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.

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