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English Church Architecture.




(Bedrock:  Permian Zechstein Series, Edlington Formation.)


1: History. 



The history of Ripon Cathedral dates back to the founding of a monastery here by Scottish monks, probably in 657, but the community must soon have been brought under the control of the kingdom of Northumbria for in 660, its abbot, Eata, was supplanted by Wilfrid, protégé of Alchfrith, son of King Oswiu (641-70), and sub-king under him of Deira, a former minor kingdom corresponding roughly with the Yorkshire Wolds and Vale of York today. Though canonized after his death, Wilfrid, a Northumbrian aristocrat by birth, appears to have impressed his contemporaries more by his haughty, uncompromising temperament than his ascetic, contemplative life:  he was an ambitious, stubborn and difficult man, yet also, it must be said, energetic and scrupulous about pursuing what he considered the right course - regardless, indeed, not only of whether others agreed with him but even of the consequences to himself.  It was Wilfrid who was the main protagonist for Rome when Oswiu summoned the Synod of Whitby in 664 to decide the correct date for Easter, a matter imbued with deep religious significance at the time, and when the Roman party emerged ascendant and Bishop Colman of Northumbria had returned disappointed to Iona and his replacement, Tuda, had died almost immediately afterwards of the plague, it was Wilfrid who proved to be next in line for the see, which he promptly transferred from Lindisfarne to York.  This, however, did him little good, for Wilfrid then insisted there was no-one in England able to consecrate him and that he needed to travel to Gaul for the ceremony, and when he finally returned after a two year absence, he found that Oswiu had grown tired of waiting for him and appointed Chad in his place. Wilfrid thus retired to Ripon again until 669, when Theodore, the newly appointed Archbishop of Canterbury, deposed Chad and restored Wilfrid.  Yet this success too was short-lived, for after Oswiu's death the following year, Wilfrid soon fell foul of Ecgfrith his successor, first by encouraging his queen, Aethelthryth, to continue in her virginity after her marriage and, later, to enter a monastery, and then, after Ecgfrith had divorced her and remarried, by also managing to antagonize his new queen.  In these circumstances, it probably says much for Ecgfrith's sang-froid that he tolerated Wilfrid as long as he did, but in 677 his patience did finally run out and Wilfrid was driven into exile.  By this time Archbishop Theodore also seems to have become disillusioned with Wilfrid for during the next eight years, far from trying to mediate on his behalf, he seized the opportunity to split Wilfrid's unwieldy diocese into smaller units, appointing new bishops not only to York and a now separate see at Lindisfarne, but also to Hexham and Ripon, thus raising the status of the monastic church at Ripon to that of a cathedral for the first time.  The first bishop of Ripon was Eadhaed, who like his newly appointed colleagues elsewhere in Northumbria, seems to have had no difficulty in getting on with Ecgfrith without being any noticeably less zealous or diligent in pursuit of his duties.  However,  after Ecgfrith's death in 685, in an attempt to heal wounds and in response to the pope's continued support of Wilfrid's claims to his former diocese, Theodore did undertake to persuade Aldfrith, Ecgfrith's  brother and successor, to accept Wilfrid as the next Bishop of Ripon, but when Theodore died in 690 aged 88 and Wilfrid once again renewed his claim to be bishop to the whole of Northumbria, Aldfrith also decided to expel him.


Aldfrith died in 704, followed by his successor, Eadwulf, a nobleman of another family entirely, just two months later. That brought to the throne Aldfrith's son, Osred, then a boy of eight, and this paved the way for Wilfrid to return, this time to Hexham, the see of Ripon having seemingly been abolished in the interval, although Wilfred was at the monastery in Oundle when he himself died in 709.


However, it would be unfair to characterize Wilfrid's life as only one of contention and involvement in arrogant disputes, for during his exile, as well as making several extended and rather leisurely trips to Rome, he also undertook some exhausting and at times dangerous missionary work in the south of England, while the periods that he did manage to spend in Northumbria, though brief, were characterized by great activity, particularly in the organization of building programmes at Ripon and Hexham.  Wilfrid's crypts survive at both these places although the remainder of his church at Ripon was destroyed in 950 by King Eadred of Wessex and England, in his campaign against the Vikings still lodged in the area.  When the church was rebuilt, the establishment was made collegiate and the building became simply the very large church of a very large parish.  This was still the case when it was reconstructed next, in the late twelfth/ early thirteenth century, but the exact date of this rebuilding is a matter of considerable controversy, even though work is supposed to have begun during the prelacy of Roger of Pont l'Eveque, Archbishop of York from 1154 to 1181.  This is due to the fact that the new building style seems from the beginning to have been altogether too advanced for its alleged period, as shown today by the two-bay arcades in the transepts, which have pointed arches, the two surviving, original western bays of the chancel N. arcade, which are similar, and the internal evidence of former windows in the chancel S. aisle, which shows them to have been lancets. This is thought to have been the original form of all the other chancel windows also, as well as those of the then aisleless nave.  As usual in those days, erection of the new church proceeded from east to west and the W. front seems to have been finally completed only around 1230.  The chancel, however, was enlarged and greatly altered at the end of the thirteenth century, presumably to reflect the church's growing importance, the crossing was partially remodelled in the fifteenth century (it is assumed in response to fears about its safety), and in the sixteenth century the present five-bay aisled nave was built, leaving just enough of the old nave at the east and west ends to show its original aisleless form.


