures have tentatively been
identified as saints and martyrs from the crosses and hearts which adorn their
dress. The main carvings, which may have been illuminated by lamps placed in
small niches or attached to brackets inserted in small holes in the walls, are
interspersed with other symbols including disembodied heads, hands with
superimposed hearts, and circular devices. Larger niches, not unlike aumbrys,
occupy several places within the frieze. Many of the sculptures were
originally coloured. Traces of the pigments were still visible in the 19th
century and, although this is no longer visible, recent scientific analysis
has confirmed the presence of residue.
The cave was almost certainly divided into two levels by a floor above the
line of the cornice which would have placed the carvings in a lower chamber.
Two quadrants of the compacted earth covering the floor of the cave (within
the podium) were excavated in 1976 revealing indications of footings for a
timber structure. This evidence, together with a number of shallow niches in
the wall above the cornice, suggests a frame or trestle on perhaps four legs
supporting a platform which was stablised by beams pressed into the wall. Such
a floor would explain the position of the original entrance (half way up the
cave wall) and the existence of several larger niches which would only have
been accessible from this level. A second shaft, too narrow for access, leads
upwards from higher in the dome on the north east side of the cave. This may
have served for ventilation, but has also been proposed as a chimney allowing
fumes to escape from a cresset (a large oil lamp) set at the level of this
floor. An area of the wall beneath this opening (which is blocked below street
level) is carved and tinctured to resemble brickwork.
On stylistic grounds the wall carvings are generally accepted to date from
around the 13th century, although whether this provides a date for the cave's
construction is open to debate. Origins in the prehistoric or Roman period
have been postulated but, if so, later use and elaboration has obscured any
evidence. Artefacts discovered during the initial clearance included only a
few sherds of pottery (probably medieval), a human skull and some bones, an
indeterminate piece of brass and, perhaps, a small pipe-clay seal bearing the
impression of a fleur-de-lys. Finds from the 1976 excavation were limited to
objects left since its discovery.
The function of the cave has also raised considerable speculation. It almost
certainly lay beneath a building, but a purely prosaic use, such as a cellar
or cold store, is unlikely given the nature of the carvings and the difficulty
of access, and a conventional religious use is doubtful given the complete
lack of documentary evidence for its existence. William Stukeley, who wrote
two works on the cave between 1743 and 1746, suggested that it formed the
private oratory for Lady Roisia de Vere, wife of Geoffrey de Mandeville. The
Rev Charles Parkin refuted Stukeley's arguments in two successive books,
claiming that the cave was a hermit's cell and oratory associated with the
cross which stood at the crossroads nearby. Neither theory is susceptible to
proof. Joseph Beldam, writing in 1877, introduced the idea that the carvings
(perhaps applied within a cave of greater antiquity) dated from the period of
the Crusades, and recent detailed analysis has led to suggestion that the cave
had, at sometime, a connection with the Knights Templar. Some of the more
obscure symbols interspersed amongst the figurative sculpture have parallels
on the walls of the Tour du Coudray in the Castle of Chinon where many
Templars were confined after 1307, following the suppression of the order in
France by by King Philip the Fair. It may follow that a group from the order,
which was quite prominent in the locality, used the cave as a place of worship
and perhaps a refuge in which to avoid persecution during the widespread
suppression which followed the edict of Pope Clement V in 1314. Early visitors
to the cave were lowered by winch through the original entrance shaft. The
present entrance, a 22m long tunnel passing beneath the street to an entrance
beneath the building on the north side, was excavated during the winter of
1790 by the then owner, Thomas Watson, and was sited to penetrate the base of
the cave wall on the north eastern side, the only part which was not covered
with carvings. This tunnel, with the exception of the short section above the
steps leading to the surface (which has been much modified), is included in
the scheduling.
The railings, light fittings, duck boards and other modern features within the
cave and the passage are excluded from the scheduling, although the fabric of
the cave to which they are attached is included. The ground above the cave
(measured from the greatest diameter of the lower part of the chamber) and the
passage is also included in the scheduling in order to ensure the future
protection of the monument. The modern road surface and pavement, and the
foundations of overlying buildings, are excluded.

The site of the monument is shown on the attached map extract.
It includes a 2 metre boundary around the archaeological features,
considered to be essential for the monument's support and preservation.

Source: Historic England

Reasons for Scheduling

The Royston Cave is a remarkable man-made feature without parallel, in
structural terms, either in England or in Western Europe. Despite intensive
study, the reasons for the construction or elaboration of the chamber in the
medieval period remain open to debate, although the choice of a subterranean
location and the difficulty of access clearly points to a ritual rather than
purely functional purpose. Structural evidence within the cave suggests an
elaborate internal framework and flooring, adding to our knowledge of the
manner in which the internal space was utilised. Further evidence relating to
this structure will remain sealed beneath the unexcavated sections of the
floor. It is to be hoped that artefactual evidence in these locations, or the
scientific analysis of the material at the floor of the cave, may provide
further clues to the date, duration and character of use, and possibly provide
insights into the cave's origin.
The figurative carvings which cover the lower part of the cave wall are
similarly unique in western Europe, a recent extensive study having found
comparable examples only in Czechoslovakia and the former Palestine. Despite
their age and the erosion caused both by early visitors and modern
environmental conditions, the carvings and other features of the cave survive
well, enabling detailed analysis of the artistic style and symbolic nature of
the sculpture. The iconography represented in the carvings is undoubtedly
medieval in date, but the source of inspiration - whether the Templar order or
some lesser known cult - will continue to generate debate. Nevertheless, the
carvings allow a highly valuable insight into the workings of the medieval
mind and provide the visiting public with a vivid impression of an expression
of medieval faith outside the usual surroundings of the church.

Source: Historic England


Books and journals
Beamon, S P, Royston Cave - Used by Saints or Sinners, (1992)
Beamon, S P, Donel, L G, An Investigation of Royston Cave, (1993)
Beldam, J, The Royston Cave, (1877)
Farmer, D H, The Oxford Dictionary of Saints, (1990), 166
Houldcroft, P, The Medieval Structure within Royston cave, (1995)
Parkin, C, Answer to, or Remarks upon, Dr Stukely's Origines Roystonianae, (1744)
Parkin, C, Reply to the weak objections in Origines Roystonianae No.2, (1748)
Stevenson, M, Guide to the Royston Cave, (1995)
Stevenson, M, 'Herts Arch J.' in Bronze Age Funerary Deposits in the Royston Area, , Vol. 9, (1986), 8-14
Stukeley, W, 'Discourse on the Antiquities in Britain' in Palaeographia Britannica, , Vol. II, (1746), 57
Stukeley, W, 'Discourse on the Antiquities in Britain' in Palaeographia Britannica, , Vol. I, (1743), 5
conversation with curator & historian, Beamon, S and Vincent, J, (1996)
discussion of iconography, Went, C, (1996)

Source: Historic England

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