Last updated on August 23rd, 2023 at 11:43 am
Ripon Cathedral has such publicly ancient roots that I was surprised to learn it only got promoted to cathedral as recently as 1836. As a matter of fact, Ripon is a physical link with the earliest days of Christianity in Britain, and particularly associated with Wilfred – bishop, saint and builder of the 7th century stone church whose crypt still survives under the present cathedral.
A monastic community was first founded at Ripon as a daughter house of St Aiden’s monastery at Melrose – or Mailros as it was known – sometime in the mid-7th century. Wilfred arrived a little later, in 658, when he was appointed Abbot. Trained at Lindisfarne, Wilfred had travelled to Rome, and then Lyons. Whilst overseas, he had become immersed in the practices of the Roman church, which were at odds with the Celtic traditions that had independently evolved in the British Isles. So, Wilfred introduced the Benedictine Rule to Ripon and, according to some accounts, turfed out those that didn’t like it – including, allegedly, St Cuthbert – the North of England’s favourite saint. En passant, during Cuthbert’s time at Ripon he is said to have been visited by an angel…yes, well. Anyway – Wilfred also set about replacing the timber church at Ripon with a brand-new stone one, engaging skilled craftsmen from mainland Europe to create a Roman-styled building using dressed stone, with columns, side-aisles, a great many windows and arched vaults. It was dedicated to St Peter in 872 and probably seemed quite alien to the Anglo-Saxons of Northumbria.
Wilfred went on to represent the Roman party at the Synod of Whitby and subsequently seemed to divide his time between holding a variety of high church offices, overseas travel, converting the South Saxons and falling out with people. He died at Oundle in c709 and was buried at Ripon, where his shrine became an important destination for pilgrims. I’m struggling to appreciate exactly what the old chap did to warrant being canonised and can only conclude that the process had similarities with the current honours system in the UK.
Inevitably, the vicissitudes of English history have impacted on Ripon Cathedral. In 875, Ripon was sacked by the Danes. In 948, King Eadred of England burned the monastery and destroyed the church as part of his campaign against the supporters of the Norwegian Erik Bloodaxe, and to bring Northumbria back under English control. The church was rebuilt, only to be wrecked again in 1069-70 during William the Conqueror’s ‘Harrying of the North’. The Norman Archbishop of York, Thomas of Bayeux, reconstructed the church in 1080, but the present building really began to emerge under the guidance of yet another Archbishop of York (and, obviously, a big cheese) – Roger de Ponte l’Eveque in the late 12th century. The medieval archbishops of York actually constructed a palace for themselves in Ripon. In the late 15th century, the cathedral’s central tower collapsed and necessary rebuilding was delayed by the Wars of the Roses. Somehow, the church survived the Reformation. It was vandalised by Parliamentary troops during the Civil War and, in 1660, the central spire fell through the roof of the choir. Shortly afterwards, the wooden medieval spires that had once adorned the west towers were removed. And there was extensive restoration work undertaken in the 19th century.
I was interested to learn that a right of sanctuary was granted to Ripon in the 10th century. This covered an area of one mile in circumference from the church and allowed fugitives 30 days’ security under the protection of the Church (terms and conditions applied). The boundary was marked by sanctuary crosses, one of which remains – though I haven’t seen it – at Sharow village and is under the care of the National Trust.
Visiting Ripon is of course an opportunity to experience one of Britain’s great medieval buildings. I can never quite get over how these places soar over you, their great columns and arches seemingly extending into another world. It is simply wonderful; my photos certainly do not do it justice. Of course, those mindful of history will make a beeline for the crypt, the only surviving part of Wilfred’s church. Some believe it was intended to represent Christ’s tomb and it is a slightly eerie sensation to go down the steps, knowing that countless people before have been doing the same thing for more than thirteen hundred years. If it is not the oldest church building still in use in Britain – and some say it is – it is certainly one of the oldest. It is suggested that some of the stone used in its construction was salvaged from Roman ruins. One of its features is a narrow niche known as ‘St Wilfred’s Needle’. It is a chastity test – every church should have one. I gather that any young woman unable to squeeze through was deemed to have failed; presumably, she’d have to try again another time. In another niche there’s a beautiful 14th century carving of the Resurrection, which had been hidden in the 16th century and was discovered in the 19th.
One of the most beautiful features of Ripon Cathedral has to be the stone pulpitum screen, which dates from the 15th century though the statues in it are 20th century. They represent figures from the cathedral’s long history. On the choir side of the screen is an unusual wooden hand poking out above the doorway. You wonder whether it’s the hand of God, but it is 17th century work and enables the organist to beat time for the choir; quite astonishing! The choir stalls and misericords are skilfully carved with wonderful figures and date from the 15th century. One carving shows a rabbit pursued by a griffin and disappearing down a hole. I didn’t see it, but it is said to have inspired Charles Dodgson, better known as Lewis Carroll, whose father was a canon at Ripon.
The mutilated 14th century effigies of Sir Thomas Markenfield and his wife Dionysia caught my eye. The tombs were ‘damaged’ during the Civil War, but must have been things of beauty before then.
Up a wide flight of stairs off the south transept takes you into the cathedral library, where there is an astonishing display of treasure, some of it exquisite, some of it gaudy, most of it impressive. There’s also an interesting series of portraits of kings and queens, dating from the early 17th century. The most amazing item, to me, was the ‘Ripon Jewel’. This is a Saxon ornament – possibly a decoration from a book, a casket or a crucifix. It is gold, inlaid with amber and garnets, and was found close to the cathedral in 1976.
My latest visit to Ripon Cathedral included a meeting with fellow webist Helen, and her husband Glenn. Helen’s eye for beauty and elegance, as well as her skill with a camera, can be seen over at Entertablement. I must say that, given that poor weather had thwarted Glenn’s attempt to take a flight in a Spitfire, he seemed impressively calm.
Of course, there’s more to Ripon than the cathedral and I’m glad to say that this includes a selection of places nearby serving coffee and tempting buns. I’d like to learn more about the earlier history of Ripon, whose name might be tribal in origin – variations on Inhrypum or Hrypis – and therefore pre-date the Anglo-Saxons. I’m wondering how it survived them, and the Danes; both invaders stamped their language on British place names. On that thought, I’ll leave you with a link to the Ripon Cathedral website.