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The Great Survivor! - Ripon Cathedral’s Ancient Saxon Crypt founded in 672

Whilst York Minster is always seen as the most important church in the North of England, little old Ripon Cathedral can say that it’s Crypt is the oldest surviving structure of any cathedral in England.


I have been to Ripon Cathedral a number of times over the years with guests and whilst the stunning Gothic architecture and scale of the building takes your breath away, it is the tiny crypt beneath the high altar which never fails to astound visitors and still makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand up every time I visit.


A bit of history about the origins of the Cathedral are useful to understand the background to the structure. The key player in its building is St.Wilfred, an important religious figure at the time.


It’s worth remembering that Ripon and Yorkshire was part of the Kingdom of Northumbria at the time. Christianity was established in the area by King Edwin who converted to Christianity in 607, building a fledgling wooden Minster in York for his baptism.


Much of the Christianity in Northumbria followed a Celtic form of Christianity as missionaries had travelled down from Scotland. But a Roman Catholic form of Christianity was also worshipped in England and had been established by missionaries from Rome. Neither branch could agree on many issues including when to worship Easter.


In 664 a Synod took place in Whitby at Whitby Abbey and Wilfred, a controversial figure who had already visited Rome, led and spoke on behalf of the Roman Catholic side which eventually won the day.


Before Wilfred got involved at Ripon, a timber monastery existed in Ripon which was a daughter house of Saint Aidan’s Monastery in Melrose. It was built in the 660’s and the monks followed a Celtic form of Christianity.


Wilfred (who had not been sainted at the time) was appointed Bishop of Ripon. One of his first actions was to sack the Abbot of the monastery and expel the monks (including the future St. Cuthbert). He set about building a new stone Church which he envisaged as a Roman style basilica.


On his trips to Rome he had witnessed first hand innovative architecture with ornate stone churches and catacombs. As most churches at the time were built of wood, Wilfred set out to build a church which would astound visitors and be unlike anything seen in England before.


He recruited stonemasons, glaziers and plasterers from Europe and set about building a church which had a crypt where he could keep relics and treasures he had bought back from Rome. The Church and Crypt was completed in 672.


A later account by Eddius Stephanus – explained “In Ripon, Saint Wilfrid built and completed from the foundations to the roof a church of dressed stone, supported by various columns and side-aisles to a great height and many windows, arched vaults and a winding cloister”

It must have been quite a site at the time and a model in Ripon Cathedral’s Gallery shows how the main church would have looked.


What happened to this grand stone church?


Sadly in 948, King Eadred of England, who was the grandson of Alfred the Great destroyed the Church. There was still wars going on between the Vikings in the North and Saxons, but after swearing allegiance to Eadred, the magnates of York including the Archbishop Wulfstan of York, reneged on their agreement and accepted Erik Bloodaxe as king. Eadred in response lead an army to Ripon and burnt the church down as it was at the centre of Wulfstan’s richest estate.


So the church was destroyed, but another soon was built using the original crypt. This church was destroyed during the Harrying of the North under the reign of William the Conqueror.


After the Norman conquest, first Thomas of Bayeaux, Archbishop of York instigated the building of a Norman Church with rounded arches, some of which can still be seen inside the Cathedral now and over the following years the cathedral has evolved with additions of an Early English Gothic front in the 1220’s and then when an earthquake caused the tower to collapse a number of later gothic internal additions were made.


But in all these various iterations the Crypt from 672 has survived and been accessible to visitors.

The entrance to the Crypt is just to the right side at the end of the nave (just by the right pillar on the picture of the organ and quire screen above). Here you can walk down some stairs and along eerie narrow passageways before coming out in a small white washed, candle lit room. The void was meant to represent the inside of Jesus’s tomb.

There is a small simple altar and a simple arched ceiling. Being in the crypt on your own, it really is an atmospheric experience, when you think of the number of people who must have been in the room over the last 1300 or so years.


There is a small alabaster carving of the Resurrection which dates to the 14th century showing Jesus climbing out of his tomb. This was one of 3 carvings found in the 1800’s beneath the choir stalls which must have been hidden during the reformation.


I would highly recommend a visit to see this historical architectural survivor. It is still free to visit Ripon Cathedral and there is so much more to see as well as the Crypt.

To find out more about Ripon Cathedral visit


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