conspiracy theories

“The Spear of Destiny”: Hitler, the Hapsburgs and the Holy Grail

The cover of Trevor Ravenscroft’s The Spear of Destiny</em?

The cover of Trevor Ravenscroft’s The Spear of Destiny

Although ‘serious historians’ don’t like to discuss it, ‘alternative historians’ have presented evidence that the Nazis had more than a passing interest in the occult and pseudosciences that overlap with it. Beginning with Louis Pauwels and Jacques Bergier’s Le Matin des Magiciens, a number of writers have explored these themes in some detail, although they often lay stress on different aspects of mystical claims. In many cases, the writer’s own specific religious, mystical or occult beliefs colour their accounts.

One classic of the genre is Trevor Ravenscroft’s (1921-1989) The Spear of Destiny: the occult power behind the spear which pierced the side of Christ (Neville Spearman, 1972). This focuses on the alleged occult power of a spear, known as the Holy Lance of Vienna (or the Hofburg Spear), which forms part of the regalia of the Hapsburg monarchs and with which, according to Ravenscroft, Hitler was obsessed. The basic details have been repeated by other writers within the ‘occult history’ genre, for whom Ravenscroft appears to be regarded as a reliable authority.

Outline of Ravenscroft’s account

Trevor Ravenscroft begins his book by introducing us to Dr Walter Johannes Stein (1891-1957), whom he portrays as his spiritual mentor. He tells how Stein had intended to begin work on a book on the theme of The Spear of Destiny in 1957, but collapsed only three days after making the decision to do so and died in hospital soon after. Ravenscroft is claiming to act almost as a posthumous amanuensis for the book. As we will see, this is highly significant.

Water colour view of Vienna Opera House by Adolf Hitler, painted during his desitute years in Vienna

Water colour view of Vienna Opera House by Adolf Hitler, painted during his desitute years in Vienna

The early part of the book is effectively a biography of the years Adolf Hitler spent in Vienna as a down-and-out, an understandably poorly documented period of the future Führer’s life. Ravenscroft’s religious beliefs shine through the writing, which is peppered with exclamation marks, and it soon becomes clear that he wishes to explain Hitler’s peculiar evil as a result of Satanic possession or, at least, influence. There is remarkably little discussion of the Spear, given that it is supposed to be the focus of the book. We are given a brief account of Hitler’s first view of the Spear and that is about it for Part One.

Nevertheless, in this section of the book, Ravenscroft has much to say about Hitler’s alleged interest in the Grail, although it is a very different sort of Grail from that of the Arthurian legends: this one is more related to medieval alchemy. It was this interest that is said to have brought Hitler into contact with Walter Stein in 1911, when Ravenscroft claims that Stein purchased a copy of a nineteenth-century edition of Wolfram von Eschenbach’s (c 1170 – c 1220) Parzival, with learned but troubling annotations in Hitler’s handwriting, from a dingy second-hand bookshop.

Part Two of the book introduces us to Dietrich Eckart (1868-1923), Houston Stewart Chamberlain (1855-1927), Helmuth Johann Ludwig von Moltke (1848-1916) and the Thule-Gesellschaft, among numerous other characters and organisations. Once again, the Spear is almost absent and Ravenscroft concentrates on the influence of the various éminences grises whom he portrays as nurturing the evil spirit in possession of Adolf Hitler, who is little more than an empty vessel for a demonically orchestrated plan. It is remarkably dull stuff, but I don’t understand why people are obsessed with the Nazis to the point that the “History” sections of many bookshops are filled mostly with books about them.

Walter Stein (1891-1957) Source

Walter Stein (1891-1957) Source

The third and final part of the book returns to Walter Stein and his alleged interest in the Spear. We are told that Stein was a reincarnation of Hugo of Tours, an obscure contemporary of Charlemagne, who, according to Stein, had been instrumental in bringing various relics (including the Pręputium Domini, allegedly the foreskin of Jesus) to France. Then we return to Nazi history and racial theories, which Ravenscroft traces back to Madame Blavatsky (1831-1891) and her magnum opus, The Secret Doctrine. There is no critical evaluation of Blavatsky or her ideas of human development that run completely counter to anything understood by twentieth-century anthropologists. We are told about Hilter’s special hatred for Rudolf Steiner and of Steiner’s own interest in the Spear before returning to Nazi history and the rise of Heinrich Himmler (1900-1945). Himmler’s antiquarian obsessions are well known and included an interest in the Hapsburg regalia, of which the Spear is a part. Finally, on page 316, we are told how Hitler took the Spear from its case in the Schatzkammer (Treasury) of the Hofburg Museum on the day of his entry to Vienna following the Anschluss that incorporated Austria into Greater Germany. Then we lose sight of it again until the end of the Second World War, when it was allegedly discovered by Lieutenant Walter William Horn (1908-1995) at the very moment of Hitler’s suicide on 30 April 1945.

