Royston, Hertfordshire

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Hertfordshire, Cambridgeshire
The Royse Stone - - 374839.jpg
The Royse Stone, Royston
Grid reference: TL357406
Location: 52°2’50"N, 0°1’13"W
Population: 14,570  (2001)
Post town: Royston
Postcode: SG8
Dialling code: 01763
Local Government
Council: North Hertfordshire
North East Hertfordshire

Royston is a town at the northern edge of Hertfordshire and spilling over into Cambridgeshire. It is found in the midst of rural life, at the edge of the Hertfordshire Chalk Downs as they suddenly drop to the Cambridgeshire plains.

The town is built along the Icknield Way, and ancient road, where it is met by Ermine Street, a much later, Roman route. The Icknield Way here runs at the very foot of the Hertfordshire Downs in an almost straight line, forming Melbourne Street in the centre of the town, Baldock Road to the west and Newmarket Road to the east, and forming the county boundary between Hertfordshire to the south and Cambridgeshire to the north. The modern equivalent to Icknield Way is the A505 (which now bypasses the town to the north). The A10 follows the alignment of the Ermine Street south of the town, but diverts before it reaches the crossroads. The A1198, known as the Old North Road follows the alignment of Ermine Street northwards.

The High Street and the heart of Royston are to the south of the Icknield Way in Hertfordshire and rise up the hill. The High Street is on the line of the Great North Road, which is also the old Roman Road, Ermine Street, now the A10 until the latter is bypassed around the centre. The High Street and King Street, Fish Hill and Market Hill form the knot of pedestrianised shopping streets around which the town revolves.

To the north of the Icknield Way, on the flat ground, are the newer parts of town and the industrial estate beyond.

The town centre lies just 1 minute 27 seconds west of the Greenwich Meridian.


Ancient roads

The town grew up at the crossing of two ancient thoroughfares, Ermine Street and the Icknield Way. Ermine Street was built by the Romans, while the Icknield Way has long been accepted as a prehistoric routeway, improved by the Romans.

Mediæval foundation

A cross, variously known as Royse's, Rohesia's or Roisia's Cross, was erected by the crossroads at an unknown date. The cross gave the settlement its earliest name of Crux Roesia or Roisia's Cross. By the 14th century this had become Roisia, which in time became Royston.[1][2] A large boulder of red millstone grit, bearing a square socket, is supposed to be the base of the cross, and has been placed by the cross roads at the northern end of High Street.[2]

Ralph de Rochester founded the Augustinian priory which came out of a chapel for three canons, later expanded to seven or more regular canons. Royston also had two hospitals, or free chapels, as well as the monastery.

The hospital of St John and St Thomas was founded for lepers in 1224 by Richard Argentine, Sheriff of Cambridgeshire on the south side of Baldock Street.[1] The hospital of St Nicholas was situated in the Cambridgeshire side of Royston. It was founded in about 1200 probably by Amphelise, a daughter of Richard the Chamberlain. In 1213 King John granted them a fair to celebrate the feast of St Nicholas (May 8–9). The patronage of the hospital subsequently descended to Sir Giles Argentine, lord of the manor of Melbourn, who also held the patronage of the other hospital. In the 14th century, St Nicholas' Hospital was put under the same jurisdiction as that of St John and St Thomas. The whole was suppressed in 1547.[1][3]

Until 1540 the "vill" of Royston was divided between five parishes: Barkway, Reed and Therfield in Hertfordshire and Melbourn and Kneesworth in Cambridgeshire. In that year it became a separate ecclesiatical parish, partly in each county.[1]

Modern period

The monastic institutions were dissolved by King Henry VIII the site of the priory was obtained by Robert Chester, a gentleman of the bedchamber to the King, who established a market. Much of the town was given over to inns catering for travellers mainly going between London and York.

