Friday 24 November 2023

Tullia Minor - Rome's Murderous 'Bad Girl' by Elisabeth Storrs

Tullia runs over the Corpse of her Father by Jean Bardin (1765)

In previous posts, I’ve told the stories of exemplary women of Roman legend such as Lucretia, Verginia and Tanaquil. In The Legend of Tarpeia – a  Roman Morality Tale, I’ve also related the fate of the greedy traitoress, Tarpeia, Today, I tell the tale of the ultimate ‘bad girl’ – Tullia Minor – the last queen of Rome.

The historian, Livy, described Tullia as ‘ferox’ - savage. What did she do to be branded so? Try sororicide, mariticide and parricide then add mutilating a corpse to her list of crimes!

Tullia Minor was the younger daughter of King Servius Tullius, the sixth king of Rome. A son of an enslaved Latin noblewoman, Servius ascended the throne due to the influence of Queen Tanaquil, a gifted Etruscan seer, who foresaw his greatness (see The Legend of Tanaquil and the Auspicious Flight of Birds). After Tanaquil’s husband, Tarquinius, was assassinated, she contrived to have the Senate appoint Servius as monarch in preference to her own two sons, Lucius and Arruns. Servius therefore became king without holding a popular vote (although he later called for one and was successful in the election.)

History records Servius Tullius as a visionary leader who introduced important reforms including the Census. This led to the division of citizens into 5 wealth classes each with the right to vote but also the responsibility to serve in war. Under his reign, the boundary of Rome was expanded to include the Quirinal, Esquiline and Viminal Hills. He successfully established a crucial treaty with the neighbouring Latin League, founding a shrine to the Latin goddess, Diana, on the Aventine Hill to mark their concord.

However, Servius’ popularity in expanding the franchise to the lowest classes of citizens raised the ire of the upper-class patricians. The simmering resentment which ensued paved the way to his downfall. But it was the hatreds seething within his own family that were to effect his demise.

To placate the ousted sons of King Tarquinius, Servius Tullius arranged marriages for them with his daughters. The girls, both named Tullia, (according to the custom of women taking the feminine form of their father’s cognomen) were extreme opposites in temperament as were the princely brothers. Unfortunately, the sweet natured Tullia Major was wedded to the ruthless Lucius, while the scheming Tullia Minor became the wife of the unambitious Arruns.

Determined to gain power, Tullia was frustrated by Arruns’ refusal to overthrow Servius and rightfully reclaim the throne. Instead, she turned to Lucius who matched her zeal. The pair conspired to murder their spouses resulting in brother killing brother, sister killing sister, and both committing homicide of their respective in-laws. Unaware of their part in the assassinations, Servius reluctantly then approved a marriage between Lucius and Tullia Minor.

Emboldened, Lucius embarked on a vicious campaign to undermine Servius’ authority and foment rebellion. Having convinced a bloc of Senators to support him, he proceeded to the Curia Senate House and sat on the throne, surrounded by armed guards. When Servius arrived to accost the usurper, Lucius hurled his father-in-law down the Curia’s stairs into the Forum. Dripping blood and abandoned by supporters, the old man limped along Clivius Orbius, the road to the Esquiline Hill.

When Tullia heard Lucius had seized power, she called for her carriage and sped to the Senate House, hailing her husband as king. She then urged him to kill her father lest Servius survive and raise an army from his remaining supporters. Lucius quickly dispatched assassins who slew the injured Servius and left his mutilated body lying across a small alleyway known as the Vicus Cuprius.

With chaos unleashed in the Forum, Lucius ordered Tullia to return home for her own safety. On the way, she came upon her father’s corpse. In a frenzy, she ordered her driver to force the horses to trample the body. As a result, Tullia arrived at her house with blood spattered clothes as ‘a grim relic of the murdered man... The guardian gods of the house did not forget; they were to see to it, in their anger at the bad beginning of the reign, that as bad an end should follow.’

The historian, Livy, pulls no punches when he describes Tullia as maniacally ambitious and transgressive. Unlike Tanaquil who quietly pulled strings behind the scenes, Tullia harangued Lucius into bloody deeds. ‘To Tullia the thought of Tanaquil’s success was torture. She was determined to emulate it: if Tanaquil, a foreigner, had had influence enough twice in succession to confer the crown – first on her husband, then on her son-in-law – it was intolerable to feel that she herself, a princess of blood, should count for nothing in the making, or unmaking of kings.’