Problems with Ravenscroft’s account

Trevor Ravenscroft (1921-1989)

Trevor Ravenscroft (1921-1989) Source

It is evident from an early stage in the book that Trevor Ravenscroft was a follower of Anthroposophy, an offshoot of Theosophy that combines many of Helena Blavatsky’s eccentric ideas about the development of humanity with a more radically Christian viewpoint. This by itself ought not to disqualify the book as a work of serious history: instead, we should be alerted to the special colouring it lends to some of his analyses. Nevertheless, this is not the only problem with the book.

A greater problem with The Spear of Destiny is that Ravenscroft writes in a style that is decidedly novelistic, reporting not only direct speech in whole conversations, but also thoughts and motivations. This is a phenomenon I have noted before, where a detailed and circumstantial account turns out to have been written originally as fiction but repeated, misunderstood (perhaps wilfully), by an ‘alternative’ writer. This is clearly not the case here, as Ravenscroft is the primary authority and he is not repeating or rewriting someone else’s text. This technique is perhaps closer to that used by Gérard de Sède in Le Trésor Maudit de Rennes-le-Château, in his reproduction of whole conversations whose content he cannot possibly have known.

The problems grow when we discover that, despite his lengthy description of his first meeting with Walter Stein and their developing relationship, Trevor Ravenscroft and Stein never actually met. Ravenscroft does seem to have had access to Stein’s papers, through his widow, but he admitted in 1982 that his contact with the man himself was conducted entirely through a medium: in other words, he was in contact with Walter Stein’s spirit. This is thus a form of historical research conducted by séance!

There are also gross historical errors that ought never to have made it into the book. The most significant of these is the date at which Walter Horn discovered the Hapsburg imperial regalia, including the Spear: it was not, as Ravenscroft states, at the exact moment of Hitler’s suicide but in 1946. This easily verifiable fact has been altered to suit the narrative of the book, according to which the Spear has an occult power that gives great power to whoever possesses it.

The Spear of Destiny (the Vienna Lance)

The Spear of Destiny (the Vienna Lance) Source

The Spear itself

Even if we allow that Ravenscroft embellished his story, at the very least, is there any evidence that the Vienna Lance is what Ravenscroft claimed it to be, the spear (λόγχῃ) that, according to the Gospel According to Saint John (XIX.34), pierced the side of the dead Jesus, as he hung on the cross? Is there any evidence to connect it with a Roman soldier (often given the rank of centurion) named Longinus in christian mythology (Gospel of Nicodemus A Text XVI.9, B text XI.1)? We are entering a murky world of objects that were venerated in the medieval church as relics, tangible links with the stories of the Bible.

The first issue to address is that, as with so many religious relics, the Vienna Lance is not the only one. There are at least three others, including one in St Peter’s (Vatican City) and another in Vagharshapat (Վաղարշապատ, Armenia). The question of identity does not seem to have occurred to Trevor Ravenscroft, yet, if the idea that the very spear that pierced the side of Jesus has an occult power, the identity of the specific object is crucial to its possession of any such power (assuming, against all probability, that this sort of occult power has any reality). So, what is the claim of the Vienna Lance to be that very spear?

The Vienna Lance is first attested in the reign of Otto I (912-973, “The Great”) as Holy Roman Emperor (961-973). It became part of the Reichskleinodien (official regalia) of the Empire in 1424, when Sigismund of Luxembourg (1368-1437, Emperor 1433-1437) assembled a group of artefacts to be kept in Nürnberg (Nuremberg, Germany) as the official coronation and ceremonial accoutrements of the Emperor. During the Revolutionary Wars of 1796, when the French army was close to Nürnberg, the Reichkleinodien were given to Aloys Freiherr von Hügel (1754-1825) for transport to Vienna, where they remained until 1938. In that year, the Nazi hierarchy took the collection to Nürnberg, where they were hidden on the Allies’ advance toward the city in 1945. They were recovered thanks to the efforts of Walter Horn, a medievalist working in the US Army, whose knowledge of both the history of the Holy Roman Empire and the German language, was able to ascertain their hiding place in 1946. They were returned to Vienna and remain in the Schatzenkammer in the Hofburg Museum.

That much is the recent history of the Vienna Lance. However, if it is the spear that was thrust into the dying body of Jesus on the cross, its history must be traced back farther than Otto I in the later tenth century CE. According to Trevor Ravenscroft, Walter Stein believed it to be among the relics brought to France by the shadowy Hugo of Tours. This much is possible; the Hofburg Museum has long believed it to be of Carolingian date (eighth or ninth century). However, it was examined by Robert Feather in 2003 as part of a television documentary and shown to be of a seventh-century type. It has been plausibly identified as a lance used in Lombard king-making, although it has been modified to take a nail of Roman type (said to be one of the nails from the True Cross), effectively christianising an originally pagan object. Charlemagne was crowned King of the Lombards in 774, which provides a context for its incorporation into the imperial regalia.

