Keith Fitzpatrick-Matthews

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St Christopher depicted in Royston Cave

The most famous archaeological feature in Royston is almost certainly medieval, although earlier origins have also been proposed. Royston Cave, likely to have been decorated between the fourteenth and sixteenth centuries, is said to be a site unique in Britain and probably in the world. It consists of an artificial subterranean chamber carved from the chalk bedrock and decorated with engraved figures and unusual symbols of late medieval style. The cave was discovered by accident in 1742 and the only finds recorded from its initial excavation included a human skull, some decayed bones, a small slipware drinking cup and a piece of plain brass. Scrapings of the wall have been analysed and found to contain traces of pigment on the carvings, confirming early reports that they were once coloured.

Numerous incompatible suggestions have been made about the use of the cave. Soon after its discovery, William Stukeley suggested that the carvings were made by one Lady Roisia, whom he supposed to be the eponym of the town and who he believed used the Cave as her chapel, where she was subsequently interred. Arguing with Stukeley, Charles Parkin proposed that the carvings were of Anglo-Saxon date and that it had been used as a burial place for Saxon royalty. Joseph Beldam, the local antiquary, believed that it was used during the Crusades as Christian oratory, although he suggested that it was originally a Roman burial shaft. Sylvia Beamon has suggested that the Cave was used for devotions by the Knights Templar and may have been constructed in imitation of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem; this is currently the most popular view of its origins. Some have seen the symbols as pagan rather than Christian, or, at least, as depicting Manichaean heretical views, a viewpoint that has found resonance with modern, erroneous, views about the beliefs of the Knights Templar. More recently, Joanna Mattingly has proposed that the carvings were made by prisoners in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries.

Read more in Royston Cave and the Templars?.

Andrew Bryant’s map, 1822

The sign from the A507 (the former Great North Road) to the village reads ‘Radwell Only’: the community lies on a single street running west from here. Radwell Lane passes under the A1 motorway, crosses the River Ivel and stops at the parish boundary on the west side. The parish is a curious reversed-L shape, the area to the northwest being part of Stotfold in Bedfordshire. How did it get to be such a strange shape? What do we know of its history? There has never been a large village in the parish. It had an unexpectedly large population at the time of Domesday Book in 1086, which can hardly have lived in cottages surrounding Radwell Lane.

There is a lot of archaeological evidence from Radwell, despite it being a small parish. It covers human history from the Late Neolithic (third millennium BC) onwards, allowing a general assessment of land-use over the centuries. For the Late Bronze and Early Iron Ages, the Roman period and the later medieval period onward, we can identify at least some of the places where people were living. There is an intriguing possibility that the medieval estate, based around Radwell Bury, was a direct successor to one of the most magnificent Roman villas known in the area.

Read more about the archaeology and early history of Radwell here.

Ickleford in 1822 (from a map by Andrew Bryant)

Ickleford today seems little more than a suburb of Hitchin, separated from it by only a few dozen metres of open land. Its history is quite distinct, though. A journey through deep time into the Middle Ages takes us through the communities that have had their homes here. To understand how the present village came to be, we need also to look at its neighbour Holwell, at Pirton (of which it was once part) and further afield into both Hertfordshire and Bedfordshire.

Find out more here about the origins of Ickleford.

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