Lucius Tarquinius Superbus and Tullia were to become models of  regal depravity: venal, psychopathic and unjust rulers. But Tullia, as a woman, is held up as a shocking example of private and public impiety who is responsible, in great part, for her family’s exile. For ultimately, Lucius and his family were banished when the Romans could no longer stomach his tyranny, rising in outrage at the rape of the virtuous noblewoman, Lucretia, and her subsequent suicide. See Roman Honour Killings – Lucretia and Verginia. As such, the public actions of two women with diametrically opposed characters can be seen as catalysts for the overthrow of the monarchy and the birth of the Republic.

Borghese Steps, Rome

As an interesting side note, the Via Cupria was dubbed Vicus Sceleratus – the Wicked Street – after Tullia’s desecration of her father’s body. In the early C15th century a grand staircase was built over it connecting the Esquiline to the Basilica San Pietro in Vincoli. The Palazzo that was built over these steps by the Cesarini family was given to Vannozza dei Cattanei, the mistress of Rodrigo Borgia (Pope Alexander V) and the mother of the infamous Borgia children; Cesare, Lucrezia, Juan and Gioffre. The steps became known as the Borgia Steps. On June 14, 1497, Juan Borgia left the family apartments through the heavy door to the stairway and was attacked and killed. His body was then thrown into the Tiber, remaining undiscovered for three days.

The identity of Juan Borgia's murderer remains an unsolved mystery. Was it his brother Cesare? Or a jealous husband or brother avenging their family’s honour? It wasn’t a robbery given his body was found with a coin filled purse. Whatever the answer, the scene of his death resounds with ghostly echoes of Tullia Minor’s crimes. Definitely a street to avoid after dark!

Images courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Quotes from The Early History of Rome by Livy translated by Aubrey de Selincourt, 1971.

Elisabeth Storrs is the author of the A Tale of Ancient Rome saga, and the founder of the Historical Novel Society Australasia. / 

Friday 17 November 2023

Medieval climate change by Carolyn Hughes

A couple of weeks ago here in the UK, we put our clocks back one hour from daylight saving time. So now it’s more or less dark by 4.30pm. I know that some people suffer from SAD, seasonal affective disorder, brought on by the shorter days. I’m not one of them but, even so, I do always have a sense of descending gloom at this time of year, which I know won’t be relieved until the spring. 

But I do take pleasure in any splendid sunny days, such as the morning I am writing this, when the sky is utterly blue and the sun is bright, casting a glorious golden light on those deciduous trees in my garden and beyond whose leaves are turning brown. I suspect it is not all that warm outside but, later on, I will don my coat and maybe a scarf and gloves, and go for a reviving walk.

However, as so often when weather is on my mind, my thoughts turn to the folk I write about in my novels, people who lived in the fourteenth century. For us, shorter days may signal the arrival of a period of “hunkering down”, but we can to a considerable extent still get on with our lives without too much disruption. We generally have on-tap heating and lighting in our homes, and even travel and going to work are mostly manageable (in temperate climes like the UK, at any rate). But, for my Meonbridge folk, especially the poorer ones, shorter days meant fewer hours in which to work, especially outdoors. Obviously, rural peasants were farmers, so there would be work to do. They would wrap up as best they could to go out and harvest winter vegetables, fertilise fields, repair buildings and fences, collect fuel for fires and, if they had animals, feed them.

But then they had to retreat indoors, and it is hard to imagine, isn’t it, how restrictive life must have been? With only a wood fire burning in the central hearth, undoubtedly emitting a good deal of smoke but possibly not all that much heat, the long evenings and nights would often have been very cold and “hunkering down” might have meant wrapping yourself in every garment you possessed (which might not have been all that many), and huddling around the fire.

The lack of light too must have severely limited what people could do indoors. Spinning or sewing, or any craft or repair work, would have been difficult to manage by candlelight, or, worse, by rushlight. And, in the depths of winter, when bright sunny days might be infrequent, the days too would offer little opportunity for industrious activity. Windows in peasant cottages were few and small and, if shutters or blinds were closed to keep out the winter weather, it would be dark indoors, even at midday. If outdoor work was not required, then confinement inside must surely have been excessively tedious!

I don’t have any special insight into how such medieval lives would have been lived, or whether indeed people then suffered from SAD, not that they would recognise it, of course. But bringing my imagination to bear, as of course I do when writing my novels, leads me to assume that winter life would have been uncomfortable and dull for them at best. Not of course that they knew any different, so undoubtedly they did simply get on with life as best they could. 