The other lances have equally complex histories, none of which take us back any farther than the Early Middle Ages. They are not relevant to the story of the “Spear of Destiny”, as no claims have been made for their occult power. What this means, though, is that Ravenscroft’s claims are, essentially, rubbish. The spear he alleges so obsessed Hitler is an early medieval artefact, of probably Lombard origin; its connection with christian myth is a later accretion.

Some have suggested that Ravenscroft was writing fiction. There is even a suggestion that Ravenscroft’s publisher persuaded him to market what was written as a novel as non-fiction, but this does not seem to be borne out by the evidence. Instead, it seems to be the work of a fantasist, making claims to possess knowledge hidden from others. The case is closed.


I have been working on this post for almost a month. I have found it hard going and it has turned more into a duty than a pleasure. This seems to be more than my utter lack of interest in the Nazis (other than distaste for their twisted ideology and willing adoption of any old bit of pseudoscience and Bad Archaeology that would prop up their pernicious and wrong claims for German racial superiority), but I can’t work out what has held me back. Perhaps I needed time to think about how best to write this in a way that was not plain sneering, something I always try to avoid, no matter how ludicrous the claim I am examining.


Is Jesus ‘buried in Devon’? No, he’s not!

The Burial of Jesus by Carl Heinrich Bloch

The Burial of Jesus by Carl Heinrich Bloch

Forget Henry Lincoln’s The Holy Place, Richard Andrews & Paul Schellenberger’s The Tomb of God or any other conspiracy derivative of The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail that claims the body of Jesus is hidden in south-west France: a Devon (UK) resident, Michael Goldsworthy, claims to have located the tomb of Jesus in south-west England. Billed by that bastion of fact-checking, The Sun, as an “amateur archaeologist”, Mr Goldsworthy has started with a medieval text that he believes holds clues to unravelling a host of religious mysteries.

Although the press reports announcing the “discovery” only appeared in October 2012, Mr Goldsworthy has been promoting his idea for some time. There is a book, of course, And Did Those Feet…?, which claims to give “definitive answers” to a variety of questions. Instantly, we can see that we’re in ley line territory, as the first question is “What is the relationship between the Neolithic works dotted around the British landscape, and those who built the many churches on pre-exiting pagan sites?. Despite a recent comment by someone called randy, there is no evidence to support the idea of ley lines; nor is there evidence that “many churches” were built on “pre-existing pagan sites”, let alone Neolithic sites. When confronted with a claim like this, made without any qualification or reservation, we can see instantly that we are dealing with ideas that are not grounded in evidence-based archaeology. Instead, we are in realms of unbridled speculation.

Burgh Island, Bigbury, Devon

Burgh Island, Bigbury (Devon, UK) and its art deco hotel

So, what are Mr Goldsworthy’s claims, according to the recent press reports (which perhaps derive from a press release)? According to Ted Harrison in the Western Morning News, Mr Goldsworthy has located burials on Burgh Island, a privately owned island off Bigbury on the south-west coast of Devon known to readers of Agatha Christie’s novels as the setting for And Then There Were None and Evil under the Sun. There is said to have been a monastery on the island, demolished in the nineteenth century to make way for the hotel that stands there, although it does not appear on a list of monastic houses in Devon, unless it is the “purported cell dependent on Malmesbury”, for which no contemporary evidence appears to exist. It is not one of twelve archaeological sites on the island recorded by the Devon and Dartmoor National Park Historic Environment Record, although the hotel built in 1929 is Listed. This is not a good start!

Of course, the discovery of these alleged burials is not based on any type of archaeological survey. Instead, it relies on Mr Goldsworthy’s reinterpretation of a mid fourteenth-century text, which he claims shows that Burgh Island is the fabled Isle of Avalon, where King Arthur was taken to be healed of his wounds. According to the text (see below), the Island was a place of burial for many pagans among whom was Ioseph… ab Arimathia nomine (“Joseph, by name ‘of Arimathea’”). This story circulated in medieval Glastonbury, which was frequently identified with Avalon, but Mr Goldsworthy is convinced that it contains clues to the true location of the mysterious island. The clue apparently lies in the phrase in linea bifurcata (“in the split (or two-forked) line (or linen garment)”) that describes the location of Joseph’s tomb: he takes this to be a reference to two ley lines diverging from a single point! Never mind that it could be a description of his clothes…

Yair Davidiy's The Tribes (1993)

Yair Davidiy’s The Tribes (1993)