On 29 April 1603 King James I on his progress from Edinburgh to London paused overnight at the Chester residence. His grandmother, Mary of Guise, had stayed there in 1551.[4] Attracted by the suitability of the area for hunting, James later hired the house for a year. In 1604 the king decided to create a hunting lodge in the town by demolishing the "Cock" and "Greyhound" Inns. The king's lodgings were completed in 1607, and were described in 1652 as "all of brick well-tiled double-built, in length 78 ft., breadth 43 ft., height from eaves to ground 24 ft., thickness of walls 24 inches."[1] The buildings were never extensive enough to cater for a full court, but which provided a suitable spot for hunting, near enough to London for convenience and sufficiently far away to deter intrusion. Indeed, he created a strict prohibition on anyone else from taking game within 16 miles of Royston, and an elaborate infrastructure was established to support the King in the pursuit of his sport.[1]

King James's Queen, Anne and Prince Henry only visited the town once, in 1611-1612. The next year the queen opposed the marriage of her daughter, Princess Elizabeth to Frederick V, Elector Palatine, but the king came to Royston with the Earl of Rochester to negotiate the dowry which was signed there. Following the marriage, celebrated on St Valentine's Day 1613, the king, Prince Charles and Frederick came to stay at Royston.[1]

James's son and successor, Charles I visited Royston less frequently than his father. In June 1647 he was brought through the town as a prisoner of the Parliamentary army. After Charles's death the royal buildings fell into disrepair. The Crown sold its last interests in the town in 1866.[1]

William Cobbett mentions the town somewhat gloomily in his Rural Rides:

After you quit Ware...the land grows by degrees poorer; the chalk lies nearer and nearer to the surface, till you come to the open common-fields within a few miles of Royston [which] is at the foot of this high poor land; or, rather in a dell, the open side of which looks towards the North. It is a common market town. Not mean, but having nothing of beauty about it...

Whatever the judgment of Cobbett, today's Royston is a most respectable town, notwithstanding any first impression which may be given by the casual visitor's approach on the soulless bypass at its northern edge.


St John the Baptist

The parish church is St John the Baptist, but there are several other churches in the town.

Royston Cave

In 1742 a strange cave carved out of the chalk was discovered in the centre of Royston. Royston Cave is found beneath the central crossroads of the town. The cave is not natural; it is a man-made cavern, carved out of the chalk in the shape of a beehive, with a small aperture at the top for ventilation. The flint in the chalk hereabouts is not in such nodules as would justify a prehistoric flint mine and so the cave is believed to have been excavated much later.

The carvings in the cave have led to much speculation about the origin and function of the cave; they appear to be mediæval as they crucifixion scenes and various religious figures, such as St Catherine, St Christopher and St Lawrence. There are other suggestions that the cave is Roman in origin but reopened and reused in the Middle Ages.

There is a local belief that the cave used as a chapel by the Knights Templar in the height of their influence locally, though since the cave was forgotten until the eighteenth century, that idea is a modern concept, driven more by romance than hard evidence.[5] Certainly the Templar narrative dominates even official publications about the cave, and more certainly, it draws visitors.

The cave may be visited in season by guided tour.[6]

Royston Heath

Overlooking the town from a hill to the south-west is Therfield Heath, also known as Royston Heath. It is a public open space and nature reserve.


  • Royston Arts Festival was revived in 2007 and now runs annually around the last week of September or the first week of October.[7]
  • Royston Town Band is a brass band that was founded by volunteer riflemen in the mid-19th century as the Royston Volunteer Band.


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 1.5 1.6 1.7 "Parishes: Royston". A History of the County of Hertford: volume 3. British History Online. 1912. Retrieved 2008-06-10. 
  2. 2.0 2.1 "History of Royston". Royston Town council. Retrieved 2008-06-10. 
  3. "Hospitals: St Nicholas Royston". A History of the County of Cambridge and the Isle of Ely: Volume 2. British History Online. 1948. Retrieved 2008-06-10. 
  4. Strype, John, Ecclesiastical Memoirs, vol.2 part 1, Oxford (1822), 502.
  5. Royston Cave - Bad Archaeology
  6. Royston Cave website
  7. "Royston Arts Festival". Retrieved 2010-04-10. 

Outside links