If you’d like a little more insight into winter life in Medieval Europe, this article might be of interest:

The 2023 United Nations Climate Change Conference or COP28, is scheduled to take place at the end of this month (November) in Dubai.  I can scarcely contemplate the difficulties the world faces in tackling the problems caused by centuries of industrialisation, but I won’t comment on that, as I have no expertise to offer on reasons or solutions.

But, again, because I spend my days “living with” people from the fourteenth century, I am bound to think about how their lives might have been affected by particularly challenging weather situations.

Recently, Storm Ciarán battered the southern counties of the United Kingdom. Some countries of the world of course suffer frequent violent storms, with horrendous winds and torrential rain, more or less as a matter of course, but we are less used to it here. As a result of the storm, there was a good deal of flooding, bringing misery and great discomfort to many people, not to say fear at what the rest of the winter’s weather might throw at them, for winter has barely started.

Unusual or extreme weather did not in fact often affect my Meonbridge people, for in the period in which my Chronicles are set, the middle couple of decades of the fourteenth century, the weather was, if hardly benign, not often especially extreme. In the early part of the century, there had been such torrential and unceasing rains, and flooding so widespread, that harvests were dire and animals died, and the Great Famine stalked the land for three years. This was the beginning of the “Little Ice Age”, an extended period of cooling, particularly in northern Europe, which lasted until 1850, with periods of relatively mild weather and others of more extreme cold.

However, frightening weather was not unknown even in the middle part of the fourteenth century. At the end of my book, Children’s Fate, an extraordinary wind that affected not only the British Isles but also northern Europe did cause great disquiet and, in some places, severe damage, disruption and death.

This is how I describe it in my Author’s Note:

“Plague left England in December 1361, though it was still in Scotland. In Hampshire, I think it would have passed on by the autumn. By Christmas, people were presumably beginning to think the time had come at last when they could move on from horror and disaster.

But, two weeks later, on 15th January 1362, came yet another cataclysm: the Saint Maurus’ Day storm, a wind – the “Great Wind” – one of the most violent extra-tropical storms ever to hit the British Isles and northern Europe. It was so strong that it toppled church spires, destroyed houses and mills, and caused huge damage to farms and forests across the south of England.

A chronicler of the time said it was “as if the Day of Judgement were at hand… no one knew where he could safely hide, for church towers, windmills, and many dwelling-houses collapsed to the ground”. Norwich Cathedral lost its wooden spire, Salisbury Cathedral was so badly damaged the bishop appealed to the Pope for funds, and St Albans Abbey was destroyed.

The storm was in fact much more damaging in the Low Countries, where the event was called the Grote Mandrenke, the “Great Drowning of Men”. Storm surges caused sea floods that washed away towns and villages, leaving tens of thousands dead.

But, following on from months of plague, one can perhaps appreciate why some people might have thought the end of the world had finally come.”

Storm in the Sea by Pieter Mulier, c 1690. In Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia. Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons.
And here is an extract from Children’s Fate showing my imagination’s take on the Saint Maurus’ Day storm:

“Eudo was humming as he made preparations as usual for the office of Vespers. It was already fairly dark but, chancing to look up at the great window behind the altar, he thought it looked beyond the glass more like midnight than late afternoon, albeit it was the middle of January.

It was then he noticed too that the brisk breeze of earlier seemed to be blowing harder. He could hear the wind quite clearly from the chancel, whereas normally the thick walls of the church stifled any sounds of weather. It was a while yet before the office had to begin, and he hurried to the porch door to look outside.

Unthinking, he lifted the door’s great latch, and was almost knocked off his feet, as the door, heavy as it was, blew open. The edge caught him in the chest and, for a few moments, he was unable to catch his breath. Holding fast to the door, he eased it open sufficiently for him to step out into the porch, then closed it carefully behind him, ensuring the latch had dropped. He moved towards the porch’s front, his feet shuffling through all manner of debris presumably whisked in by the wind.

It was indeed as black as midnight out beyond the building. Yet, as his eyes accustomed to the dark, he realised the churchyard yews were swaying wildly, and small branches of other trees, and objects he could not identify, were being tossed about, spinning through the air. He clapped his hands over his ears to muffle the din of it.

He had surely never heard or witnessed such a wind before.

