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A plate  depicting some of the strange carvings in Royston Cave

The mystery of Royston cave: Knights Templar in Hertfordshire?

Plate from The Origins and Use of the Royston Cave | Public Domain

In August 1742, a workman digging a hole outside the Hertfordshire town of Royston’s butter market made a remarkable discovery. The workman uncovered a millstone buried in the soil. Beneath the stone, he found a shaft leading to what appeared to be some sort of opening. A boy was fetched and sent down the shaft. The lad came back up and reported that whatever was down there was full of soil. When the soil was removed, the people of Royston were met with an astonishing sight - a man-made, bell-shaped chamber dug out from the rock beneath the town’s crossroads that was covered in ancient carvings.

No record of the cave existed, and nobody had any idea when it had been dug out and decorated, nor what its purpose was. The discovery of Royston Cave sparked a mystery that has endured to this day.

An amazing discovery

The carvings in the chamber were mostly of religious figures, alongside the occasional secular figure such as Richard I. Spanning the lower portion of the chamber wall, the figures included the Holy Family of Mary, Joseph and Jesus; St. Catherine, depicted with the wheel on which the emperor Maximian ordered her to be executed; a man with a sword in his hand who is thought to be either St. George or St.Michael; St. Christopher, with his rod and a child on his back, and even a Sheela na Gig - a grotesque depiction of a naked woman with exaggerated genitalia. Sheela na Gigs adorn churches throughout the United Kingdom and Ireland and were thought to ward off evil spirits.

While there were no dates scratched into the walls indicating when the carvings might have been created, nor any signature giving the excavators a clue as to who was responsible for making them, it was obvious by the style of the carvings that they were very old. But what was the purpose of this cave with its curious collection of carvings? The townsfolk of Royston were baffled. In the centuries since the cave’s discovery, several theories as to its use have been put forward.

A Templar meeting place

One of the most interesting theories to emerge since the cave’s discovery is that the carvings were made by members of the Templar Order. Some believe that the Templars held a weekly market in the town of Royston and that the cave was used as a meeting place.

A damaged section of the carvings appears to show two knights riding together on horseback, which was the symbol of the Templars. However, as the carving is in poor condition, this can't be taken as conclusive proof that Templars used the cave before their dissolution by Pope Clement V in 1312. However, adding to the speculation that the cave was once used by the Templars is that one of the carvings appears to depict Jaques de Molay, the Grand Master of the Knights Templar. If the carving is indeed of Molay, it would be a little strange for him to be depicted on the wall of the cave if it has nothing at all to do with his order.

An early Freemasons lodge

King James, I had a hunting lodge built in Royston in 1604, and some speculate that the king used the cave as a Freemason's Lodge while staying in the town. James’s name has long been linked to freemasonry due to his supposed membership of the Lodge of Scone in Scotland, so it’s no surprise that some believe a monarch who spent a considerable amount of time in Royston had something to do with the cave, and by association so did the Freemasons. The fact that the figures in the cave are carvings as opposed to paintings is also held up as evidence that the Freemasons may have been involved in its construction.

An Augustinian storehouse

The town of Royston was home to an Augustinian monastery, as well as to two hospitals run by the monks. Some believe that the cave was used as a storehouse by the monks. Hard evidence for this is pretty thin on the ground, though the fact the cave’s carvings are mainly of a religious nature does add weight to the theory that the chamber has some sort of connection to the church. Unfortunately, the monastery fell prey to Henry VIII’s dissolution in the late 1530s, meaning any record of a connection between the monks and the cave has probably been lost forever.

Other theories

Other theories that have been put forward over the centuries include the idea that the cave was used as a private chapel for a notable local dignitary, that it was the dwelling of a hermit or that it was used as a bolt-hole and chapel by Catholics fleeing persecution during the 16th Century. While these theories are interesting ideas, no concrete evidence exists to support them.

An Enduring Mystery

Just why a cave was carved out under a crossroads in the town of Royston remains a baffling puzzle to this day. Was it a meeting place for the mighty Knights Templar before their bloody downfall in 1312? Was it a secret Freemasons lodge that once played host to the King of England? Or was it a hiding place for Catholics fleeing persecution? For now, at least, the origins of Royston Cave remain one of England’s most tantalising mysteries.