Location Analysis: Royston Cave - Part Two

Which bits of Royston Cave were covered up? Mon 17 July 2023

Royston Cave's baffling symbology: sun-disks, stallions and enormous swords.

After Royston Cave's 1742 're-discovery', reverend antiquarians William Stukeley and Charles Parkin began a noisy spat over its origins.

Stukeley claimed the 8m (28ft) deep cave was the unconventionally-sited private chapel - then cleverly camouflaged tomb - of wealthy Lady Roisia da Vere.

Parkin responded to Stukeley's nonsense with counter-nonsense of his own. Parkin claimed the cave was the home of four hermits who prayed a lot and begged from Royston market's many customers.

Presumably they begged for cash to replace the picks and shovels they wore out while digging a deep bunker beneath a busy crossroads market.

Neither Stukeley nor Parkin, it seems, wanted readers to connect Royston Cave with the market above it. Nor with the Royal who had re-developed Royston a century before.

Cave men cover-ups:

Writers also sowed confusion about the structure of the cave and its enigmatic wall-carvings. Stukeley hinted he was an expert on their creation.

From the head text of Chapter IX, Palaeographia Britannica: or, Discourses on Antiquities in Britain. Number II, 1746, p82:

An explication of the imagery. Figures cut there, 1170. A group made aug. 10. 1173. A group cut feb, 2. 1176. A group cut nov. 25. 1177. 4 group cut jul. 25. 1185. A group cut jun. 23. 1187. Figures cut 1188

That's a level of precision that modern science can only dream of. Or were readers supposed to notice Stukeley was taking the piss?

Most of the cover-up was more obvious. Most memorably, Royston Cave's sheela na gig went on a shopping spree before appearing in 18th century print:

Royston Cave's most obvious cover-up around 1773. Source: Palaeographica Britiannica First Edition

By 1884 she had bought a new outfit and some pet food:

Royston's cover-girl gets a make-over. Source: The Origins and Use of Royston Cave, Joseph Beldam, 1884, plate II

To understand how a naked pagan earth goddess - tentatively named 'Epona' - really came to be scratched on the walls of a cave beneath a priory-run marketplace, see articles tagged #sheela-na-gig. The short answer is that Epona probably depicts a version of a nun.

Epona's pudenda weren't the only body parts sanitised in Royston Cave. The cave's depictions of severed arms, hearts and babies were also being transformed.

This (allegedly) 18th century Stukeley image of the baby Christ:

Accurate to the last robe wrinkle. Source: Royston Cave - A Mystery beneath the Streets

became this less detailed 19th century image:

Lying Christ depiction. Source: Royston Cave

And - as of the 21st century - is this:

A former baby Christ. Or a former severed arm. Source: Royston Cave - A Mystery beneath the Streets

Something about that image seems to have bothered someone.

Inspecting the soil-filled cave about six weeks after it was found, antiquarian George North helpfully imagined how such a very large pothole could have become lost.

From A Letter from George North, 1742-09-28 to the Society of Antiquaries of London:

The times of this cell being filled up was, I imagine, after the fire, which happened here in 1405. 7th Henry 4th (meaning: 'the seventh year of Henry IV's reign') by which the town was almost consumed. Had it been long since (meaning: 'had the cave been lost more recently'), most probably, some memory or tradition of it had been preserved; whereas after such general conflagrations many things are lost and buried in obscurity. The spindle hole of the millstone being placed so exactly in the centre of the well hole A, induces me to think it was not intended to be lost for ever.

'Well hole A' refers to the shaft on the right in this earliest known sketch of Royston Cave:

Half-filled Royston Cave, mid-September 1742. Source: A Letter from George North

North also said the cave's domed ceiling was only one foot below the surface and close to the doorstep of 'a building' and that the entrance shaft was in a building.

From Palæographia Britannica: or, discourses on antiquities in Britain. Number 2, 1746, p79:

the entrance is under the very bench which the women sit on, in the very market house

This description implies no very great destruction had occurred around the cave, supporting the sense of continuity around the market structure above the cave noted earlier.

Giving Royston Cave the shaft:

Further evidence of deception emerges from confusion about how many access shafts led to the cave.

North said the workmen emptying the cave thought the access shaft they were using - the shaft between 'A' and 'B' in the image above - could not be the cave's main entrance. It was too narrow. By the time North went down in mid-September 1742, they had widened the shaft so they could use it to haul out the soil that almost filled the cave.

They also thought a tunnel linked the cave to the priory next door.

From A Letter from George North, 1742-09-28 to the Society of Antiquaries of London:

The priory stood SW (south-west) a little distance off, and some imagine there may be a way thither, which a week or ten days will discover

At that point North started to say odd things.

