Wilfrid Worldwide Web: Wilfrid, Willibrord and Utrecht

May 13, 2022
May 13, 2022 Joe

As well as receiving well-wishes from churches across the world, the cathedral has been active in sending out the good news and inviting others into our 1,350th celebrations. We are grateful to Meg Munn for her work celebrating one of Wilfrid’s most illustrious pupils – Willibrord. Find out more below:

Ripon Cathedral’s Unique Connection to Utrecht

Willbrord as seen in the cathedral’s quire screen

In 690 the Anglo-Saxon monk, Willibrord left England with 11 companions to Christianise the pagan Frisians of the North Sea coast. He was subsequently made first a bishop, and then the first Archbishop of Frisia with his See at Utrecht, and was one of the most influential figures in the establishment of Christianity in the Netherlands. His first steps on this path began in 665 when he entered the monastery in Ripon headed by Abbot Wilfrid to spend his formative years. Thus the unique connection between Ripon in North Yorkshire and the city of Utrecht was established over 1300 years ago.

Christian worship at Ripon has been a source of wonder, inspiration and peace since the 670s when the Anglo-Saxon Saint, Wilfrid, erected his stone church. He brought stonemasons and craftsmen from overseas to help build its impressive columns and side aisles, this at a time when the majority of buildings were made entirely of wood. Wilfrid decided to incorporate a crypt in the church, inspired by his travels across the continent to Rome, during which he worshipped in a number of magnificent churches, many with ‘catacombs’ below. The only part of the original church to survives is this crypt, which is acknowledged as the oldest built fabric of all England’s cathedrals.

The crypt was one of the most important and sacred spaces in the original church as it contained holy relics, many linked to saints, including Saint Peter – one of Jesus’ closest friends – to whom Wilfrid dedicated his church. It was designed to create a powerful experience for pilgrims, something that would live with them and strengthen their faith. The passageways and central chamber were lit by candles, which displayed the luxurious gold, silver and purple wall decorations to good advantage. Pilgrims would go underground to the place of burial, and then walk up into the awe-inspiring church above, a journey symbolising Jesus’ death and the hope of Resurrection. It is amazing to think that the crypt is still a place of prayer, pilgrimage and inspiration some 1350 years after Wilfrid first laid the foundations of faith.

This year Ripon Cathedral is marking those 1350 years with a programme of events beginning at the end of April through to the 16th October. That day is Saint Wilfrid’s saint day. This year as part of the commemoration the Archbishop of York will preach and dedicate a new St. Wilfrid memorial stone.

As part of our programme we are celebrating the links between Ripon and towns and cities around the world. Some have churches named after St. Wilfrid, while other links are due to the spread of Christianity coming directly from Ripon itself. A St Wilfrid’s church in California marked its connection to Ripon by commissioning windows with images of the Ripon Jewel, a small gold piece of jewellery, found near the Cathedral in 1976 believed to date from the seventh century. We are excited about a new church in the diocese in Matana in Burundi, which on receiving our inquiry researched the history of the saint and last summer dedicated the church to St Wilfrid.

One of our most important links however is with Saint Willibrord. The son of the hermit Saint Wilgis, Willibrord, aged 7, entered the monastery in Ripon in 665. There he would have been part of Abbot Wilfrid’s community of monks. Wilfrid was a man with a wide vision of the world and a strong personality able to win converts and effect change, as shown with his construction of the stone church, which is thought to have taken place between 669 and 678.

When he was 15, Willibrord was tonsured and took on the vocation of monk, spending 12 years in Ireland where he was ordained. It is believed that while he was in Ireland, he was inspired to undertake missionary work and so in 690 travelled to Frisia. The Venerable Bede, who wrote “An Ecclesiastical History of the English People”, tells us that the mission prospered and many people became Christians. Willibrord later went to Rome to receive the support and encouragement of Pope Sergius, who gave him the name Clement and made him a bishop. He was sent back to establish the Church in Frisia with a See at Utrecht. He returned to visit Rome in 695 and was consecrated as Archbishop of Frisia.

In 698 Willibrord established his second missionary base, the important monastery of Echternach, which is in modern day Luxembourg. He died at the age of 81, on the seventh of November 739 at Echternach, was buried in the abbey church and was immediately venerated as a saint. Willibrord is honoured every year in Echternach by a dancing procession to his tomb. There are various legends about the origin of the dancing procession, including that it was to avert plague.

The English scholar Alcuin, writing in the 8th century, described Willibrord’s work as based on energetic preaching and ministry, informed by prayer and sacred reading. Willibrord was always venerable, gracious, and full of joy.

Willibrord is truly a symbol of ties between the Christians of England and those of the Netherlands. Fifty years ago, Ripon welcomed the Archbishop of Utrecht, Cardinal Alfrink, to the 1300th celebrations. We hope that this article will inspire many readers to travel and join our celebrations in Ripon this year. A full programme of events is found here https://www.riponcathedral.org.uk/1350th/ You will be assured of a warm welcome.

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