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The Royston Cave

A 'Templar' circular sacred building

Nigel Pennick

In August 1742, someone decided that the market place at Royston in Hertfordshire ought to have a new bench for the patrons and traders to sit upon. So workmen were duly detailed to get on with the job. In doing so, one of the workmen dug a hole in the Butter Market and, to his surprise, he discovered a buried millstone. Needing to get the object out of the way in order to get decent footings for the bench, the workmen dug around the curious stone and, to their amazement, found beneath it a shaft leading downwards into the chalk.

Excited by this unexpected discovery, the workmen decided to explore this unexpected subterranean cavity. They first talked a boy into agreeing to be lowered into the yawning cavity on a rope; then a 'thin man' followed. But, disappointingly, there was not a great ramifying series of tunnels, but a bell-shaped cavity more than half-filled with earth.

News of the discovery spread like wildfire around the small market town, and the curious had flocked to examine the mysterious hole, and have their 'two penn'oth' on its function. Soon, it was generally decided that there must be treasure buried beneath the soil inside the cave, and there was no shortage of volunteers ready to lend a hand digging for it. Working at night by lantern light, the diggers slaved away, passing up the soil in buckets to waiting carts. Eventually, several cartloads of soil were removed from the subterranean cavity and bedrock was reached.

The soil was discarded as worthless. It did not contain anything more than a few old bones and fragments of pottery - in 1742 there was no concept that such garbage could be of scientific interest to archaeology. But, to their disappointment, the diggers found absolutely nothing of value. No mythical golden treasure of Lady Roisia lay at the bottom. No fabulous treasure of the Templars, or the gold mines of Cymbeline. Just dank, damp chalk, and a few carvings.

But the diggers had revealed something of great interest and possibly great significance - these same carvings, the like of which cannot be seen in any subterranean structure this side of Czechoslovakia. By then, the sightseers had given up hopes of seeing fabulous treasures removed from the yawning cavity. They had better things to do - the price of butter, the latest cock-fight results, news of highwaymen, footpads, garrottings, or gibbett-spotting were again the talk of the taverns. But the cave would not go away, for what does one do with something like that? Well, it became a spectacle, a tourist attraction. And, in 1742, such things existed, though of course only for the leisured classes who could afford to travel on the appalling roads of the day.

Among these leisured classes were the antiquaries, learned men who travelled the country looking for interesting spectacles - 'curiosities'. These ranged from 'Druidickall Stones' to ancient trees, interesting natural features of the topography, and relics of famous people or events. And of these antiquaries, one to become the most famous of his day was William Stukely. IN 1744, Stukely visited Royston to see the cave for himself, and as a result of his visit wrote the treatise titled, in the manner of the day, Origines Roystoniae, in which he put forward his theories as to the origin and purpose of the bizarre structure.

Of course, the essence of the antiquarian research is 'talmudistic quibbling' and Stukely's ideas were bound to receive stick from others who held different ones. The Rector of Oxburgh, Norfolk, was one of these. Charles Parkin by name, he visited the caves shortly after publication of Stukely's tract and went on to issue his own refutation of the antiquary's ideas. Others rapidly followed, and a corpus of 'traditions' (i.e. ideas that seemed plausible and were handed on by word of mouth as new oral traditions) became established. The best of these was that the cave had once been a hermitage connected in some unspecified manner with Lady Roisia de Vere, the semi-legendary founder of Royston (a school is named after her there today). Stukely thought 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. Parkin, however, dismissed the Roisia theory and stated that it was merely a hermitage. Both of these theories arose because there are many christian carvings in the cave, including several crucifixion scenes. According to the medieval rule for hermits, the crucifixion scene was the only essential piece of furniture for a hermit, and the ecclesiastical antiquaries thought that enough to suggest that the cave, unlike anything else - even rock-cut hermitages of well-documented provenance, was a hermitage.

During an exceptionally hard winter, in 1790, a local building contractor employed his men to cut a passage into the cave, so that more people could gain access. Previously, entry had been by the precarious route of a rope ladder or, like the denehole explorers of a century later, by being lowered on a rope. The contractor had wished to alleviate unemployment, and make the cave more accessible to the tourists who insisted on coming to see the Hertfordshire curiosity.