Eudo turned and hurried back into the church. He had to lean hard upon the door to close it, and he again made sure the latch had fallen, and hoped the iron fastener was strong enough to hold.

He had no intention of trying to get home to the parsonage whilst this storm was raging. He suspected there would be no Vespers congregation now, for surely no one would venture forth in this? Nonetheless, he returned to the chancel to complete his preparations. He would of course recite the office regardless of the absence of any worshippers.

But, as he waited to see if any of his congregation did come, the wind outside seemed to gather force, and it fairly roared around the walls of the chancel. He recoiled as flung debris struck the glass of the great window, just feet away from where he stood at the altar, and his heart raced with anxiety.

When it was clear no one was coming, Eudo did wonder for a moment if he might give Vespers a miss. The wind was so loud, it was likely he would not even be able to hear himself. Yet, God would surely know if he did not perform his duty and, anyway, he really did not want to leave the safety of the church.

[Eudo tries to recite Vespers…]

Yet he made little progress with the office as the roaring swelled, and his heart thudded within his breast. His throat went dry and he could no longer speak the words, even if he could remember them. And his memory was now distracted by a new persistent noise, the clattering of what were surely tiles being torn from the church roof and thrown down onto the ground. Unable to concentrate, Eudo looked up towards the rafters, but the chancel candles cast too dim a light for him to see so high above him. Despite the raw cold inside the church, his face grew hot. What if all the tiles were stripped away? Would the wind then strip away the rafters too and invade the church? Of course he had no way of knowing.

But his efforts were undone when some object, much larger than the debris flung at it already, crashed into the great window, the only glazing in the church, and the glass exploded, showering Eudo with sharp and stinging fragments.

Eudo screamed and threw himself prostrate upon the floor before the altar, wrapping his arms over his head. ‘Mea culpa, mea culpa,’ he cried out, weeping. ‘Oh God, forgive me, for I have sinned…’

For surely it was God who had sent this terrible wind…

Perhaps the pestilence had not been chastisement enough. God saw mankind had not learned its lesson, but had simply returned to their old ways… Such a wind as this could wreak destruction across the land, topple great oaks, rip up fields, fling beasts into the air, demolish houses and even bring down mighty churches. God had the power to destroy the Earth, if mankind no longer merited it…

Yet maybe it was not mankind…? Was God chastising only him? For continuing to sin, week in, week out… For promising to fulfil the penance, whilst knowing he would not do so…

Another roar around the chancel walls brought a swirl of flying debris through the shattered glass, small branches, twigs, dead leaves, shingle, and fragments of every substance, all scooped up from the ground and now tumbling down upon his back.

Eudo fell to sobbing, drumming his feet against the cold stone floor.

The Day of Judgement most surely was at hand. But was it for mankind, or for Eudo Oxenbrigge alone?”

The Last Judgement (detail) by Lucas Cranach the Elder, c. 1525/1530. In Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, USA.  Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The priest Eudo is a sinner, and is perhaps justified in his terror (even if his rational mind might realise the storm couldn’t possibly be aimed solely and specifically at him). But I’m sure it wasn’t only sinners who were terrified by the destruction caused by storms. For everyone assumed it was a punishment sent by God; indeed, bishops told them it was His punishment, and bid them to atone for whatever sins they had committed and to pray daily for God’s mercy. Amidst all their fear and agony, they believed what was happening was their fault: they had brought it upon themselves, and prayer was all they had to try to avert the punishment and expiate their guilt.

Coastal areas in particular across the world are today much threatened by climate change, because of rising sea levels. Flood defences are being constructed everywhere to try and mitigate the damage. The east coast of England has always been notorious for suffering from erosion, which has been going on since the end of the Ice Age, when sea levels rose dramatically from the effects of melting ice. Storms, particularly those at sea, can cause devastation to such low-lying areas. Many towns and villages have been lost over the centuries.

A famous one is Dunwich in Suffolk, an example of a once thriving town that almost totally disappeared in the late thirteenth century. Dunwich was a great port of medieval England, with several churches, hospitals and two seats in parliament. The town battled constantly against the sea. In 1328 a great storm blocked up the port and by the 16th century the town and its houses were regularly falling into the sea. Today all that remains is a quaint village with a tiny population, which is still under threat from the sea. In East Yorkshire, there used to be a seaport called Ravenser Odd. It was too a thriving place, with warehouses, and cargo ships and fishing vessels going in and out, customs officials, a market and an annual fair. But by 1346 already two thirds of this busy town had been lost to the sea from the effects of storms and erosion. Then, in that great Saint Maurus’ Day storm of January 1362, Ravenser Odd vanished altogether. 

