Wilfrid – Ripon

We arrived at Ripon Cathedral on a rather dull grey Thursday afternoon and welcomed by Canon Keith Punshon, who gave a very lively and informative account of Wilfrid and his stay at Ripon. It was uplifting to at last find someone enthusiastic about our saint and positive about the role he had played in forming the established church!

Ripon is the oldest cathedral in England and Wilfrid established a church on the very site of the present cathedral in 672. The mission in Ripon started seventeen years earlier when king Oswiu defeated Penda, reuniting Northumbria, and his son Alhfrith, sub-king of Deira, appointed abbot Eata from Melrose to form a monastery at Ripon.

The site of Eata’s Celtic monastery was equidistant – about half a mile – between fords on the rivers Skell to the south and the Ure to the north. In 655 Wilfrid had just finished his first visit to Rome and had arrived back at Lyon to spend another three years as guest of Archbishop Dalfinus of Lyon, getting his Roman tonsure and learning a great deal about the traditions and practices of the Roman church.

On Wilfrid’s return to Northumbria in 657/8 he immediately found the favour of sub-king Alhfrith, and his mother queen Eanfled (who had sponsored Wilfrid’s first visit to Rome). Both were enthusiastic about the Roman customs in the church and eager to find out what Wilfrid had learnt during his long travels abroad. Inevitably a rift grew between Alhfrith and his Celtic abbot Eata at Ripon and this culminated in Eata and all his Celtic monks leaving Ripon to return to Melrose in 660/1 and Alhfrith appointed Wilfrid abbot of Ripon in Eata’s place.

In 663/4, Wilfrid was ordained priest by the visiting Gaulish bishop Agilbert at the instigation of Alhfrith, and in 664 Agilbert and Wilfrid successfully made the case for the Roman way of doing things at the Synod of Whitby, which led to the Celtic bishop Colman leaving Lindisfarne with all his Celtic monks to return to Iona.  Following Wilfrid’s triumph at the Synod of Whitby, it would seem that  he was appointed bishop of York by Alhfrith (though Eddius’s account states that both kings approved [LOW 12]) This revived a post vacated and left unfilled since Roman Paulinus fled back to Kent on the death in battle of King Edwin and, if it was instigated by Alhfrith, a further move to assert Roman customs in his sub-kingdom Deira (York was in Deira) and likely to have created or aggravated a rift with his father Oswiu who was overlord of Deira and king of Bernicia.

Wilfrid is likely to have been very much aware of the historical background to the bishop of York primacy (see Bede’s account of Pope Gregory’s instructions to Bishop Augustine as to how during his mission from Kent future bishops were to be appointed and for the setting up of a metropolitan bishop vested with the pallium at York [EH 1,29]). It is therefore hardly surprising that Wilfrid did not want to be consecrated by Celtic bishops and succeeded in gaining approval  to be consecrated by Roman bishops at Compiègne in Gaul. One view is that Wilfrid’s subsequent protracted stay abroad was that he rather enjoyed himself too much, that Oswiu became impatient with the absent bishop and appointed Chad bishop of York in his place in 666. I suspect though that there were much darker reasons because his son Alhfrith was about to disappear from the history books.

If Alhfrith took the unilateral decision to appoint Wilfrid bishop of York in 664 this would have undoubtedly created problems for Oswiu who had just lost his Celtic bishop Coleman at Lindisfarne and been a clear challenge to Oswiu’s authority as overlord of Northumbria and, what had up till then, a Celtic religious order based on the authority of the king not the Pope. Bede makes  a passing reference to a  rift between Alhfrith and Oswiu in his ‘Ecclesiastical History’ where [EH 3,14] he states that Oswiu was attacked by his own son Alhfrith and his nephew Oethelwald but does not say why or when this occurred.  However, in Bede’s work ‘Lives of the Abbots of Wearmouth and Jarrow’ he does mention that (what would have been around 664-666) Alhfrith was determined to visit Rome and take with him Benedict Biscop but that this was countermanded by his father who made him stay in his own country and kingdom [LAWJ 12].

All we know is that by 666 on Wilfrid’s return from Gaul after being shipwrecked on the Sussex coast, Oswiu had replaced Wilfrid with Chad as  bishop of York,  nothing further is mentioned about sub-king Alhfrith, and Wilfrid returned to live quietly at his monastery in Ripon, to be reinstated as primate of Northumbria by Archbishop Theodore in 669.

In 670 king Oswiu died and was succeeded by his son Ecgfrith. At first the relationship between the new king and bishop went well and Wilfrid approached the zenith in his power, influence and wealth as he benefited from Ecgfrith’s victories over neighbouring kingdoms. During 670-3 Ecgfrith had victories over the Picts in Scotland and during 673-5 over Wulfhere, king of Mercia, giving Wilfrid huge ecclesiastical influence not only over the whole of Northumbria but now to the north in Scotland and the south in Mercia (Midlands). With this influence came unprecedented wealth from the revenues of the vast estates and other royal gifts.

