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Royston Cave: creating a medieval magical centre

The underground cave of Royston, sitting as it does at the crossroads of the town, has created a lot of interest and controversy. Is it, as some suggest, a medieval Templar church or is it instead one part of a larger pagan landscape, whereby a sacred centre was created?

Philip Coppens


Soon after the Norman Conquest of 1066, a cross was erected at the crossing of two Roman roads: the Icknield Way and Ermine Street. It is now known as Royston, approximately 40 miles north of London. In 1742, a unique bell-shaped cave was discovered underneath the crossroads. Since then, it is believed that this subterranean enigma possessed some religious significance and was used by the Knights Templar.

In August 1742, the Cheese & Butter Market of Royston was renovated. One of the workmen dug a hole to erect a bank and discovered a buried millstone. Removing the object by digging around the stone, they stumbled upon a shaft, leading downwards into the chalk. A boy was lowered into the cavity by rope, followed by a small man. They reported there was no subterranean network of tunnels; “just” a bell-shaped cavity.
Still, the locals became excited and fuelled by stories of buried treasure, the cavity was dug out (it had been partially filled with earth), until bedrock was reached. Unfortunately, the soil was not analysed or preserved, but is known to have contained human bones and fragments of pottery and a small piece of brass. The only thing they had to show for their efforts were wall carvings – strange carvings.
The carvings are rather rudimentary scratching, without colour; they depict mostly Christian scenes, several depicting the crucifixion. One carving is more sexual in nature, namely that of a female exposing her genitals to the passer-by. Nevertheless, it has been argued it could potentially have a Christian context, namely that it revolved around St Paul on his road to Damascus. Nevertheless, despite their Christian denomination, there are several pagan images, such as sun wheels and detached human heads.

A lot of theories have been put forward, from almost immediately after the discovery of the structure. One of the first “archaeologists” to visit the site was William Stukeley, in 1744. He believed it was a cell, built by Lady Roisia de Vere, the semi-legendary founder of Royston. He believed that the carvings depicted scenes from her life and works and that the cave had been hewn from the rock as a chantry for priests to say masses for her and her descendents' souls.
In 1852, Joseph Beldam reported on apparently analysing some remaining soil at the bottom: a few shards of pottery, some crumbs of bone and fragments of iron, wood, leather and some “decorative stones” made him decide that the cave had been a Romano-British shaft, later modified to become a Roman columbarium, a shaft-grave, accounting for the Christian catacomb-like carvings.
The most recent theory is that the cave was used by the Knights Templar. Sylvia Beamon has claimed that, as the Templars held a weekly market between in 1199 and 1254, they would have required a cool store for their produce, which was the purpose of the cave. She explains the carvings by arguing that the knights, being monks too, would have required a chapel for their devotions, and that the cave was therefore divided into two floors by a wooden floor, and that part of the cave was therefore a chapel of Templar devotion. It is an unlikely theory. Such a dual purpose would not have been to the benefit of the monks, who could just as easily have constructed a normal chapel on the site. If the Knights Templar were behind the construction of this structure, than it would suggest that perhaps a more secretive ceremony was practiced inside the belly of Mother Earth.

Some researchers have pointed out the cave’s resemblance to a similar structure in the Ceska Lipa area of the Czech Republic, namely the Svojkov cavern. The cavern is part of an underground castle, Sloup. The place has had a long history of habitation, whereas the castle was erected at the end of the 13th century, before it was abandoned in the 16th century. Between 1690-1785, hermits lived in several of its underground rooms and extensive work was carried out, including the provision of an underground washroom.
Though there are some comparisons with Royston, the structures definitely are not identical. For one, the purpose and date of the Sloup cavern is well-known. It was built as a prison, in the late 13th or early 14th century. It was modified in 1699, as a result of which it resembled the Royston structure even more. It was around that time that it was used by the hermits and covered by many symbols, including small heads and crucifixes. When we compare this to Royston, it is clear that, with its discovery in 1742, it was not used in ca. 1700, was not the residence of hermits and hence has an entirely different history than the Bohemian structure.

In light of the “Knights Templar built this” theory, the wall carvings in Royston Cave can indeed be interpreted as Templar in nature, as similar carvings were discovered at the Tour de Coudray in Chinon, France, where Templars were held as prisoners. The detached heads could be references to the head of John the Baptist, the patron of the Knights Templar – and coincidentally the patron of the nearby church.
But several questions remain. One very important one is whether the wall carvings are contemporary to the construction of the cave, or a later afterthought? To resolve this problem, it is best to detach the study of the images, from the study of the cave itself.

