Ripon Cathedral – a house of worship since 672CE
As I walked towards the imposing bulk of Ripon Cathedral, it seemed solid, permanent, as if grown out of the earth, and it took a leap of faith to realize that this was the FOURTH church to sit on this site. St Wilfred (634-709CE), the ‘victor’ at the Synod of Whitby in 664CE (which declared that the Roman style of worship would replace the Celtic one), built churches all over what was the Kingdom of Northumbria, but erected a most impressive stone church at the Saxon community of Inhrypum – later to become the city of Ripon – in 672CE to replace, it is surmised, an even earlier structure. This could very well refer to a monastery erected on what is now the north-east corner of the current building; this was built by a group of Celtic monks who had been granted land equivalent to between 30 and 40 farms in the 650s by the local Northumbrian prince. The church which was started in 672CE (and replaced the monastery) was destroyed in a dispute between the natives of Northumbria and King Eadred, who had the church burnt in 948CE.
Just over one hundred years later, after the Norman Conquest, the whole of the North rebelled against the rule of William the Conqueror, and he undertook what became known as ‘The Harrying of the North’, when his forces laid waste to the land. The church was once again destroyed, this time in 1069. The Saxon crypt survived, and is quite likely the oldest part of a church building to remain in continuous use; although plain in nature, there is a large niche in the East Wall which contains a superb alabaster carving. William appointed a fellow Norman as Archbishop of York (which diocese covered Ripon at the time), one Thomas of Bayeux. Starting from scratch, Thomas caused a massive 12th century Minster to rise on the flat Yorkshire plain.
On entering what is now Ripon Cathedral, the initial impression is one of light, and relative simplicity. Admittedly, the Victorian ‘rebuilders’ have been here before us – and, goodness knows, they have created havoc elsewhere – but there are surprising touches, such as the bronze Art Nouveau pulpit, supported on marble columns. As with all major ecclesiastical buildings which have survived through the centuries, there are a mix of architectural styles on view. The wonderful West Front, from the 13th century, is demonstrably Early English, but the nave, dating from 1181 (seen above) shows the mix of rounded Norman arches and pointed Gothic ones, which makes it an interesting example of the late 12th century Transitional style. Archbishop Roger had started work on the ‘new’ Norman church in 1181, but it was eventually modified and completed in 1260 by Archbishop Walter de Grey. Unfortunately, the nave was severely damaged when the central tower collapsed in 1485. This gave rise to the superb Mediaeval decoration which was part of the rebuilding effort, a process which included the addition of the nave’s side aisles. This rebuild was in the Perpendicular (or Late Gothic) style. Churches were the center of their communities, and this is illustrated by the fact that in Mediaeval times, the nave of the church, when not being used for services, would be a place where business took place and commercial contracts would be negotiated.
When in this area of the Cathedral, the eye is immediately drawn to the choir stalls. These are without doubt one of the finest examples of Mediaeval carving that survives in England. Shortly after the Wars of the Roses finished in 1485, it became possible for craftsmen to, once again, travel around the country seeking work. Under King Henry VII, the first of the Tudor dynasty, there was to be relative peace. William Bromflet (later known as William Carver) was the head of a band of rustic woodworkers known as the School of Ripon. Sadly, these Mediaeval gems had their canopies severely damaged when the spire over the central tower collapsed – yet again – in 1660, and fell through the roof. The canopies were eventually replaced by Victorian copies in the 19th century.
All churches have been subject to political upheavals throughout history, whether it be the Dissolution of the Monasteries under Henry VIII, or the Protestant Reformation and the short-lived Counter Reformation under Queen Mary from her accession to the throne in 1553 to her death in 1558. When Oliver Cromwell deposed the Monarchy, and founded the Commonwealth (1649 – 1660), the Chapter of Ripon Minster (the church’s governing body) was dissolved; King Charles re-formed the Chapter in 1660. In 1836, Ripon Minster became Ripon Cathedral with the founding of the first new diocese in England since the Reformation.
If you do visit this architectural feast of a building, please do not miss the Treasury, which contains the ‘Ripon Jewel’. This beautiful piece of Saxon jewelry was uncovered during excavation for a new car parking area, and the latest theories are that it was either costly decoration on the front of a leather-bound copy of the Gospels, or possibly from a reliquary box held in the crypt.