The Barons' Cave is part of Reigate Castle, which was probably built by the second earl of Surrey, William de Warrenne, soon after 1088. This castle consisted of a central mound surrounded by a dry moat, with timber buildings and defences on the mound, or motte. In the 12th or 13th century, the timber structures were replaced with stone ones. The castle was extended to the north and east by the creation of the outer ward, or outer bailey, the original mound being the inner bailey. This new addition to the castle was protected by a new wet moat, part of which survives, and by an extension of the existing dry moat.
The castle was briefly held by Louis the French Dauphin in 1216, on his march from Kent to Winchester. The castle became the property of Fitzalan, earl of Arundel, in 1347, and from 1397 was owned by a variety of Lords of the Manor of Reigate, including the influential Howard family. It was occupied until the 16th century, but began to fall into disrepair thereafter.
During the time of Oliver Cromwell, the castle was briefly garrisoned by followers of a Royalist uprising in 1648, and then by parliamentary troops after the insurrection had been put down. There was no fighting at the castle, it was just a convenient camp for the troops. None of the original castle buildings have survived, with the exception of The Barons' Cave.
Nobody knows how old The Barons' Cave is. The oldest reference to it dates from 1586 when Camden describes “an extraordinary passage with a vaulted roof hewn with great labour out of the soft stone.” Doors and windows with a similar profile to the cave passages were being built from about 1200 onwards, but we must be careful before drawing any conclusions from this. Nobody is really sure why the cave was dug. It has been made with great care - this can be seen in the way that the roof is so uniform and smooth. Where sand diggers have been at work, the walls are much rougher.
The cave is in three sections. There is a passage which runs straight through from the centre of the castle mound to the bottom of the dry moat. At the top end this is lined with Reigate stone, and it emerges via a chamber roofed with brick vaulting, into the centre of the castle grounds, under a stone pyramid. Bricks were not widely used in England until the 14th century, so the brickwork at the top of the cave cannot date from a period earlier than this. Near the bottom entrance, a short flight of steps drops down into a long and tall curving passage, which ends suddenly in a solid wall. A curious stone bench has been built around the base of the wall at this point.
Further up the cave, below the flight of steps to the upper entrance, is another side passage, which has a totally different appearance from the rest of the cave. This section is believed to have been dug in the 19th century by sand diggers, who were also active elsewhere in Reigate at that time. Throughout the cave, the work of sand diggers can be seen. Many alcoves have been dug into the otherwise well-shaped walls.
The walls of the cave have attracted graffiti artists. Apart from the many initials, names and dates from 1644 onwards, a number of other carvings have been made. The most notable of these are a series of large heads, each one different, and possibly meant to depict real people. There are also a number of horses' heads and a bull’s head to be found in the cave.
The cave has a long history as a local curiosity. The earliest account of guided tours found so far dates from 1860, when a lady from a nearby cottage had to be summoned to conduct curious visitors around the cave. Visits continued until the 1970s, the Castle Grounds' gardener acting as guide. In 1991 the Wealden Cave and Mine Society re-opened the caves f or the public after a period of restoration.
There have been many ideas put forward to explain why the cave was dug. It is very unlikely that it was the castle dungeon. The quality of workmanship also rules out the idea that it was just the castle cellar, or a sand mine. The through passage could have been dug as a sally port, which is an escape tunnel to allow the besieged inhabitants to surprise their attackers, or to escape unnoticed. This does not explain why the large side passage was dug.
The effort and skill used to dig The Barons' Cave, and the size of its galleries, suggest that it was a special and important feature of the castle. The story which gave rise to the name “Barons' Cave” is that the barons met there to draw up the Magna Charta in 1215, before making King John sign it. Unfortunately, this is a romantic story that is certainly not true. Equally unlikely are the rumours of tunnels that go from the castle to Reigate Priory, and to Blechingley and Betchworth Castles.
In the 18th century, the Castle Grounds were “tidied up”; the mock gateway was built, and the remains of the curtain wall disappeared from the inner bailey. It may be that it was at this time that the caves were opened up for curious visitors, as there are very few dates to be found in the cave from before 1770.
The cave was dug at a time when society and lifestyles were so different from those of today that it is difficult to understand now why it was needed. As you walk around the cave in the quiet and stillness, it is easy to imagine that you are walking back to a time when there were no cars, no airliners flying over every few minutes, and when the pace of life was altogether more relaxed.
In the 19th Century a number of extensive sand mines were excavated close to the centre of Reigate with entrances on either side of Tunnel Road, Britain’s oldest extant road tunnel running beneath the castle mound. The most extensive network of tunnels on three levels extended under the Baron’s Cave and at one point breaking through into the cave. This gave local cavers access to the Barons' Cave during the period of closure from the 1970’s until the Cave was re-opened in 1991.
This access was lost in 1987 when half of the then accessible mines were filled in following a survey by the Royal School of Mines which revealed “structural weaknesses in parts of the quarried maze beneath Tunnel Road and London Road. It showed that centuries of erosion and the stress of the abandoned workings - for sand for glassmaking - had caused land above the labyrinth to shift.” The report added that “constant weathering of the soft sandstone had meant that pressure on land above the cavities had become too great.”
Although there was no danger to the public it was decided that repairs should take place as soon as possible. The cost of the work (£188,000) will be shared by Reigate and Banstead Council and a Derelict Land Grant from the Department of the Environment.
Barons' Cave is occasionally opened to the public.