The erosion of England’s east coast does of course continue, as melting ice at the poles once more threatens sea levels. And our present changing climate will continue to threaten us, even here in the temperate isles of Britain, with more storms, more floods, more grief for many.

Much like our ancestors, we know that we – aka mankind – are (at least partly) to blame for what is happening to the world’s climate. But even if we too have “brought it upon ourselves”, our accountability is obviously not the same as theirs. We do not believe our sinfulness is at the root of our culpability, nor that the change in the weather has been instigated by some wrathful divine being. Moreover, we have options other than prayer to alleviate our present situation, for we do understand its causes and have some notion of the sort of remedies required to try to mitigate its worst effects.

Yet, as always, what I find so thought-provoking is to recognise the differences between our medieval forebears and ourselves, but also, and perhaps more importantly, the similarities and connections.


The Deluge by Francis Danby c. 1840. In Tate Britain, London. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The Deluge by J. M. W. Turner, 1805, Tate Britain, London. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Friday 10 November 2023

Of a Cave Unknown By L.J. Trafford

I have spent the past ten years writing about Ancient Rome. I’ve written four novels, three non-fiction books, three short stories and a total of 27 History Girls articles. Somebody really should stop me. After my last History Girls article about Ancient Rome got hit with a content warning, which I suppose I was asking for given the title; How Depraved was Ancient Rome? (the answer being depraved enough to twitch the antennas of Google’s sensitivity robots) I decided that for my next article I would write something much more wholesome, more family friendly, less likely to offend. Which pretty much rules Ancient Rome out as subject.

Instead, I have decided to cast a historical eye over my hometown of Royston. Nobody ever invokes the Google censor robots writing about local history, do they?

My Home Town.
Royston is a small town of around 17,000 people situated on the Hertfordshire/Cambridgeshire border and it’s somewhere I have lived for the last 12 years. The sign that greets you on driving into Royston neatly sums up what my home town has to offer to the would-be visitor.

It’s a historic market town! It has some gardens and a historic church (aren’t all churches generally historical?) There’s parking and toilets and the possibility of eating, drinking and having a cup of tea. And then there is it nearly at the very bottom of Royston attractions, beneath the toilets (which frankly I do not particularly recommend) museum and cave. What says you? A cave? What do you mean a cave? Why would there be a cave in the heart of East Anglia, a terrain so flat that it’s version of hills are nothing more than a slight upward incline and is situated at least 60 miles from the cost?

And here lies a story, a real life mystery and one that really deserves a better more impressive road sign.

The Discovery of Royston Cave.

Scouring my local bookshop, Bows Books, I stumbled across a pamphlet about Royston Cave written by one Joseph Bedlam. Bedlam, a local Royston boy, is an interesting man. A one-time lawyer turned parliamentarian and campaigner against slavery, in his retirement he forged an interest in archaeology and wrote several pamphlets on finds in his local area. Including the one I picked up in Bows Books on the cave.

Bedlam’s account is written only 100 years after the initial discovery of the cave and it is quite marvellous. Take as an example the extremely diplomatic way Bedlam completely demolishes a certain academic’s stated view on Royston’s history: ‘Camden was not quite accurate on that subject; and he may have been misled as to the origin of the Cross.’ Which is Victorian gentleman talk for Camden is both wrong and an idiot. Burn.

According to Bedlam it was in August 1742 that a gang of workmen given the task of erecting a bench in Royston’s butter and cheese market happened upon something curious. It was a round millstone with a hole in its middle only a foot into their digging. Obviously, it would have to be moved, else where would the bench go. But on prising the millstone up the workman found something strange underneath it, there was a shaft. A two-foot-wide man-made shaft that they discovered, by dropping in a plumb line, was at least 16 feet deep. Gazing down into their discovery the workmen noted the ledges carved into the sides of the shaft at regular intervals, they looked uncannily like steps on a ladder, but where did those steps lead to? There was only one way to find out. Send a small boy down there to investigate!

In defence of those workmen this is an era where it was commonplace and indeed expected to send small boys into narrow tunnels, because what are they good for otherwise? This small boy evidently proved himself a useless first responder since they then lower in a ‘slender man with a lighted candle.’ Beldam fails to mention whether the boy or the slender man willingly volunteered for this mission. Nor does he give the boy or the slender man a name, which seems jolly unfair since they are the first people to set eyes on what the workmen have accidentally uncovered.