From here, we descend into the murky waters of British Israelism, a bizarre belief system, based solely on genealogical data, that the peoples of the British Isles and their descendants are the lost tribes of Israel. The core belief of the movement is that “The Jews are not the whole of God’s people Israel, as so many imagine, but only a small part of the chosen race – at the most two tribes out of twelve… and British-Israelites maintain that the Anglo-Saxon race embody, and are, the ten-tribed kingdom of Israel” (as expressed by A N Dixon on page 16 of The Divine Plan in the Government of the World Proved by the Great European War, published in 1915: emphasis in the original). There are thus potentially dangerous political undercurrents in some of these beliefs, while its supporters are biblical literalists and therefore creationists. Let’s not go there…

Walter Crane's I Saw Three Ships, 1900

Walter Crane’s I Saw Three Ships, c 1900

Moving on with relief, we discover that “the mysteries of the Holy Grail, the Turin Shroud and possibly the Ark of the Covenant will be solved”. Oh well, the relief was short lived. Although we are told by The Sun, with its <sarcasm>characteristically high journalistic standards</sarcasm>, that the “tomb… could also hold… the Turin Shroud, this is not one of Mr Goldsworthy’s claims. It’s all to do with the Knights Templar, wouldn’t you know, who knew the secret location of Joseph of Arimathea’s tomb on Burgh Island. He conjours up a scenario where “three ships arrived off the island bringing sacred treasures from the Holy Land to secrete in what they would have believed was a special place. They took away with them the shroud as a relic and souvenir.” So that’s clear, then. To put the icing on the cake, Mr Goldworthy maintains that “[t]he Christmas carol ‘I saw three ships’ is said to originate from this visit, as the ships sailed in on Christmas day to attract the least attention.” Those Templars apparently thought of everything.

Leonardo da Vinci's Madonna dei Fusi, c 1500

Leonardo da Vinci’s Madonna dei Fusi, c 1500

Thankfully, we’re almost done. The final piece of evidence, as one might have guessed, involved a Leonardo da Vinci painting, just not that one. This time, it’s Madonna dei Fusi (“The Madonna of the Yarnwinder”), which, we are assured by Mr Goldsworthy, depicts Burgh Island and Bigbury Bay. Well, there’s not actually an island and the landscape does not look like South Devon to me. It might have been more convincing if, like Burgh Island, we had a definite island connected to the mainland by a causeway. Perhaps good old Leonardo didn’t want to make the clue too obvious.

And that is about it, so far as the presentation of evidence goes. Of course, there’s also King Arthur’s tomb, the the bifurcation of the (ley) line at Avebury, Diodoros Sikoulos’s account of Burgh Island and the mysterious island of Ictis. But it’s all so ridiculously speculative, so without any understanding of context, so divorced from academic consensus, that it becomes too boring to examine. Sorry, Mr Goldsworthy, but that’s how your ideas strike me. It’s a long way from the “Indiana Jones meets Dan Brown with a vengeance” excitement promised by the Western Morning News!

It’s archaeology, Jim, but not as we know it…

Michael Goldsworthy's And Did Those Feet

Michael Goldsworthy’s And Did Those Feet… ?

As with so many of these ‘amateur archaeologists’, the starting point is not archaeological fieldwork at all. Instead, it is based on a rehashing of an obscure bit of Latin attributed by the fourteenth-century writer John of Glastonbury to one Melchinus (usually anglicised to Melkin), alleged to have lived in the distant past. We are in very dubious territory with this material. John was probably writing his Cronica sive Antiquitates Glastoniensis Ecclesię (“Chronicles or Antiquities of the Glastonbury Church”) around 1343 and claimed to have access to texts that supplemented the account of William of Malmesbury (c1095-1143), the first historian to attempt a history of Glastonbury Abbey in his de Antiquitate Glastoniensis Ecclesię (“On the Antiquity of the Glastonbury Church”), probably written between 1129 and 1139.

John will have wanted to improve William’s work, which was by his time over two hundred years old. He brought it partly up to date with the work of Adam of Domerham’s Historia de Rebus Gestis Glastoniensibus (“History about Glastonbury Deeds”), itself a continuation of William of Malmesbury’s work up to 1291. He re-orded William’s work to give it greater chronological focus and inserted additional material. This included details from the Gospel of Nicodemus, the Transitus Marię (“Assumption of Mary”), various Grail romances (although John does not mention the grail) and other sources, including the work of Melchinus. The alleged extract is often known as The Prophecy of Melkin. John is the first writer to connect Joseph of Arimathea with Glastonbury, basing his account on a marginal note added to a text of William’s de Antiquitate Glastoniensis Ecclesię in the thirteenth century. He is also the earliest writer to mention Melchinus.