Finally, after another three centuries had passed, in 1836 the church was given cathedral status for a second time and the see restored by Act of Parliament, once more in order to reduce the size of the York diocese.  A restoration of the newly designated cathedral had already been carried out by Edward Blore (1787-1879) just six years earlier, and another, by Sir George Gilbert Scott (1811-1878), was to follow in 1862.




2: External description.

It would be excessively tedious to attempt to describe even a small cathedral like the present one with exactly the same level of detail appropriate to a parish church.  What will be given here, therefore, is a reasonably complete description of the exterior of the building in approximate age order (see the plan above), followed by a briefer account of the interior.


Wilfrid's crypt lies beneath the central tower and the crypt beneath the chapter house is another one entirely, this of probable twelfth century date.  Its existence is shown externally by the shallow E. apse that projects below the library (originally a Lady chapel), which was built above the chapter house c.1300 (illustrated below left).   The work of both periods has been much renewed.



The S. transept (shown above right, from the south) with lean-to E. aisle, appears largely Norman outside, with a large round-headed S. doorway, off-centre to the west, composed of four orders with rolls above and side shafts with water-leaf-like capitals.  (See the detail of the left jamb below left.)  Above is a stage with three round-headed windows, with tall, narrow side-shafts with similar capitals, encompassing trefoil-cusped Y-tracery probably inserted c. 1300.  Then comes a blank stage followed by one with three plain Norman windows.  The window in the gable, like the clerestory above the lean-to aisle, is Perpendicular, while the E. aisle (out of view to the right of the photograph) has a Norman S. window. The transept W. wall is pierced by plain round-headed windows.  Most of these features are mirrored in the N. transept except that there, the following differences may be seen:  (i) the doorway is composed of just three orders;  (ii) tall square turrets have been raised above the transept outer angles;  (iii) the original Norman windows can still be seen in the E. wall of the E. aisle;  and (iv) the clerestory above the E. aisle is stylistically of a piece with the clerestory above the W. end of the chancel N. aisle (shown below right).  This is where stylistic complications arise, for these are composed of wide round-headed lights set between narrow blank lancets, from which they are separated by side-shafts. The design is clearly original yet looks not so much Transitional as a deliberate juxtaposition of two styles both equally understood.


The crossing tower (shown below left, viewed from the southeast) rises above the transepts for one further stage only.  It has three plain Norman windows to both the north and west, and two, two-light Perpendicular windows to both the south and east.  It is embattled and has large octagonal pinnacles at the angles, without crockets.  Originally there was a spire behind but when it collapsed in 1615, it was not rebuilt.



The W. end of the building of c. 1230 (illustrated above right) is wholly Early English and lit entirely by lancets. The northwest and southwest towers rise in four stages, of which the lowest is blank to north and south but decorated to the west with six-bay, trefoil-cusped blank arcades commencing halfway up.  All other stages have three stepped lancets per face, the outer ones blank and the inner (which are wider) either glazed or slatted (at the bell-stage).  They are separated by single shafts in shaft-rings to north and south and by groups of either three or five shafts to the west (the five occurring in the second stage only), which are themselves separated by vertical lines of dog-tooth moulding that continue round the arches.  The stages are divided by double string courses sandwiching nailhead.  The tower tops are turreted at the northwest and southwest angles by set-back buttresses.  They also once had spires but these were taken down in 1664.  Between the towers, the W. end of the nave has three small stepped lancets in the gable and is divided below into three stages, the upper with five large stepped lancets, with groups of three shafts separated by dog-tooth between, and the next with five equal lancets, separated by groups of five shafts with dog-tooth.  Originally all these encompassed secondary, two-light tracery with quatrefoils in circles in the heads, but this was removed by Scott, making the W. front more stark but arguably also more powerful.  The lowest stage has three gabled doorways, the inner of five orders and the outer of three, each with many rolls and dog-tooth around, and many major and minor shafts beside, all constructed of sandstone. 