The nameless slender man does a much better job reporting back than the boy, possibly because they’d at least given him a candle. He tells them the shaft leads to a cavity around 4 feet in height that is filled with loose earth. There was a moment’s pause as everyone digested the slender man’s report, and then a collective conclusion was reached: ‘The people now entertained a notion of a great treasure hid in this place,’ says Bedlam.

One can imagine the excitement of those townspeople, their day was turning out to be way more interesting than the daily purchase of cheese and butter. It must have been akin to how Howard Carter felt when he gazed upon the door of Tutankhamun’s tomb. Or the Italians as they began to slowly uncover the majesty of Pompeii. Or Indiana Jones in that bit in Raiders of the Lost Ark when they find the Ark. Although rest assured that nobody’s face melts off in this tale, thankfully.

It’s amazing the motivation the thought of riches beyond your dreams can inspire, the townspeople working together managed to extract 200 buckets of soil by nightfall. ‘They were quite exhausted by it,’ reports back Mr Bedlam. I don’t doubt it. But what was it? What was it that lay beneath that millstone? What had they uncovered?

Disappointingly it wasn’t a room stacked up with golden treasures like Howard Carter had found behind his door in 1922. What they had found was a cylindrical space 17 feet in diameter with a domed roof some 25 feet high. The most striking feature of this manmade cave, and one as worthy as Howard Carter’s discovery, were the walls of the cave. For on them were carved images, hundreds of images from the floor right up to where the domed ceiling began covering pretty much every spare inch of stone.

From Joseph Bedlam's book, a sketch of Royston Cave.
Wikicomms, public domain

The Carvings

We’ll let Joseph Bedlam have the first word ‘The various groups and figures we are now about to describe are irregularly distributed : they are of different sizes : refer to different subjects : are probably the production of different artists : and exhibit little unity of design.’ In other words Royston Cave is no Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel, as Bedlam again bluntly puts it ‘They harmonize chiefly by their general air of antiquity and the quaintness which belongs to the efforts of a rude and superstitious age.’

From Joseph Bedlam's book, a sketch of some of the carvings that adorn Royston Cave.
Wikicomms public domain.

This lack of artistry, skill and talent of whoever carved the images in the cave is informative in itself. It tells us what we are not looking at. We are not looking at the commission of a skilled professional artist the likes of whose works were visible in churches of the time. That different people at different times added to the images ad hocly and often not in keeping to the earlier styles hints that this is not a formal, recognised space.

But it is the images themselves that give us the biggest clues as to what Royston Cave was; they are all to do with Christianity. There is an image of the crucifixion, St Katherine, St Christopher, St Laurence, the conversion of St Paul, amongst many others that have been identified. Outside of the depictions of Christian martyrs who come handily with their own iconography that makes it easier for them to be identified, e.g. St Katherine is always pictured with the wheel she was tortured to death on, there are various figures that could be King Richard the Lionheart, King Henry II and his Queen Eleanor and one who could be Jaques de Molay, Grand Master of the Knights Templar. Scholars examining the clothing and armour of the figurines have concluded that they belong to the mid 1300s. Possibly.

Further drawings of the Royston Cave carvings by Joseph Bedlam.
Wikicomms public domain

Given the nature of the vast majority of the carvings we can conclude that the purpose of the cave was surely religious in nature. But how exactly? And why had the cave been filled in, covered over and deliberately hidden from view? It was time to get the experts in.

Who's theory is correct? There's only one way to find out FIGHT!!!
The discovery of Royston Cave caused a sensation amongst archaeologists and historians of the day and they clambered to answer some of the questions the discovery of the cave had raised. These questions were the cause of an academic bust up that our friend Joseph Bedlam again uses his great tact to describe. ‘So great was the curiosity occasioned by this singular occurrence’ begins Bedlam meaning the discovery of the cave in 1742 ‘that it immediately gave rise to a warm controversy between two eminent archaeologists of the day, Dr William Stukeley and the Rev Charles Parkin, in the course of which though both parties displayed abundant learning and ingenuity, the cause of the truth suffered much from their mutual loss of temper and the too eager desire on both sides to establish a rival theory.’

Stukeley’s theory was that Royston Cave had been the private chapel of Lady Roisia from whom the town, Royston got its name. There is in Royston near the Jolly Postie Restaurant a large round stone known as the Royse stone which is said to be all that is left of a cross that stood there dedicated to Lady Roisia.