The site of Arthur's grave

The site where the monks of Glastonbury found a grave in 1191 claimed to belong to King Arthur and Queen Guenevere

All later writers who mention Melchinus are derived from John of Glastonbury until the antiquary John Leland (1503-1552), who may have seen material at Glastonbury also attributed to him; the additional material is related to the developed Arthurian legend, mentioning Gawain and Arthur’s burial at Glastonbury. This would place Melchinus later than the discovery of the alleged grave in 1191. Leland’s contemporary John Bale (1495-1563) states that Melchinus wrote a work de Arthurii Mensa Rotunda (“On Arthur’s Round Table”). Once again, we are looking at an author who is alleged to have written material dealing with the fully developed Arthurian legend. He mentions two other books by Melchinus, de Antiquitatibus Britannicis (“On British Antiquities”) and de Gestis Britannorum (“On the Deeds of the Britons”). No-one has seen any of these works since then.

In John Pits’s (1560-1616) Relationum Historicarum de Rebus Anglicis (“Of Historical Relations about English Matters”), published posthumously in 1619, he places Melchinus in the reign of Maglocunus, in the middle of the sixth century. This is clearly fantasy: perhaps he was struck by the superficial similarity of the names. Nevertheless, the idea that Melchinus was a Welshman named Maelgwn has been repeated many times (and the common mis-spelling ‘Maelgwyn’ is a sure sign that the writer does not know what they are talking about!) and can be found on the majority of web pages dealing with him. The name Melkin actually looks Middle English, which would be appropriate for a writer in the High Middle Ages who seems to have been concerned with the Arthurian legends.

So what is this mysterious prophecy that has led Michael Goldsworthy to jump to some quite unjustified conclusions? It runs as follows:

Insula Auallonis auida
funere paganorum,
prę ceteris in orbe
ad sepulturam eorum omnium
sperulis prophecię uaticinantibus decorata,
& in futurum
ornata erit
altissimum laudantibus.
Abbadare, potens in Saphat,
paganorum nobilissimus,
cum centum et quatuor milibus
dormicionem ibi accepit.
Inter quos Ioseph de marmore,
ab Arimathia nomine,
cepit sompnum perpetuum;
et iacet in linea bifurcata
iuxta meridianum angulum oratorii,
cratibus pręparatis,
super potentem adorandam virginem,
supradictis sperulatis
locum habitantibus tredecim.
Habet enim secum Ioseph
in sarcophago
duo fassula alba & argentea,
cruore prophetę Jhesu
& sudore perimpleta.
Cum reperietur eius sarcofagum,
integrum illibatum
in futuris videbitur,
& erit apertum toto orbi terrarium.
Ex tunc aqua, nec ros cęli
insulam nobilissimam habitantibus poterit deficere.
Per multum tempus ante
diem Iudicialem in Iosaphat
erunt aperta hęc,
& viventibus declarata.

I translate it (badly but literally):

The Isle of Avalon, eager
For the corpses of pagans,
Foremost of others in the world
For the burial of all of them,
Decorated with foretellings of the prophet of the world
And in the future
Will be embellished
With those praising the Most High.
Abbadare, powerful in Shephatiah,
The most noble of pagans,
With one hundred and four thousand
There accepted eternal sleep.
Among those, in a marble slab, Joseph,
Of Arimathea by name,
Took perpetual sleep;
And he lies in a split line
Next to the south corner of the oratory
Made from reeds,
For the worship of the powerful virgin,
Of the aforementioned world
Thirteen inhabiting the place.
Indeed, Joseph has with him
In his sarcophagus
Two small vessels, white and silver,
With the blood of the Prophet Jesus
And His sweat full to the brim.
When his sarcophagus shall be rediscovered
Whole and complete
Will be seen in future times
And it will be open to all the lands of the globe.
From then on, neither water nor star jelly
Will be able to be lacking for the inhabitants of the most noble island.
For a long time before
The Day of Judgement in Jehoshaphat
These things will be open
And declared to the living.

Such is the stuff of which wild goose chases are made! I find the promise of the future abundance of a slime mould particularly fun…

This was originally going to be a short post. I had seen the story in the press and saw how ludicrous and without evidence it was. I believed that I could write a short debunking of a story that would obviously lead nowhere other than madness. I was wrong. There is just so much wrong with this short newspaper story that I despair of getting to the bottom of it. Thank goodness I haven’t read the book!

Royston Cave, the Knights Templar and The da Vinci Code: an underground conspiracy?

Bad Archaeology logo

Royston Cave is a fascinating and unusual monument in the small market town of Royston, Hertfordshire. It consists of an artificial bottle-shaped circular chamber in the chalk bedrock, originally around 5.2 metres (17 feet) in diameter and 7.7 metres (25 feet 6 inches) in height, with a band of strange carvings around the lower part of its wall. There are suggestions that it once held a wooden floor above the carvings, while there is an octagonal depression in the centre of the floor and a larger brick-lined depression (known since its discovery as ‘the grave’). It has been mired in controversy since its rediscovery in August 1742 and with each new generation, a new controversy is generated. The current controversy is over its alleged links with the Knights Templar (more correctly, the Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon), a medieval religious order suppressed in 1312 and currently a focus of one of the most widely believed conspiracy theories of our times: the “bloodline of Christ”.

