Ripon Cathedral was founded by St Wilfrid (c. 634-709), who brought craftsmen from the continent to build a new stone church dedicated to St Peter, in 672. The only part of Wilfrid’s church to survive, however, is the ancient Saxon crypt.
Much of the church you see today dates from the 12th century, though most of the nave was substantially rebuilt in the 15th and 16th centuries.
For this reason, the building contains a variety of architectural styles. Thus the splendid Early English west front dates from the early 13th century, while the transepts (the ‘arms’ of a cruciform church) – combining rounded Norman with pointed Gothic arches – are an interesting example of the late 12th century Transitional style.
The nave was largely rebuilt in the Perpendicular (late Gothic) style after the central tower collapsed in 1450, when the side-aisles were also added. Work was halted, however, by the disruptions of the Reformation in the 1530s, which is why to this day there are incomplete pillars and mis-matched arches under the central tower.
In 1604 Ripon was re-founded by King James I as a collegiate church, and although the Chapter (the governing body) was dissolved again during the Commonwealth (1649-60), it was reinstated following the restoration of the monarchy under Charles II in 1660. In 1836 Ripon Minster became a Cathedral with the creation of the first new diocese in England since the Reformation.
The ancient Saxon crypt is the only part of Wilfrid’s original church to have survived intact since 672 – making it arguably the oldest church building in England to have remained in continuous use.
Wilfrid may have intended the crypt to represent Christ’s tomb, and it is possible that the large niche on the east wall would have contained the relics of saints, which Wilfrid brought back from Rome.
Today this niche contains a beautiful 14th-century alabaster carving of the resurrection, part of a collection found in the 19th century under the Dean’s stall in the choir where they had lain hidden since the Reformation.
The crypt incorporates stone that was probably salvaged from nearby Roman ruins, and reveals building methods that were largely unknown in England at the time, but which Wilfrid would have encountered in his travels on the continent.
To this day, visitors still come from near and far, as they have done since the 7th century, to offer prayers in Wilfrid’s crypt.
Ripon Cathedral is open to visitors every day from 8.30 am to 6.00 pm. Entrance is FREE.
The ‘Ripon Jewel’ is a Saxon ornament that was found close to the Cathedral in 1976. It is a small gold roundel, 29mm (just over an inch) in diameter. The back is a plain gold sheet, but settings for gems have been fashioned on the front with strips of gold. The four square cells have been filled with amber, and the smaller triangular cells with garnets. The central setting and inner arcs of inlay are missing.
The library was built as a Lady Chapel on top of the Chapter House in the early 14th-century, which is why gargoyles can still be seen near the ceiling on what would originally have been the outside wall.