With this passage cut, a renewed interest was generated, as more and more sightseers flocked to Royston for a good spectacle. Among these were more antiquaries, who ventured their own two penn'orth as to the origins and purpose. A notable commentator was Joseph Beldam, who rooted about in the little soil remaining at the bottom of the bell-like chamber and came up with a few shards of pottery, some crumbs of bone and fragments of iron, wood, leather and some 'decorative stones'. His assertion, published in 1852, was that the cave had been a Romano-British shaft, later modified to become a Roman clumbarium, a shaft-grave, accounting for the christian catacomb-like carvings.

As the years passed, more and more commentators have commented on the strange carvings. One popular explanation of a sheela-na-gig, a female exposing her genitals to the passer-by, was that it was St Paul on the road to Damascus! I know he saw the light, but he didn't undergo a spontaneous sex-change, too. The carvings are divided into various weird categories: many are pagan in content, like the sun-wheels and hands holding hearts, while in addition there are several crucifixions and recognisable effigies of judaeo-christian saints.

The most recent theory that has now gained the status of 'tradition' is the Knights Templar connection. Sylvia Beamon, a local subterranea researcher, claimed that it was connected with the sect because in 1199 and 1254 the organisation held a weekly market at Royston and travelled there from their headquarters at Baldock, nine miles distant. She believes that they would have required a cool store for their produce and, as anyone who has studied subterranea knows, such structures maintain an even temperature all year round. The knights, being monks too, would have required a chapel for their devotions, and Mrs Beamon believes that the cave was divided into two floors by a wooden floor, and that part of the cave was therefore a chapel of Templar devotion.

The cult images in the cave can be interpreted as Manichean in content, as are the similar carvings at the Tour de Coudray in Chinon, France, were the Templars were imprisoned before their murder at the hands of the Catholic Inquisitors. Needless to say, others have attacked this concept, especially Barbara Jones, a contributor to the bookSubterranean Britain, published in 1979. In my book The subterranean kingdom (1981), I first drew attention to the similarity between this cave and another studied by E. Gebauser and written up in the National Socialist German Ancestral Heritage Organisation's journal, Germanien, in 1935. Here is a strange, bottle-shaped cave near the village of Svojka near Ceska Lipa in central Czechoslovakia. The cave itself is very similar to that at Royston, even as far as having an entrance at the top and another cut during the eighteenth century for access by the curious!

The cave near Ceska Lipa has carvings that closely parallel its Roystonian sister. These include sunwheels, various human figures bearing arms, crosses, runes and detached human heads. These later heads are a prominent feature at Royston, though the progress overhead of juggernaut trucks has shaken several from the walls. Fortunately, the bypass has now taken away most of this heavy traffic, and the crossroads is a much quieter place. Let us hope that this deterioration, which has been quite marked in recent years, has now been halted. It would be a great tragedy if these ancient carvings were destroyed for ever by the actions of trucking companies, something unforeseen by the ancients.

The carvings are mostly of pagan origins, for even those of christian content are saints whose pagan origins are plain. One of the most prominent of these is the carving of a crowned woman. In her hand she holds aloft an eight-spoked wheel, so christian observers have ascribed the name of St Catherine to her. However, as with many christian saints, her origin is earlier than the martyr to whom the wheel is attributed. After all, the original Catherine, if we are to believe the legend, was tied to a wheel and theron tortured. Holding a wheel is something different, as if Christ were holding a small cross rather than the Holy Rood in christian iconography. This figure, whether of not the carver knew it, is the Queen of the Underworld, Persephone, who can be seen depicted so on ancient pre-christian vases used in the rites of the orphic religion. This wheel represents the celebrated 'wheel of fortune', and indeed the Roman goddess Fortuna was often depicted holding the wheel. Also it relates, as do round churches and centrally-planned microcosms of the world, to the position of the circular structure as the Round Table, of Arthurian fame. Here, again, the wheel echoes the dream of the King, who saw himself on the wheel, once elevated, then, after reaching the zenith, cast down the other side to destruction. The modern parallel of this is the common distribution curve, which in its form recalls the up and down motion of Fortune's wheel.