Following his reinstatement and drawing on his fabulous wealth, Wilfrid went on a great church building spree. Nothing could emphasise his disdain for the Celtic Christian culture more than the differences in design of his grand church buildings, furnishings and contents from the existing Celtic structures. Celtic churches were very simple small wooden affairs with thatched reeded roofs – spartan and (to Wilfrid) vulgar things. Wilfrid’s plan was to build magnificent big stone buildings modelled on the great churches he had seen in Gaul and his travels to Rome. It must be remembered that stone as a building material had fallen out of use in England after the fall of the Roman occupation, and the settlement of the Anglo Saxons – even the great royal fortress at Bamburgh would only have been made of wood. King Edwin had been building a stone church at York for his Roman Archbishop Paulinus but work stopped when Edwin was killed in 632 and Paulinus fled back to the safety of Kent. Wilfrid’s churches were also glazed – again a European mod con that was unheard of in primitive Anglo Saxon times and a facility that transformed the interior of churches. The churches were also adorned with fine vestments, drapes, precious books and holy relics that Wilfrid had acquired during his travels abroad.

As restored primate of Northumbria with his see at York, Wilfrid first set about finishing the partly built and now dilapidated stone church at York in 669-71. In 672/3 he built the stone church of St. Peter at Ripon and in 674, on land provided by Ecgfrith’s queen Ethelthryth, he built the stone church of St Andrew at Hexham, reputably out of the stone taken from Hadrian’s wall. The tragedy was of course that none of Wilfrid’s magnificent buildings have survived – the plundering Vikings, the Normans, and Cromwell’s roundheads have all led to a cycle of destruction and rebuilding which has changed for ever the face of Christian sites on our shores.

Fortunately there is a first hand impression written down – not by the Venerable Bede for he was born around the time Wilfrid built his church at Ripon, but in the book ‘Life of Wilfrid’ by Eddius Stephanus, the singing master brought in from Canterbury. Wilfrid had introduced the Benedictine Order at Ripon monastery and bought two singing masters from Canterbury including Eddius to teach his monks antiphonal singing and instruct them in Gregorian chants.

We can gleam from Eddius that the new church was a truly outstanding piece of architecture modelled on the basilicas of Rome with pillars, side aisles, arched vaults and ornate pictures of the saints. To build this type of structure, Wilfrid had to bring in stonemasons, plasterers and glaziers from France and Italy. Unfortunately their achievement was not to last as the church was almost totally destroyed in 950. All that remains, as a tangible link with Wilfrid’s minster, is the original crypt, which we were shortly to see for ourselves.

A second minster was built shortly afterwards but that was also destroyed in 1069, this time by the Normans. A new minster soon rose in 1080 by Thomas of Bayeux, first Norman Archbishop of York. The best part of this Norman part of the building is the vaulted undercroft, which has been recently restored, and now the Chapel of Resurrection. It was in this very chapel that we had our Eucharist with Fr Roger officiating. The very attractive and modern looking round altar actually dates from the second church of 950.


In 1181 the Minster was rebuilt in the Norman Transitional style with a new vaulted nave, transepts and a choir and substantially in plan much as it is today. In 1220 the west front was added including three spires – one on each tower of the west front and one on the central tower. In 1485 the central tower collapsed and the Minster was unusable until 1485 when it was rebuilt in the perpendicular style. The tower was rebuilt in part but in 1546 Edward VI dissolved Ripon’s college of cannons and annexed its possessions and revenues.

James I issued his charter of restoration in 1604 so the tower could be completed but it never got its last perpendicular arches and makes a very odd looking central arch! In 1660 the central spire again fell down and some years later the two spires on the west front towers were also removed – that’s why now the building looks spire-less! Finally in 1836 the Minster became a cathedral of a newly created diocese that extended from Leeds to Barnard Castle.

There were many wonderful things to see including the Treasury which contains the ‘Ripon Jewel’. This Saxon jewel was found during the excavation of a carpark and thought to be from a reliquary box in the crypt or the cover of leather bound Gospels and dating from 672 – when Wilfrid founded his first stone church at Ripon. There was also St Wilfrid’s chapel, the Wilfrid window placed in the pilgrim chapel in 1975, the wonderful carved choir stalls dating from 1489 and an amusing carved mechanical wooden hand used by the organist to lead the choir!

However, the big moment came when we descended the steps on the south side of the nave to enter the original crypt of St Wilfrid’s church.