Street Tales: St. Mary De Roche

Words: Joe Earp
Illustrations: Eva Brudenell
Monday 11 September 2017
reading time: min, words

The Nottingham caves are found in clusters, in various locations throughout the city. Perhaps the best known and most recognisable of these are those of Castle Rock...


The caves known as “The Papish Holes” or “Lenton Hermitage” are located on the north side of Castle Boulevard, around halfway between the traffic island junction of Lenton Boulevard and the foot of Castle Rock. For many years, they were clearly visible, abandoned and much neglected, but new apartments have recently been built on the land to the front, and the caves have been restored.

These caves are cut into the sandstone ridge now occupied by the Park Estate, and consist of a series of chambers, including a dovecote, making up what would have been a substantial domestic dwelling. This is not unusual for Nottingham’s caves, but what is remarkable is a complete chapel hewn out of the rock. 

No one knows for certain when the first caves were excavated on this site, or what they may have been used for, but it’s been speculated that the Druids cut the caves as a place of worship and, in more modern times, that the Romans built them as crematoriums. Certainly, Victorian antiquarians found Roman tiles embedded in a chimney or ventilation shaft, but these were taken by souvenir hunters.

It’s the chapel known as St. Mary De Roche that makes the Lenton caves so fascinating. It’s believed that it was created among existing caves by Carmelite Friars, sometime in the reign of Edward I. Along with the chapel, the friars converted the caves into a comfortable residence. There’s evidence to suggest that the chapel may have been a shrine in the form of a repository for a holy relic like the one at Repton. Pilgrims would have descended to the level of the shrine and walked around it to view the relic, leaving a different passage. What relic may have been contained in the shrine, we will never know.

By the thirteenth century, the chapel had passed into the hands of the Lenton Priory, the friars were replaced by monks, and St. Mary De Roche became an important satellite chapel or hermitage to the priory. That religious importance was soon overshadowed by the priory’s need for income and, in 1447, the chapel was given to the king in exchange for yet more land holdings, including some in Sherwood Forest. Part of the agreement was that the monks continued to say prayers at the chapel, for the “...good estate of the King and his family.”

The chapel was abandoned by the priory shortly before the dissolution. During periods of persecution, Nottingham’s catholics used the chapel for clandestine mass, and it’s this association that’s led to the name Papish, or Popish Holes, for the site. During the Civil War, the site suffered much damage by parliamentary soldiers from the castle due to its association with the Catholic faith. The antiquarian William Stukeley visited it sometime between 1694 and 1711, and published his account along with the first-known illustration of the site in 1724. Stukeley, with a passion for such things, declared the site to be Druidical remains. From then on, the site continued to generate and excite the curiosity and speculation of antiquarians and historians, as it still does today.

The caves are open to the public by request or on Heritage Days.

Nottingham Hidden History website

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