Visiting the past – Ripon

As a writer of books set in the tenth century, it is not often that I get the chance to visit places that survive from that period. Even the landscape can change: stretches of coast have disappeared, rivers have changed their course and towns have appeared where once the land was empty, or disappeared only to be rediscovered by archaeologists. Man has had such an influence on the land, how do we even know that an apparently immovable mountain looks the same as it did a thousand years ago? Perhaps it was once covered in forest or mining has changed the outline.

Recently I visited a place that remains comparatively unchanged. Beneath the floor of Ripon Cathedral, in North Yorkshire, is a crypt. It was built in 672AD, so it was already old by the tenth century. It was built by St Wilfrid and survived several rebuildings of the church and then cathedral above.

St Wilfrid was born in Northumbria around 633AD probably from an aristocratic family. When he was about fourteen he left home, travelling to the court of King Oswiu. He was sent to study at the recently founded monastery at Lindisfarne. After a few years he moved to Canterbury. He then travelled to Rome with Bishop Biscop and spent time in Lyons. He returned to Northumbria in 658AD and was given the monastery recently founded at Ripon by Alhfrith, sub king and son of Oswiu. The monks had come from Melrose Abbey and followed the Irish monastic customs. After his travels Wilfrid favoured the Roman version of Christianity and introduced the Rule of Saint Benedict to Ripon. He expelled several “Celtic” monks, including St Cuthbert.

Wilfrid took part in the Synod of Whitby in 664AD, when the Roman method of calculating the date of Easter was adopted, largely due to Wilfrid’s speech. He was nominated as Bishop, but considered the Anglo-Saxon bishops of Northumbria unqualified to censecrate him. He travelled to Compiègne, to be consecrated by the Bishop of Paris. After various delays Wilfrid became Bishop of York in 669AD. He travelled widely, to Rome again and throughout England, converting the South Saxons and building churches throughout the country. After he died in 710AD he was buried in the church he had built in Ripon. More about this energetic saint here.

The church at Ripon, and Hexham which he also built, were aisled basilicas, similar to those common on the continent. They were also the first buildings in England since the Romans to be built of stone. In fact most of the stone was taken from Hadrian’s wall (for Hexham) and probably the Roman town at Alborough (which we also visited) for Ripon. The only part of the original church surviving today is the crypt. It was built by Wilfrid to resemble the crypts he had seen in Rome or perhaps as a copy of the tomb in which Christ was buried.

Ripon Cathedral, west front


The crypt survived because it is completely separate from the building above, attached only at the entrance and exit. Wilfrid’s church stood nearly three hundred years until it was burnt to the ground in 948AD during a dispute between King Eadred and the Archbishop of York. A later Minster was destroyed in 1069 in the Harrowing of the North by William I and the present church was built by Archbishop Roger de Pont l’Eveque in 1180.
In 1836 the Minster became a Cathedral and in 1861 there was major restoration by George Gilbert Scott.

Interior of Ripon Cathedral. The entrance to the crypt is just behind the statue, you can see the sign at the end of the aisle.

My interest in the crypt was drawn by that significant date of 948AD. This is the year I have reached in my series of books about Byrhtnoth, and the event was just too good to ignore. I had already written the scenes, so I was interested to see if my imagination matched the facts. The place seemed smaller than I expected, but everything else fitted. Not too much editing required! Here is a brief extract from my WIP. Byrhtnoth has just fallen down the steps and makes his way along the entrance corridor, searching for illumination.

Steps leading down to the anglo-saxon crypt

The height was adequate for a normal man, but not me. The roof was flat; large slabs laid across it. I felt the joints beneath my fingers as I shuffled forward. The passage was narrow, the rock smooth with the passage of many bodies. The walls pressed in, like the sides of a grave. I imagined myself trapped forever in the cold and dark. My questing hands encountered a blank wall ahead, and I started to panic.
“The corridor bends to the right.” The monk’s calm voice came from behind. It sounded far away. I stretched out an arm into empty space.
“I’m there.” I tried to hide the tremor in my voice.
“Carry on. Watch out for a step, just before the end of the corridor. There should be a lamp there and a jug of oil.”
Although I moved slowly, I tripped on the step and fell against the rough wall. I waited for my heart to slow before finding the lamp in a niche together with a bowl of sweet-smelling oil. I fumbled in my pouch for my flint. I blinked as the spark ignited, then lit the wick of the waiting lamp. Light flooded the corridor.

Main chamber of the crypt, home to relicts collected by St Wilfrid and later his own bones.
The way out of the crypt, but not today!



I’m not going to tell you why he is there, or what happens. You will have to wait for the book! The corridor leads to the main room, through an arch into another, then up another set of stairs to the exit.
Luckily there weren’t too many people around, so I had plenty of time to soak up the atmosphere.
I even took my husband through the crypt, explaining what (I imagined) took place. He is probably glad I don’t get the chance to do that very often!

The visit to Ripon was an short break on our way back from a holiday in Scotland. I’ll write more about that another time and how it has inspired some of the action in the next book (number four) of the Byrhtnoth Chronicles.

View of Ripon Cathedral from the bedroom window of our hotel.
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