Royston, which is situated on the borders of Hertfordshire and Cambridgeshire, offers much of the individual character of a traditional market town. Until the 19th century, it straddled the border, but boundary adjustments have corrected the position and now Royston is completely in Hertfordshire.
It was nearly 2,000 years ago that the Romans constructed Ermine Street running north from London to York and Lincoln. It became one of the most important Roman roads in the country, and Royston has grown at its intersection with Icknield Way, another Roman road on the line of a prehistoric highway along the chalk ridge from Salisbury Plain to East Anglia.
It was not uncommon for a wayside cross to be set up at important crossroads and Royston was no exception. The origin of Royston’s cross is unknown, but has been attributed to an unidentified Lady Rohesia or Roisia (Rose) some time after the Norman Conquest, but she may have restored a cross established in Saxon times.
With the establishment of the Augustinian Priory in the late 12th century, Richard I took the opportunity to establish a plantation or new town based around what became a thriving market. By the early 14th century, Roisia’s cross had become Roisia’s Town or Royston. It was already a “great confluence of people and trade”. The stone that formed the base of the cross now stands adjacent to the ancient crossroads at the northern end of the High Street.
Royston was a most important place during the reign of King James I. On his journey south from Scotland, after the death of Queen Elizabeth I, he stopped here to hunt and returned to Royston thereafter. His hunting lodge in Kneesworth Street is now known as the Old Palace, and many other large buildings in the centre of town were the homes of nobles at the King’s court.
Not many years ago, Royston was principally a market town relying on farming and agricultural industries. In recent years, however, there has been an expansion of the town with the introduction of light industry. This growth has been paralleled by the development of housing with the population increasing from 6,000 in 1960 to more than 17,000 today.
Prominent Royston characters have included Henry Andrews, the original compiler of Old Moore’s Almanack, who is buried in the churchyard. Thomas Cartwright, the founder of Presbyterianism in England, and Joseph Towne, medical sculptor whose models in wax stand today in the museum of Guy’s Hospital, London, were both born in Royston.
At one time the hooded crow (corvus cornix) was so common in the district that it became known as the Royston Crow. Cromwell’s Roundheads derided the inhabitants after a brawl with local Cavalier sympathisers and called them Crows. The name has remained.