In addition to this fine carving, there is another major saintly effigy - that of the pre-christian giant who later became St Christopher. As a christianised Hermes, he still sports an outline phallus, an indication that the cave was at an important geomantic centre. And it is its positioning that makes the cave one of the most significant of circular sacred structures in the world. Hermes or Mercury was, of course, the patron of travellers, motion and wayfarers. Hermits were originally his servants (Hermes - Hermit) and later their useful function as spiritual guardians of the roads (and actual manual labourers on their repair - cheap labour for christian kings they served) was taken over by the Church. Hence the possibility that there was a hermitage here. Certainly, at Royston there was a hermit whose function was the guardianship and maintenance of the road for six miles from the crossroads northwards.

The crossroads is, of course, none other than the cosmological omphalos, the conceptual centre point of the world. And the Royston cave is the only known example where all of the traditional features of this important geomantic axis still exist, even in attenuated form. Various cultures and traditions know the use of the omphalos, and the western European tradition was crystallised in the practices of the Etruscans, whose magical methods, taken over wholesale by their Roman conquerors, laid the foundation for the western tradition in the layout of sacred architecture and large-scale geomantic works.

In the Etruscan system, the omphalos was the centre of the landscape, being at the mid-point of the fourfold division of the world's surface. At the centre of the two straight roads that divided the world was the central point divined by the Augur, who by various secret means marked the correct point for the centre of the new city or road system. After fixing this point, the Augur used celestial observation to fix true north-south and east-west. It is interesting to note that celestial observation was used as late as 1899 by Harley H. Dalrymple-Hay for the survey of the Baker Street and Waterloo Railway (now London Transport's Bakerloo Line), showing that ancient methods can be used for modern purposes. After fixing these lines, the Augur took his lituus, the staff of office. With the lituus the Auger solemly marked out the line of the two roads, the cardo and the decumanus, crossing at the omphalos. There, where the two roads crossed, the axis mundi was set up.

This axis mundi was represented in various ways. Most traditionally, a stone was utilized. These stones, such as the famed omphalos at Delphi, or the lesser stone set in the centre of the crossroads at Delft, Holland, marked the entrance to the upperworld. Sometimes the axis was marked as a tree, the Yggdrasill of the Norse cosmologists. Such trees still exist, sometimes ruined as at Carmarthen (Merlin's Oak), sometimes vandalised, as the Major Oak in Sherwood Forest, or sometimes in pristine condition, like Kett's Oak near Norwich. And, like trees, axial poles or stones need roots.

In Etruscan geomancy these roots were represented by the mundus, a shaft cut beneath the crossroads. This mundus was seen to connect the world of the living with the world of the dead. Interestingly, the word mundus could also refer to the vault of the heavens, of which the cavern was a subterranean copy. This is important at Royston, for the bell-shape of the cave certainly reflects the possibly celestial nature of the cavity. Also, the various carvings of figures in seeming disarray may represent constellations for, although we are familiar with a certain set of Graeco-Roman-Arab astronomical constellations and names, it is certain that alternative systems did exist. The pioneering work of Otto Sigfrid Reuter must be mentioned in this connection, for Reuter actually reconstructed the constellations as used by the ancient Saxons in pre-christian days, and showed that they were related to the current religious beliefs of the day. Thus, constellations like the Belt of Orion were called by different names; this one for example was Frigga's Distaff; Castor and Pollux of Gemini were Thiazi's Eyes, and Sirius was Loki's Brand. Likewise, the seemingly disorganised carvings at Royston may possibly represent some constellational system now lost. The idea certainly needs further exploration, if nothing else.

According to the Roman author Varro, the mundus was considered to be 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. So, after digging the shaft, the Etruscan geomants would seal it with a flat stone - echoed at Royston by the millstone that the workmen found in 1742. When this had been sealed, and the central pole or stone erected, then the casting of lots, itself a sacred act, would be undertaken to allot the plots of land for settlers in the new town around the omphalos.