The entrance to Royston Cave

The entrance to Royston Cave in an alley off Melbourn Street

Where to start? I have written about the Cave before, complaining that “[t]he first hit on Google takes the browser to a page that mentions the Knights Templar, the Masons, James I (alleged without evidence to have been a Mason!) and ley lines; it concludes that “The Cave is a mystery””. Yes, the Cave is a mystery, but many mysteries are capable of solution and, as this is a site with numerous carvings on its walls, it is one that might be solved by applying techniques of stylistic analysis. Local opinion since the 1970s has held that it was a shrine used by the Knights Templar, although the evidence for this assertion is inconclusive and alternative explanations are possible for its origins and the origins of the carvings (which need not necessarily be connected). Explaining a site that appears to be unique requires judicious use of Occam’s Razor and awareness of how easy it can be to jump to unwarranted conclusions.

The Cave

Had the site been rediscovered in recent years, it would have been the subject of careful excavation, one hopes. As it was rediscovered in 1742, though, it was simply cleared of its contents in the hope of discovering buried treasure. The clearance was done by shovelling the soil that filled the lower eight feet (2.4 m) into buckets hauled up using a block-and-tackle set up over the entrance shaft. The soil is said to have contained a human skull, a number of other bones, fragments of a small brown earthenware cup decorated with yellow dots and a piece of copper alloy plate. None of the material seems to have been kept, as no-one at the time understood that it could yield useful information, although some similar material was found in a twentieth-century excavation of the ‘grave’ in the Cave floor. The initial 1742 clearance does not seem to have been very thorough, as during a visit later in the same year, the antiquary William Stukeley (1687-1765) found a decorative pipeclay object with a fleur-de-lys design at one end, which he interpreted as a medieval seal die.

A slipware cup

A slipware cup, dated 1652, in the collections of the Ashmolean Museum

The description of the cup fits a sixteenth- or seventeenth-century type known as slipware. Although slipwares were still in use at the time the Cave was rediscovered, they were going out of fashion and many older forms and styles would have been unfamiliar by then. From the description given, there is no reason to regard this vessel as being any earlier than the sixteenth century; it certainly does not sound like a medieval type (brown with yellow dots was not a fashionable colour for pottery, while mugs were an introduction of the later fourteenth century). Similarly, the pipeclay object found by Stukeley is unlikely to be any earlier than the later sixteenth century. What we can deduce about the material found during the initial exploration of the Cave suggests that the fills date from the late sixteenth or seventeenth centuries, not the Middle Ages. This seems reasonable and fits with documentary evidence that suggests that the Cave was occupied by a hermit c 1506 and was purchased with the Manor by Robert Chester in 1540, after which we hear no more about it. Indeed, the same Robert Chester, who died in 1574, “buylded up in the myddest of Icknell Streate… a fayer House or Crosse… for a clockhowse and a Pryson Howse”, apparently above the site of the cave. This all sounds thoroughly consistent with a hermitage that did not survive the Dissolution of the Augustinian Priory in Royston and was forgotten by the end of the sixteenth century.

St Laurence (above, but damaged) and a king

St Laurence (above, but damaged) and a king (sometimes identified with the biblical King David)

What this doesn’t tell us, of course, is when the carvings were created or when the Cave itself was dug (assuming that the two are not necessarily connected). The carvings clearly include religious imagery (there is a large depiction of St Catherine of Alexandria, holding the wheel on which she was martyred, St Christopher crossing the river with a baby Jesus on his shoulder, a Crucifixion scene and St Laurence with a gridiron), but there are many others of more obscure character, including depictions of people wearing crowns (and one whose crown hovers above their head), and yet others whose precise interpretation is debatable. For instance, a figure identified by the eccentric and controversial archaeologist Tom Lethbridge as a sheela-na-gig and claimed to have pagan associations does not really resemble any other depiction of these figures (which, despite their supposedly ‘pagan’ meaning, are found in ecclesiastical contexts). The carvings are also naïve in execution: they were evidently not the work of a skilled artist and may not all be by one person. It is possible that they were created over many years, which would explain the jumble and occasional repetition. As the cave was in all probability used as a hermitage, it is reasonable to suggest that the carvings were made by its occupants, perhaps inspired by visions they experienced in the darkness of the Cave.

Given that the carvings were probably created by people who were unversed in the techniques and canons of the high art of their day, how useful is it to apply Art Historical analytical techniques in an attempt to date them? Where they have been used, there seems to be no agreement. Sir Nikolaus Pevsner suggested that they are “probably of various dates between the C14 and C17 (the work of unskilled men)”, while Lilian Redstone in the Victoria County History of Hertfordshire thought that they were “probably carved in the 13th or 14th century”, with which the Hertfordshire Historic Environment Record concurs. Writing for The British Association for Local History, Joanna Mattingley suggested a late fifteenth-century date for some of the carvings and a seventeenth-century date for some letter forms. Evidently, we can’t get very far using stylistic analysis!

