Humans have been drawn to caves since their earliest days. Places of shelter, they sometimes evolved into something new: places of burial, religious ritual, to record one’s history on its walls. Many mysterious workings of humankind have been found across the world, and one English cave adds to this tradition.

The entrance tunnel to Royston Cave.

Royston is a small town in Hertfordshire on the border with Cambridge. Placed at the crossing of two ancient routes, the Icknield Way and Ermine Street, its exact origins are murky but it certainly began to grow in the late 12th century when a priory was established there – the king, Richard I, establishing a new town around it. It became a bustling market town, helped by its proximity to London and two key thoroughfares.

Then, in 1742, workmen busy in the town’s butter market came across a millstone in the ground. A not altogether strange occurrence, they lifted it out of the way only to find a shaft underneath. The shaft looked like that of a well, but upon closer inspection it was noticed that there were toe holes cut into the side, making a set of steps. A small boy volunteered to go down, but all that was found was a cave filled with earth and rubble. Undeterred, the cave was cleared, with thoughts there could be secret treasure within. Once everything had been emptied, a treasure of a very different kind was found; the walls of the cave were absolutely covered in carvings. Adding to the mystery of the find, a human skull, some bones, part of a small brown drinking vessel with yellow spots, and a piece of brass were also found, though their whereabouts are no longer known and so cannot be studied.

Plate III from Joseph Beldam’s book ‘The Origins and Use of the Royston Cave’, 1884 showing the shape and floor plan of the cave. WikiCommons.

The cave is located underneath the crossroads of Ermine Street and Icknield Way, an important location marked by the Roisia’s Cross. The legend of the cross ties it to a post-Norman Conquest Lady Rohesia or Roisia whose husband owned lots of land in the area, and Royston thus took its name from this lady. Could the cave be connected to her? Once the cave was cleared, its contents were assessed. It is formed of a circular, bell-shaped chamber 8 metres high by 5 metres in diameter, and is cut into chalk bedrock. At the base of the cave is an octagonal step thought to have been used for kneeling or prayer. Another shaft leaves the cave to the east, and as it contains limestone bricks it is thought to have acted as a chimney to remove smoke from candles or lamps that would have lit the cave. There are also a variety of post holes in the wall and floor which have been taken to suggest there may have at one time been a wooden platform which would have given access to the entrance shaft and a series of niches that could have been used for storage.

The most unique part of the cave, though, is its plethora of wall carvings. Unique in Britain for their number, they have been dated to the mid-1300s. Most of the carvings depict Christian iconography, including numerous saints, the death and resurrection of Jesus, and God’s outstretched arm releasing a dove. There are also depictions of more contemporary Christian men such as Richard the Lionheart and a figure thought to be Jacques de Molay, the last Grand Master of the Knights Templar. There are also a handful of non-Christian images. These numerous carvings are thought to have once been coloured, as one visitor in the mid-nineteenth century noted seeing St Catherine in a yellow dress and red on the Holy Family (Mary, Joseph and Jesus). However, most traces of this colour have now gone.

An image of the Crucifixion in Royston Cave.

Ever since the discovery of the cave almost 300 years ago, theories have abounded as to its origins and its purpose. Its key, but mysterious, location lended quickly to stories of the Knights Templar who had a stronghold 8 miles away in the town of Baldock. The knights are known to have used Royston for trading, and the cave’s carvings match others found in European Templar sites. However, more recent scholarship have argued that many of these symbols were common at the time of carving and not uniquely related to the Templars. They point out that no real evidence has ever really been put forward connecting the cave to the Templars, and that the legend seems to have come from a mixture of wishful thinking, conspiracy theories and repeated hearsay. If the carvings do indeed date to the mid-1300s, this post-dates the Templars in any case.

In 2020, archaeologist and local museum curator, Keith Fitzpatrick-Matthews, compiled research on the cave and suggested that the date of the cave carvings perhaps needs to be revised to the late fifteenth century. He pointed to how other historians had linked some of the carvings to similar paintings in churches from this period, and that a revised creation date leads to candidates for who may have made the cave in the first place. It is known that a Royston hermit died around 1506, and that in 1540 a hermitage in the parish was sold. The person who bought the hermitage was the same person who built a prison house on Icknield Street around 1550, and Fitzpatrick-Matthews highlights that building it over the cave would have led to its use as a secure prison cell. He therefore argues that the cave originated as a hermitage, explaining why the majority of the carvings are religious and clearly not completed by a skilled artist, and that the carvings themselves were likely completed between 1480-1500. After this, it was bought by a local landowner who later placed a prison on top of the hermitage and utilised it as part of the cells.

More carvings, via Royston Town Council.

In support of this hypothesis, Fitzpatrick-Matthews points to the brown cup found when the cave was first discovered. Historians have always recognised that the description of the cup does not match a style known in the medieval period, but instead fits a popular type of earthenware known as slipware which was popular in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. There was also a pipeclay object found later in the year the cave was discovered which he also points is unlikely to have been made any earlier than the late sixteenth century. The pipeclay and the cup being found in the rubble which filled the cave therefore, Fitzpatrick-Matthews suggests, means that the cave was likely filled in during the late sixteenth or early seventeenth century, perhaps because the carvings were seen as “popish” and Catholic and thus not fitting with a now Protestant country.

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Fitzpatrick-Matthews’ theories are persuasive, and the work of further historians and archaeologists may help to shed more light on the cave. Much work today, though, is spent on trying to properly conserve and protect Royston Cave. A Grade I listed, scheduled monument, the soft chalk that the cave is carved from means it is very fragile and easily damaged. Over the years since its discovery, the carvings have lost significant amounts of detail, with softer, more rounded edges and some parts of the carvings almost entirely lost. Changes of moisture levels in the cave seems to be responsible for much of the damage, and this has been caused by water ingress. This water creates cracks and pressure on the chalk, and the cracks then form homes for worms and microbes which further widen the cracks. Tackling these pests creates further problems, as biocides could affect the chalk. Every time it rains heavily, further damage is risked, and the cave has even been severely flooded on multiple occasions.

Today, the cave tries to manage these problems in the least invasive ways possible. To discourage the worms who eat nutrients on the chalk (and thus erode the chalk itself), soil and dirt was removed from the base of the cave and the cave walls to reduce their habitat. The microbiological growth was noted to be more significant near the lights in the cave, and so the cave switched to biocidal UV lamps and they now limit the use of lights in the cave. The cave also has a number of UV insect lamps to attract Fungus Gnats which were also found in the cave in an effort to reduce their numbers. The lamp has to operate on a timer, though, to minimise the growth of the microbes. Visitors are also limited to entering the cave only on weekends between April and September in order to help keep the environment in the cave as stable as possible.

The opening into the cave today, via Cambridge News.

Royston Cave is a unique site in the UK, and it has attracted the popular imagination for centuries. A chance discovery, the cave is still unexplained today – though scholarship continues to provide more plausible explanations. Legends have surrounded it since its discovery, from the possibility of buried treasure to links with the Knights Templar, and it remains a popular tourist destination. Its delicate nature has caused great problems for conserving and protecting it for the future, but there are many people dedicated to solving these issues. Royston Cave is certainly a treasure to our heritage, even if it was not filled with gold and jewels.

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