Here in Ripon, in 2022, we are celebrating the 1350th anniversary of the dedication of the basilica and crypt built by St Wilfrid, one of the great leaders of the Christian church in England at a formative time in its history. Remarkably, Wilfrid’s crypt still survives as the oldest built fabric of all English cathedrals. He intended it to be a place of devotion and pilgrimage, housing relics that he had brought back from Rome and evoking the catacombs that were beneath many of the great basilicas he had seen there on his first visit as a young man in the mid-650s. The main part of the basilica was destroyed in 948 in the fighting to recapture the Danelaw from the Vikings, but the crypt has remained, still at the heart of the present cathedral, just as it was at the heart of Wilfrid’s basilica. Wilfrid was a bishop for 46 years. In this art installation, he is flanked by Queen Eanfled, who became Abbess of Whitby after the death of her husband, King Oswig, and Archbishop Theodore who, in an exceptional career begun in the Greek-speaking Eastern Church, moved to the Western Church in Rome, and ended as a very effective Archbishop of Canterbury. Their support created the circumstances that allowed Wilfrid to build his basilica and crypt in the Roman style, re-using Roman stones from the ruins of nearby Isurium Brigantum (Aldborough).
Wilfrid was born in 634 to aristocratic parents in the kingdom of Northumbria. He was sent to the court when he was 14, but Queen Eanfled quickly recognised his abilities and arranged for him to study at the monastery on Lindisfarne. In 653 she supported his wish to travel to Rome, where Wilfrid became fully committed to the traditions of the Roman church. On his return he was granted the monastery in Ripon, originally founded in the 650s as a Celtic-tradition community. When Wilfrid set about transforming it to a Roman-tradition monastery, the original monks left and a new community was formed. He made it Roman in every respect: the signature building, the liturgy and chants, the adornments of the church interior, and the use of the Benedictine Rule. In 664 Wilfrid was chief spokesperson at the Synod of Whitby, when Northumbria decided to follow the Roman rather than the Celtic way of calculating the date of Easter, and later that year he became Bishop of the Northumbrians, travelling to France for his consecration. In his absence King Oswig, acting unlawfully, appointed Chad in his place. This is where Archbishop Theodore comes into the story, because in 669, as soon as he reached England from Rome, he restored Wilfrid to his bishopric and moved Chad to the midlands kingdom of Mercia. It was after this that Wilfrid was able start the building programme that has given us our Anglo-Saxon crypt.