Because of the unique combination of cave and crossroads, Royston is the only fully- developed geomantic site in Britain. At the intersection of two straight roads orientated to the cardinal directions was not only the cave below ground level, but also a large markstone, later socketed to contain a standing cross, perhaps of stone. This central stone is known as the Roy Stone from which the town takes its name. This stone was originally at the centre of the crossroads but, in the usual manner, it was at some time removed from its true geomantic 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 still exists, having escaped the fate of many other such stones.

At Royston, then we have the perfect omphalos site, reproducing in microcosmic form the three worlds of mythos. The cave itself, deep in the underlying rock, represents the deathly incorporeal underworld: Hades or Utgard. Above the sealing stone, the everyday marketplace world of the ordinary material world went on: Midgard, the middle level where the middle way of temperant moderation between extremes creates the best balance, the world of humans buying and selling and living their lives in blissful ignorance of the horrors and awesome power of the underworld beneath their feet. Above this, the pole or stone, giving access to the heavenly upperworld, Asgard, symbolised in the traditional Maypole by the suspended hoop from which the garland hung. In this was all the three comprehended at one point.

Forteana also reared its head in this strange issue, for the millstone in itself was highly symbolic in cosmological terms. The circular stone set in grooves was used in ancient jewish tombs in Palestine as a seal, and in the legend of Christ the stone is rolled away to reveal the body evaporated away from its grave-clothes. The rolling stone, too, was used as a closure in the gates of the holy city of Antananarivo on Madagascar. In ancient northern Europe, the millstones were symbolic of the cosmic system. Here, the stones and their axle-tree comprehended a concept derived from primitive times - the flat Earth belief. The upper stone rotates upon the lower just as the heavens were conceived to rotate upon the fixed Earth, the axis mundi, in Norse cosmological terms, the North Pole, 'up north'.

At Royston, then, we have a geomantic centre of the greatest importance, unparalleled anywhere, with every possible feature that demonstrates its pre-eminent position at the crossroads of the ancient Icknield Way and the nearly-as-ancient Ermine Street. These roads, metalled in Roman times, but (certainly in the Icknield) of much ancienter provenance, were of fundamental importance to the geomancy of the whole country, dividing administrative districts from one another. The county boundaries of England, before the gerrymandering boundary changes of 1974 - designed to deculturise the inhabitants and help in getting certain parties elected to the administration - destroyed the ancient shires laid out by the Anglo-Saxons a thousand years before. In addition to this, the centre of Royston was formerly the exact 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.

As a circular structure underground, the Royston cave has several parallels in the ancient christian catacombs, where the circular form was deemed correct for a tomb of a martyr or hero. Likewise, the circular tomb was often chosen for the sepulchre of Roman Emperors, such as Hadrian, and the tomb of Jesus of Nazareth likewise was a circular structure that spawned many imitators in the shape of round Holy Sepulchre churches. Beneath the Tempietto of St Peietro Montorio, Rome, a circular crypt marks the reputed site of the inverted crucifixion of St Peter, legendary founder of the Papacy. The symbolism of the underworld here is marked, for in christian mythology, Jesus descended into hell during his dead period after his burial, in order to remove the souls of the righteous - Abraham, Noah, etc. - from the clutches of Satan, who had all pre-Jesus souls until the Redemption. In this way, the circular mundus-Holy Sepulchre was literally a link with the underworld. At Royston, the absence of buried treasure, which had no place in the access point to the underworld, is thereby explained. The Templar connection postulated by Sylvia Beamon may have some validity if it is considered that this sect certainly showed an interest in round churches and the like, though the absence of large numbers of circular subterranea has yet to be explained, even in connection with the Templars, whose underworld operations are well known.

This article first appeared in The Templar No.5, Summer 1983 and was reprinted in Mercian Mysteries No.15 May 1993.

An update on Royston cave and related caverns appeared in Mercian Mysteries No.18 (1994).


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