From A Letter from George North, 1742-09-28 to the Society of Antiquaries of London:

Almost opposite to the entrance B seems to appear the top of an arch, which the work men imagine will lead them to the ancient way into it, for the hole at B (where I went down) was when first found, no ways large enough to admit any body; but seems designed only for a vent or air hole.

The workmen and North were wrong: the 'hole at B' was large enough to admit certain bodies. It had admitted a boy when the cave was discovered. Followed shortly after by a 'slender' adult. Given that the cave's wall carvings seem to depict children and given that child workers were the norm at the time, it seems likely children were the cave's usual workforce before it was 'lost'.

North's report also shows signs of a cover up. The 'top of an arch' opposite the access shaft 'B' isn't visible on the sketch that accompanied his letter. But on the side of the wall closest to Royston priory, his diagram included point 'G':

Royston Cave point 'G', mid-September 1742. Source: A Letter from George North

From A Letter from George North:

A part of the Rock at G is faulty, and there it is repaired, or I should say strengthened at first, with free stone and tiles placed edgeways.

In 1746, Stukeley returned to the issue of a priory entrance, claiming it was unimaginable that the priory had owned the cave. He rejected the workmen's suspicion the repair covered a passage to priory land. He counter-proposed the repair covered a temporary shaft through which the cave's builders had hauled out waste chalk.

From Palaeographia Britannica: or, Discourses on Antiquities in Britain. Number II, 1746, p82:

When that was compleated, they made up the passage with good masonry, turning it as handsomely as they could, to conform to the arch of the bell. Therefore the only true and designed entrance, was the present one

Today, the wall opposite the entrance shaft 'B' shows signs of a concrete repair patch. It's visible at 1 o'clock in the image below. The access shaft is at 7 o'clock. Between them - at 4 o'clock - is a horseshoe-shaped recess. Part of the recess has been painted to look like red tiles. And there's an unexplained shaft rising from it.

It's so weird, it's one of the most distinctive parts of the cave:

Looking up: horseshoe centre right.

This pinky-brown, fake-tiled horseshoe shape is nowhere near 'opposite' the 1742 access shaft (North's point 'B'). It's about 90 degrees away. Yet it is assumed to be the remains of North's point 'G' following a subsequent collapse of the repair work.

This confusion would disappear if we accepted the suspicions of the original workmen and the staff of Banyer's House 125m to the east. That a tunnel used to run from Royston Cave to buildings owned by Royston priory.

Diagrams of Royston Cave's access shaft also seem designed to confuse. Sometimes the cave was depicted with one shaft:

William Stukeley cave section of 1743 Source: Royston Cave - A Mystery beneath the Streets

The clip shows William Stukeley's Palaeographia Britannica: or, Discourses on Antiquities in Britain. Number II, allegedly published in 1746.

In the 19th century, Joseph Beldam showed the cave with three entrance shafts:

Royston Cave access shafts sketched between 1851-1884. Source: The Origin and Use of Royston Cave, Joseph Beldam, 1884, plate III.

Of all people, Beldam would have known why the number and direction of passages into the cave was a PR problem. He lived at the other end of the passage whose existence - and direction - the workmen suspected.

Banyer's House was named after Royston's vicar at the time the cave was re-discovered, the Rev. Edward Banyer. Just like Banyer, Beldam would have known the rumoured eastward-heading passage intersected with a tunnel between Banyer's House and the former priory's church: St John the Baptist.

How do we know? Because evidence existed beneath Banyer's House existed into the 20th and 21st centuries:

Rumoured Royston tunnels.

From Hidden Royston: Below Stairs at the Banyers House, 2019:

Dawn confirmed what I’d been told.

“The tunnel is now blocked up, but it was used by the vicar as a safe route to the church opposite. When I arrived 15 years ago, you could still go a little way down the tunnel.”

Blocked off tunnel entrance below Banyer's House. Source: Hidden Royston: Below Stairs at the Banyers House

From Hidden Royston: Below Stairs at the Banyers House:

Dawn’s colleague Adam later opened the trapdoor I’d noticed on arrival to reveal a relatively small space and the wall that had once been the tunnel entrance. He also suggested another tunnel spit off under Melbourn Street towards the Royston Cave, confirming what I’d been told by another informant.

Trapdoor to tunnel entrance below Banyer's House. Source: Hidden Royston: Below Stairs at the Banyers House

The mysterious tunnels and passages highlight another oddity of Royston Cave: all its surveys are old. Where are the new surveys of this mysterious artifact?

They probably do exist. They cave was twice surveyed with modern technologies in the mid-late 1990s. However, the results have not been made public.

All this suggests the confusion is deliberate.

Why would that be?

The answer may lie in the bizarre history of this Royston Cave carving:

28 hanged people. Source: The Origins and Use of the Royston Cave, Joseph Beldam, plate II, 1884.

Its history is examined in the next part.

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