By: Stewart W. Miner
PGM of Virginia
Extracted from MSA Short Talk Bulletin, Dec. 2001
Royston Cave, a subterranean retreat of the Antient Templars in Medieval England, is situated a scant 13 miles south of Cambridge in the County of Hertfordshire, near the intersection of ancient north-south and east-west Roman roads. Believed to have been used by the Order during the years of the Templar Inquisition, the cave thereafter apparently fell into disuse and ultimately into oblivion. For more than 400 years it lay hidden from public view.
The cave was accidentally discovered on a typical August day in 1742 by workmen who were building a bench in Mercat House, site of the centuriesold butter and cheese market in Royston. While digging a posthole in the dirt floor of that building, the workmen struck through the "eye" of a millstone lying beneath the surface. Removal of the stone revealed that it was covering a well-like shaft, some 2 feet in diameter and 16 feet deep, into which, at regular intervals, toeholds had been cut.
On examination it was determined that the shaft was the entrance to a debris-filled cave. The rubble was quickly removed, possibly on the presumption that it might contain articles of worth, but on inspection it was found to contain only a few small bones, a human skull, some fragments of pottery, and a piece of unmarked brass. With the removal of the rubble, however, the real treasure of the cave, in the form of primitive and priceless carvings, was revealed.
Structurally the cave is divided into two parts, each of which is believed to have served specific Templar purposes. The lower segment is 10 feet high and 17 feet in diameter, except for an area which has been named "the grave," where the diameter increases to 18 feet. The bell shaped upper segment, 17 feet in height, contains the original cave entrance and air shaft.
Around the base of the cave there is a raised 8 inch octagonal step which may have been used by those contemplating the carvings on the wall. Such structures were fairly common in round churches during the Templar period and similar "raised steps" also appear in Temple Church in London and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Cambridge.
On the basis of what is assumed to be postholes in the floor and on what appears to be patterned slots in the wall of the cave above the carvings, it is assumed that when the cave was in use by the Templars it contained a platform, whose shape and use is a matter of conjecture. Peter Houldcroft, who has studied the cave intensively, suggests that such a platform may have duplicated, in form, the 6-pointed Star of David.
The carvings in the cave, which are in an advanced stage of deterioration, include a number of saints revered by the Templars. These include St. Christopher, St. Katherine, St. Lawrence, and another saint, which may be either St. Michael or St. George, the patron saint of England. Also depicted are carvings of the twelve apostles, Christ in the Holy. Sepulcher, Richard the Lion Heart and his queen Barengaria, King David, the head of John the Baptist, and three small figures, huddled closely together, who some have suggested are representations of those who engineered the downfall of the Templars, King Philip IV, Pope Clement V, and the Grand Master of the Hospitallers. In addition there are a number of other carvings of possible religious and/or fraternal significance.
Scholars, on the basis of their studies of the carvings and the structure of the cave, are united in their conviction that Royston Cave was used by the Templars during the period from 1307 to at least 1347 and possibly before and after those dates. But they do not fully agree on how the Templars may have used the cave. Among those who have studied the issue are Sylvia Beamon, author of The Royston Cave - Used by Saints or Sinners? and Peter T. Houldcroft, author of A Pictorial Guide to Royston Cave, and The Medieval Structure within Royston Cave.
Beamon states that the Knights Templar of the area close in to Royston were not fighting knights but primarily artisans who farmed and looked after the local estates. She suggests that these knights brought their goods to the market in Royston, that they used the upper part of the cave for storage of their butter and cheese, and that they may have used the cave for overnight lodging before returning home. She also recognizes the possibility that Templars in the area may have used the lower part of the cave as a chapel, possibly for initiations.
Houldcroft, in contrast, states that the cave appears to have served an entirely ritualistic purpose. He suggests that the cave was a place where Templars assembled to pledge loyalty to each other and to be initiated into an underground secret order. He also asserts that these ceremonies, because of cave access and size, restricted the number that could be accommodated at anyone time. He speculates that the ceremony involved access to the cave by an entrance shaft and a reception on the platform to which reference has been made previously.
On the platform, Houldcroft postulates, the candidate may have been prepared, in a manner quite like that in which candidates for the degrees in Masonry are prepared, before being permitted to approach the lower chamber by ladder. Once on the floor of the cave, Houldcroft theorizes, the candidate may well have undergone ceremonies in which he was caused to pass through the structural "grave" of the cave and thereby experience death and spiritual rebirth, preliminary to receiving accouterments designating him as a member of the organization.
Sometime after the demise of DeMolay in 1314, the cave was shut down and filled in. When this occurred is not known. In what is termed the East shaft of the cave there appears a stone on which the date 1347 is engraved. The numbers are carved deeply into the stone, giving the appearance of being genuine, and in the view of Houldcroft, this stone may well signify the date on which Templar use of the cave ended.
Royston Cave, now under the control of the Town Council of Royston, is open to the public. Access is supervised by the Royston & District Local Historical Society, which provides guides for cave visitors. The Society and the Town Council, in recent years, have initiated efforts to preserve the cave, now designated a National Monument, and to facilitate the observation of its treasures. These organizations welcome and encourage visitation, particularly by members of the Craft.
Any Freemason interested in the origins of Freemasonry as it exists today, will profit by contemplation of the carvings in Royston Cave. These artifacts, crude though they may be, could in time shed significant light on a perplexing issue - from whence has the Craft come?