The so-called Royse Stone
Picture by John Patridge CC-BY

Parkin did not agree. His theory was that the cave was a hermitage, that is the home of a local hermit. A hermit was a man who had opted to live apart from society in solitude in order to concentrate on contemplating religious matters.
Parkin published his theory under the polite title An Answer to, or Remarks upon, Dr. Stukeley's Origines Roystonianæ.
Stukeley responded to Parkin’s theory in a paper entitled Discourses on Antiquities in Britain. Number II. Which caused Parkin to hit back with another paper, this time entitled A Reply to the Peevish, Weak, and Malevolent Objections brought by Dr. Stukeley in his Origines Roystonianæ

The Fighty Monks
Another theory, and one that is killer popular on You Tube, is that the cave was a chapel/initiation temple for the Knights Templar. The Knights Templar get dragged into all kinds of conspiracy theories/mysteries which makes them perfect fodder for You Tube and the discovery of strange caves with odd carvings which don’t appear in any historical records.

Historically, in the proper sense that involves actual evidence for your theories, the Knights Templar were a religious order of monks founded in the 12th century. But these were monks with a difference; they were fighty monks! Originally stationed in the Holy land their role was to physically protect visiting Christian pilgrims. Later we find them being very fighty in the crusades. 
As well as being fighty, the Knights Templar were also extremely wealthy and it was this talent in making money that led to their downfall. King Philip IV of France having become indebted to the Templars sought a novel way to get out of paying back the cash he owed – he persuaded/threatened Pope Clement to declare that the Templars were heretics. With an accompanying demand that all the Christian monarchs under Papal influence should arrest the templars and seize their assets. It was a full scale persecution, with those who were captured being horribly tortured and executed. Unsurprisingly many Templars fled to parts unknown and kept themselves hidden.
Jacques de Molay, the last grand master of the Knights Templar, burnt alive as a heretic in Paris.
Wood Engraving by J David. From Wellcome Collection

That’s what we know about them historically from the surviving evidence. In recent times the Knights Templar have been the subject of numerous books of dubious research that claim they were the recipients of secret knowledge relating to the Holy Grail, the Ark of the covenant, the Turin shroud, the true nature of Christ, freemasonry and probably the solution to every single Wordle until the end of time. For many the idea that the Templars were sitting on dynamite info that could seriously damage Christianity is a more convincing reason why Pope Clement was so determined to wipe them all out, rather than Philip IV just didn’t fancy paying back his loans.

In the context of busily hoovering up cataclysmic secrets that they refused to divulge even when they led to their own destruction I can quite believe the Templars found the time to travel to a small Hertfordshire town to deliberately build an underground cave covered in mysterious symbols that they would leave no explanation for. It’s exactly the sort of maddening thing they would do, smugly, in the full knowledge that people would write about it for centuries to come.
On the other hand history is awash with stories of petty men whose pettiness accidentally delivers world changing events. So I can quite believe that Philip IV would happily watch Templars being horribly killed just because he thought their interest rates were crimininally unfair to him.

The Draw of the Cave
Treasure wise the townspeople of Royston were to be disappointed, for all that was recovered from the cave in the way of movable objects distinctly lacked value; there was the fragments of a drinking vessel, animal bones, a human skull and some bits of brass. Certainly not enough to construct a blockbuster exhibition out of that would tour the world.

But even if nobody was going to get instantly rich beyond their wildest dreams there was money to be made from the cave. In 1784 local builder, Thomas Watson dug the tunnel entrance to the Cave that is still used today, issuing this grand statement: ‘T. Watson respectfully informs the public in general and the antiquarians in particular, that he has opened (for their inspection) a very commodious entrance into that ancient Subterraneous cavern in Royston, Herts. which has ever been esteemed by all lovers of antiquity as the greatest curiosity of the kind in Europe. T. Watson hopes that all those who may think proper to visit the above Cave will have their curiosity gratified to the full extent. The passage leading to it is itself extremely curious, being hewn out of the solid rock. N.B. - It may be seen any hour of the day.’

Seen at any hour of the day for a charge of six pence per person.