One of the most prominent carvings is that of a crowned woman, holding an eight-spoked wheel, which has been interpreted as St Catherine. It would follow the custom that Christian saints are depicted with the instrument of their martyrdom, in her case the wheel. But others have interpreted her as the Queen of the Underworld, Persephone, or the Roman goddess Fortuna, who is known to have held the Wheel of Fortune. The so-called “sun wheels” could therefore be Wheels of Fortune, or could remain linked with the cult of the sun – which is pagan, not Christian in nature.
“St Christopher”, depicted as a giant, is also prominently depicted, even though he sports an outlined phallus. Despite these pagan “additions” and the possibility to provide a pagan interpretation of Persephone rather than of St Catherine, the fact remains that the scenes of the crucifixion remain very prominent, and very Christian, specifically as it has scenes of the three crosses of Golgotha – that of Jesus with the condemned thieves to either side. It forces the conclusion that the scenes are Christian, though certain bizarre if not erotic – and hence possibly pagan – undertones did make it into the carvings. As there is no historic record of the existence of the cave, it is entirely possible that someone at some point made the carvings as “medieval graffiti”, poking fun at the Church in general, and playing with certain figures like St Christopher in particular.
But there needs to be caution. In 1999, one of the figures thought to be a bishop wearing a mitre, offering an address from behind a battlement is in fact a naked man about to be burnt at the stake. The “mitre hat” was a pile of faggots ready for lighting. But as such, it was immediately interpreted to present the execution of the last Grand Master of the Knights Templar, Jacques de Molay, who was burnt at the stake in 1314.

As to the cave: its location is bell-shaped and could be identified as a cellar-type construction. What makes it of specific interest is its location, sitting at a crossroads. Crossroads are important symbolic features and the discovery of an enigmatic cave suggests that the cave’s origins may predate Christianity.
In “pagan geomancy” – the methodology in which humans interacted with the landscape, in which the creation of roads and crossroads was an important aspect – the crossing of two roads was visualised as an axis mundi: an axis of the world, in which not only two roads on the horizontal plane crossed, but a vertical line existed that connected Earth both to Heaven and the Underworld. It makes the interpretation of St Catherine as Persephone, the Queen of the Underworld, particularly intriguing, but it should be noted that the other imagery of the carvings is not in line with the idea of the axis mundi. Again, it underlines the need to study carvings and the cave itself separately.

In most geomantic systems, the roots of the axis mundi were represented by a shaft cut beneath the crossroads. This shaft was seen to connect the world of the living with the world of the dead. According to the Roman author Varro, the mundus was the gateway to the gods of the underworld. But although it was necessary to make this mundus, the gods of the underworld were not to be unleashed from their prison, as otherwise chaos would arrive on Earth. The Deluge was seen as one such cataclysm, in which the Waters of the Deeps (the Underworld), spilled over. So, after digging the shaft, the geomants would seal it with a stone, which was seen as the foundation stone that held back the Waters of the Deep. The discovery of the millstone in Royston is very intriguing in this respect. One book that discuss this axis mundus is titled “Hamlet’s Mill”, for the authors of the book argue that the centre of the world – the axis mundi – was often seen as a mill. It seems more than likely that the millstone of Royston does identify the cave as part of a sacred geomantic creation. The cave would therefore indeed represent the underworld – even though we should remain doubtful about St Catherine’s identification of Persephone. However, some have offered that the bizarre depictions of Christian saints may be give-aways that the saints actually represent constellations or stars. Geomants did use much astronomical imagery, whereby the centre of the world was also seen as the poles, whereby the star were believed to revolve around the centre – like the spokes of a mill, grinding away the ages, until key points in time when World Ages would end because the Waters of the Deep or the Fire from Heaven would spill over on Earth – and start another World Age.

In this interpretation, the creation of the crossroads, together with the creation of a subterranean cave, would be a complex geomantic beginning, that marked the start of Royston, which is known to have extended from this crossroads onwards. The remaining question is whether Royston was created around an existing structure, or whether the cave was built when the crossroads were placed here. In the latter scenario, the cave would date to approx. 1066. As it is a timeframe in which at the moment there is little or no evidence of such usage of geomantic construction in Britain – or anywhere else in Europe – it could account for the bizarre type of decorations inside the cave. Christian imagery may indeed have been adapted to reflect a “creation myth” of Royston. St Christopher was linked with travellers and the creation of a crossroads is an important feature for St Christopher. Still, because of its unique and quaint nature, we can only wonder whether the true meaning of the images, even if they date to the foundation event, can ever be understood.

Because of the unique combination of cave and crossroads, Royston is the only fully- developed geomantic site in Britain, situated at the intersection of two straight roads orientated to the cardinal directions. The central stone – interpreted by some as a standing stone that marked the cross roads – may indeed be the origin of the town’s name: the Roy Stone, which evolved into Royston. Though, of course there is the other legend, of Roisha’s Town – perhaps it could also be Roisha’s Stone, marking her foundation of the new village? At the same time, “Roy Stone” could mean “stone of the king”, as Roy does mean king (see for example French, where king is “roi”). Such central stones were notorious for being linked with kingship (the centre of power), and hence we have yet another layer of symbolism that has survived – or was implemented – in Royston.
The Roy Stone was later removed from its central position and set up on a plinth near the public conveniences, lest its position should hinder the free passage of traffic. Despite this, the large sarsen has survived and still exists.
The stone originally marked the boundary point of the two counties of Hertfordshire and Cambridgeshire; moreover, five parish boundaries were taken to the crossroad’s centre and distances to and from Royston were measured thence. Thus the Royston crossroads and its cave were more than symbolic centres, being directly linked to the boundary definition of the land. It suggests that in 1066, the pagan tradition of creating a sacred landscape had not yet been forgotten in England… today, we can continue to visit it. And for anyone stepping into Royston Cave and who wonders what happened to the millstone that blocked off the vertical shaft: that millstone is now in two pieces, one forming the last step of the present entrance.

This article appeared in Hera (number 90, July 2007)