Image of a knight

Image of a knight wearing plate armour; perhaps St George

Enter the Knights Templar

So why has the standard interpretation of the carvings settled around the idea that they were created by the Knights Templar? There are two principal arguments used in favour of the identification: iconographic and stylistic. In the former case, it is suggested that there is a strong militaristic element to some of the carvings, with depictions of knights in armour. While there are armoured figures in the Cave, they are not numerous and at least one of them has been thought to represent either St George or St Michael (probably the former, as it has a George Cross incised on its chest). They appear to be wearing plate armour, which would date them to the fifteenth or sixteenth centuries, too late for the Templars. Moreover, the distinctive Templar symbol of two knights on horseback, intended to show that their self-imposed poverty forced them to share horses, is completely absent from the cave. As we have already seen, the stylistic arguments are contradictory over the date. An attempt has been made to compare the carvings with others said to have been made by Templars in the donjon of the Tour du Coudray in the Château de Chinon (Indre-et-Loire, France), where the carvings include hearts, Stars of David, grids and geometrical patterns. These are relatively commonplace devices and are not uniquely associated with the Templars. The Templar connection with the carvings has also been thoroughly debunked by Hervé Poidevin, anyway.

Nevertheless, the identification of the carvings in Royston Cave as products of the Knights Templar has become the standard interpretation, at least locally. This is despite the weakness of the evidence in favour of the hypothesis and the arguments in favour of a later date. It therefore becomes all the more disappointing to see further promotion of the cave as A Knights Templar Mystery of History on the Heritage Daily website. The article, by Sue Carter, was published on 3 October and repeats the usual myths about the Templars uncritically, adding other elements of dubious authority into the mix.

Sue Carter states that “Hertfordshire was a county used a lot by the Knights Templar. They had their main Preceptory in England at Temple Dinsley, now a girl’s school, as well as being associated with Hertford Castle, and owning the town of Baldock, just outside of Royston, as well as manors at Chelsing, Bengeo and Weston”. This sentence is full of basic errors. The only association of the Templars with Hertford Castle is that some members of the Order from Temple Dinsley were imprisoned there during the investigation of the Order in 1309; they did indeed found the market town of Baldock, which, far from being “just outside of Royston”, lies some eight miles (13 km) away and was a commercial rival; Baldock originated as part of the manor of Weston granted to the Order in the 1140s.

County Hall, Hertford

County Hall, Hertford: why would Knights Templar imprisoned at the Castle build tunnels to a building that did not exist before 1939?

She continues: “[t]unnels were discovered under Hertford Castle in 2004 and have been attributed to the Templars, which ‘connect the dungeons at Hertford Castle with the County Hall and other locations’”. This was remarkably prescient of the Templars: during their brief imprisonment at the Castle, they were able to build tunnels linking their prison with a building that was not to be erected for another 630 years! County Hall was built in 1939; even the Shire Hall, with which Sue Carter may be confused, was not built until 1768-9. Her source for this tale of mysterious tunnels is The Templar Code for Dummies by Christopher Hodapp and Alice von Kannon (2007). A flavour of the book can be gleaned from part of its blurb, which proclaims that it “explores the surprising part the Templars have played in some of the most important historic events of these past seven centuries, including the French Revolution, the birth of groups such as the Freemasons, and even the American Civil War”. One can only say “gosh!”. It doesn’t really sound like a work of scholarly archaeology or history.

Sue Carter then speculates: “[r]umours have grown rife since the discovery of the tunnels including a labyrinth under the county in order to move the vast amounts of treasure that the Templars are reported to have amassed over time. ‘One version suggests that the Holy Grail is concealed there. Another hints that it is the hiding place of the Ark of the Covenant’… But what does all of this have to do with Royston Cave?”. What, indeed! Her suggestion is that the Cave was used as a hiding place by fugitive Templars escaping to Scotland (the modern A10, which passes through Royston, was a Roman road that served as the main road to the north during the Middle Ages). I will await the publication of the discovery of this labyrinth in Hertfordshire Archaeology and History before commenting further.

Back to Royston…

Lime kiln at The Warren, Royston

Lime kiln at The Warren, Royston, from a drawing by its discoverer F John Smith

Just when you think it can’t get any worse, we are suddenly regaled with a passage from Joseph Beldam’s account of the Icknield Way, from 1849 (Sue Carter seems not to know that Beldam’s Ichenhilde Street is a bizarrely archaic form of Icknield Way that Beldam used for reasons best known only to himself). Using the passage as evidence for more “bone shafts” in the town, she fails to recognise the description of a well in Beldam’s “depth of 100 feet, terminating in a fine spring of water; but like the others, it had been filled up, at some remote period” or of a chalk-cut lime burning kiln in “a circular cavern beneath a low mound, the floor being grooved”, taking an antiquary from more than a century and a half ago as an authority for interpretations that are clearly wrong. This is poor research!