One of the many mysterious carvings in Royston cave.
Wikicomms CC-by

Bedlam has the delightful story Watson’s wife who designated herself as some kind tour guide/seer to the cave and was ‘accustomed to descant on the exploits and piety of its heroes and heroines, mixing up the legends of saints [] and confidently supporting her statements by quotations from history, which she humorously called The Book of Kings’. Which had to be worth six pence

Bedlam also mentions ‘numerous, distinguished personages’ who visited the cave, including the French King Louis XVIII. For those of you not so hot on your King Louis’ (and by god who is given the huge number of them); Louis XVIII is the Louis who was brother to the Louis that got guillotined during the French revolution and who was brought in post Napolean when the monarchy was restored. It was whilst he was in exile in the years between his brother being executed and Napolean being defeated that he took the time to travel to my small home town to visit the cave.

Portrait of Louis XVIII by Angelique Mongez
Public Domain. Wikicomms


So what is Royston Cave?

We don’t know. But the not knowing is what makes it special. To write history is to trawl through literary accounts, local registries, endless inscriptions and documents. That such a cave could exist beneath a busy market without anyone knowing it was there is quite something. I get a kick every time I drive down Melbourn Road in Royston knowing that a few feet beneath my wheels is the cave, silent and empty and hanging onto its secrets. That’s it’s draw; that we don’t know why it was built or why it was destroyed. There hangs the tantalising prospect for every visitor to the cave that maybe they could be the one to finally solve the mystery.

P.S. I’m with Parkin and his hermit theory.

Recommened Reading:
Royston Cave by Joseph Bedlam
The Royston Cave website has lots of information on both the carvings and all the latest theories

L.J. Trafford's latest book on Ancient Rome entitled Ancient Rome's Worst Emperors is available from 30th November.

Friday 3 November 2023

Earth Mysteries - Torre d'en Galmés - Menorca - Celia Rees


At the beginning of October, I went to Menorca on a Yoga Retreat. Weather perfect, lovely place and I love the Balearics. I've spent time on Ibiza, but I’d never been to Menorca. It is smaller than Ibiza or Majorca, less busy and less well known. 

Apart from the yoga and the prospect of a little sun before winter sets in and the storms start rolling in from the Atlantic, I wanted to see the megalithic sites that are unique to this island. I'd read about them years ago in a book about Earth Mysteries and they were on my list of places I'd like visit. We have plenty of megalithic sites in Britain and I've visited a lot of them, but so many have been worn away, degraded, ironed out by ploughing, their stones robbed for later building by people who had no respect or reverence for those who had occupied the land before them. 

Menorca is a small island and for much of its history sparsely populated, so much survives here. It was also isolated, at the far eastern end of the Balearic archipelago and distant from Continental Europe. The first settlers apparently arrived in the Early Bronze Age and by the end of the 2nd millennium, it had begun to develop its own distinctive culture with large settlements, roads, dwelling places and open spaces surrounding tower shaped monumental structures called talayots. 

Torre D'en Galmés is one such settlement. It occupies an extensive site and is the highest point on the island. It is on the southern coast, looking out to sea. All along this coast are similar sites. Apart from the tower-like talayots, there are stone enclosures, containing monumental structures, Taula (table in Catalan), huge slabs of stone topped by massive stone lintels, eerily reminiscent of Stonehenge and the even more mysterious  Göbekli Tepe in Turkey. What was their purpose? Table? Platform? Altar? Who constructed them? How? And most of all, why? The same mysteries surround these sites as swirl about so many other remnants of ancient cultures that have disappeared from our memory. They suggest many questions but answer very few.  


Very little is known about the purpose of these impressive stone enclosures and the significance of the monumental Taula that they enclose. Some kind of sanctuary where the community could gather to perform celebrations, ceremonies and rituals, but of what nature and to what purpose? There are so many enigmas - the massive size of the monolithic slabs which form the Taula, made of local stone but how did they get the stones there, how did they form them, how did they erect them? As with all these enigmatic remnants of the past, we don't know and will probably never know.

The mystery here might be to do with the positioning of the site. It faces due south and at night, particularly at a time with no light pollution, it would have had an unparalleled view of the southern night sky, Maybe it had something to do with the position of the stars, alignments with a constellation or constellations that the people here regarded as significant.

Eventually, of course, this distinctive culture disappeared. Maybe the stars they saw as so important, lost that vital alignment and the site was abandoned. Or maybe the process was more gradual; as the island became subsumed into the ever expanding Roman Empire, its distinctive difference was erased. The indigenous culture would have survived for a time but gradually the traditions and beliefs would have been lost and the purpose and function of these monumental structures would have receded, like so much else, into the enigma of the past. 


Celia Rees