Royston Cave


Heritage Category:
Scheduled Monument
List Entry Number:
Date first listed:
Date of most recent amendment:


© Crown Copyright and database right 2021. All rights reserved. Ordnance Survey Licence number 100024900.
© British Crown and SeaZone Solutions Limited 2021. All rights reserved. Licence number 102006.006.
Use of this data is subject to Terms and Conditions.

The above map is for quick reference purposes only and may not be to scale. For a copy of the full scale map, please see the attached PDF - 1015594.pdf

The PDF will be generated from our live systems and may take a few minutes to download depending on how busy our servers are. We apologise for this delay.

This copy shows the entry on 16-Apr-2021 at 03:44:56.


The building or site itself may lie within the boundary of more than one authority.

North Hertfordshire (District Authority)
National Grid Reference:
TL 35638 40702

Reasons for Designation

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.


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.

MAP EXTRACT 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.


The contents of this record have been generated from a legacy data system.

Legacy System number:
Legacy System:


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)


This monument is scheduled under the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Areas Act 1979 as amended as it appears to the Secretary of State to be of national importance. This entry is a copy, the original is held by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport.

End of official listing

Your Contributions

Do you know more about this entry?

The following information has been contributed by users volunteering for our Enriching The List project. For small corrections to the List Entry please see our Minor Amendments procedure.

The information and images below are the opinion of the contributor, are not part of the official entry and do not represent the official position of Historic England. We have not checked that the contributions below are factually accurate. Please see our terms and conditions. If you wish to report an issue with a contribution or have a question please email [email protected].