She suggests that “a full geophysical and archaeological survey of the town needs to be undertaken”, unaware of Neil Smith and Catherine Ransome’s Extensive Urban Survey Assessment Report, available since 2001. This provides a good overview of the town’s archaeology, although it did not attempt “a full geophysical… survey”, as such a project would be ludicrously expensive and of dubious value in an historic town, where a depth of complex stratigraphy can be expected. However, there are unconfirmed reports that a second potential cave has been identified in Melbourn Street. A ground probing radar survey was carried out in February 2008 as part of the filming for a television series, Quest, which promotes a Masonic conspiracy theory about the origins of the Knights Templar; the series was never aired in the UK but went straight to DVD release. In view of the sensationalist nature of the programme, doubt should be cast on the claims.

Conspiracies: the Masons, The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail and The da Vinci Code

Join the Illuminati

You know you want to!

I have written so often about the supposed “Bloodline of Christ” that it’s becoming tedious to have to debunk it every time it’s raised. The Prieuré de Sion did not exist before the 1950s, Freemasonry has no connection with the Knights Templar, there is no shadowy conspiracy directing the history of the western world run by Knights Templar/Masons/the Illuminati/the Grand Master of the Prieuré de Sion/a descendant of Jesus of Nazareth (delete or combine as appropriate). Get over it. The Knights Templar disappeared from history following the disbanding of their Order in 1312; Freemasonry as an organised set of beliefs did not exist before the later seventeenth century, at the earliest; if Jesus had one or more children, he could potentially have millions of descendants alive today. There is little point in pursuing these conspiracy theories of history.

Conspiracy theories are popular, though. They have an emotional appeal that mainstream history does not. They place the believer in a privileged position, making them feel wiser than academics, more in tune with the way the world works than the rest of the population and able to see through the guile of politicians. They don’t need to follow the boring, analytical methodologies of traditional historians: in a very telling passage, the authors of The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail dismiss analysis and talk grandly about how “the techniques of academic scholarship were sorely inadequate… we were obliged to adopt a more comprehensive approach, based on synthesis rather than conventional analysis”; in other words, they announced how they were prepared to accept data that in ordinary circumstances really ought to be ignored as worthless. We see exactly the same attitude in Sue Carter’s parting comment that “you just cannot ignore the connections and possibilities of these sites and their hidden histories”, which is typical conspiracist thinking. Many of the connections just don’t exist while the possibilities turn out to be exceedingly remote and not worth pursuing.

It is a sad reflection of modern education that so many people can grow to maturity lacking the critical faculties that would enable them to see through many of the false stories they are sold in the name of history. It is even more worrying that in an age when access to information is almost instantaneous, thanks to the internet, that people either cannot be bothered to check basic facts (a shocking lapse when it comes to journalists) or are prepared to accept anything they read that challenges the mainstream view of how the world works.

An attempt at censorship?

Bad Archaeology

Someone doesn’t want you to read this

Any suggestion that the supposed Templar connection is dubious, even wrong, can be met with hostility. As I state on the main Bad Archaeology site, I work in the local government district in which Royston Cave lies, but when I first posted the original article in March 2008, a complaint was made about it to my manager. Not to me, not via the contact email address on the site or my work email, but to my manager. The complaint came from Royston Town Council, the owner of the cave, which suggested that I was making unkind statements about people in the town that gave the impression were official statements. That was not the case, of course: Bad Archaeology is a site that I run as a hobby, which is done in my own time and which is not in any sense approved or endorsed by my employer. Nevertheless, I placed a disclaimer on the main page. Two more complaints followed, accusing me of misrepresenting the work of others, of failing to read the relevant publications and of pursuing a campaign of disinformation. I happily corrected a few factual errors that were pointed out. However, it has been clear to me since the first complaint that there is a faction that wants to see my article expressing scepticism of supposed Templar links taken down because it questions the current consensus.

Conclusion: the real Royston Cave

Oh, and Royston Cave itself? If you want my opinion, I suspect it originated as a chalk quarry close to an important crossroads before or around the time that the town of Royston began to develop late in the twelfth century. A hermit attached to the Augustinian Priory took up residence, perhaps as late as the late fifteenth century; in 1540, the Priory was Dissolved and there were no more hermits in Royston. The cave filled up with soil and rubbish (perhaps an attempt was made to cover over the Popish images in the seventeenth century) and its existence was forgotten until one day in August 1742…