Returning to the other end of the cathedral, the aisled chancel is principally late thirteenth century work and has an exceptional E. window in geometric style (illustrated below left).  This is composed of seven trefoil-cusped lights with subarcuation of the outer lights in threes, three encircled cinquefoils above each group, and a wheel of three trefoils and three trilobes in the overall arch head.  The four-light window in the gable above is by Scott.  The E. buttresses have gabled off-sets in two stages, terminating in pinnacles above and behind, with traceried faces.  The E. windows to the chancel aisles are two-light with quatrefoils in their heads.  The N. aisle has two-light windows at the western end, with cinquefoil-cusped lights and quatrefoils above: the date is probably the first or second decade of the fourteenth century, before the ogee arch-form became established.  However, the two windows at the eastern end are earlier and have wider, trefoil-cusped lights and an order of side shafts.  The three easternmost clerestory windows over the chancel N. aisle (one of which is visible at the top left of the photograph, second above right) have geometric tracery, with wheels of five trefoils in their heads, and are separated from each other by flying buttresses rising from the aisle.   There are more of these between the clerestory windows above the S. aisle (inasmuch as they are visible externally, behind the independently-gabled library).



This leaves the embattled aisled nave to describe, which is the only important Perpendicular part of the building.  (The nave S. aisle and clerestory are shown above right.)  Externally the nave aisles appear to be five and a half bays long, with the half bays squashed against the transepts.  The windows each have three ogee lights, supermullioned tracery, subarcuation of the outer lights, and two tiers of reticulation units above the central lights separated by supertransoms.  Surprisingly though, the clerestory windows are actually bigger, having five lights with supermullioned tracery, two-centred outer lights subarcuated in pairs, and ogee-pointed central lights with two tiers of reticulation units separated by latticed supertransoms.  The aisle windows are separated by buttresses with gabled set-offs in three stages.


3: Internal description.

This must begin, of course, with Wilfrid's crypt beneath the tower, of great historical importance but rather less architecturally as it now consists of little more than a tunnel-vaulted chamber some four yards long (less than 4 m.). Next comes the crypt below the chapter house - though only after a gap of five centuries - which has a rib vault carried on square piers.  The restored chapter house has a ribbed vault supported by circular piers.


The transepts have a triforium on all sides, with two-light openings to the west, north and south, and to the east, Y-traceried openings in the S. transept and, in the N. transept, pairs of pointed arches set in round-headed ones, with blank pointed arches at the sides. (See the photograph of one of the  N. transept E.  bays, below left).  Both transepts also have passageways behind the aisle clerestories on all sides.  The two-bay arcades to the transept aisles are formed of pointed arches, of which those to the south are partly blocked.  The tower crossing arches are very tall, composed of three orders, and largely original to the north and west but remodelled to the south and east.  There is a triforium on the N. and W. sides only.


On the N. side of the chancel, the triforium proves to be of two parts like the clerestory above.  Here the western openings (illustrated  above right) copy those in the E. wall of the N. transept, while the eastern openings each consist of three trefoil-cusped lights with two encircled trefoils above, which is also the form of the entire triforium to the south.  The chancel arcades extend for five bays, of which the westernmost is blocked.  The N. arcade and the three eastern bays of the S. arcade consist of pointed arches bearing rolls and hollows, springing from piers composed of four major and four minor shafts (although only the two westernmost to the north are now original, the others having being reconstructed c. 1300) and are probably the oldest Gothic arches in the country.  (The N. arcade to the chancel is shown below left.)  The two western arches to the south were rebuilt in Perpendicular times, perhaps following damage done by the movement of the crossing tower.  The chancel aisles have quadripartite vaults springing from the arcade piers and from groups of three shafts attached to the aisle walls. In the S. aisle, behind the two Perpendicular arches, the original lancet windows can still be seen in the aisle wall, showing another aspect of what must once have been a revolutionary design, at least in England.


The Perpendicular nave arcades are also five bays long and formed of arches bearing many rolls, springing from piers composed of four semicircular shafts attached to the faces of square sections with hollowed angles.  (The N. arcade to the nave is shown above right.)  The nave aisles are also provided with quadripartite vaults (of which that above the N. aisle is illustrated below right).  At the E. end of the nave there are pieces of solid wall that have called forth the half bays of the later aisles.  At the W. end of the nave there are remnants of the Norman clerestory.


Surprisingly the cathedral contains no really significant carpentry apart from the chancel stalls, where the excellent canopy work is largely by Scott and the exceptional misericords, perhaps by the master carver William Bronfleet, mayor of Ripon in 1511.  One of these is dated 1489 on a shield.  They cover a wide range of subjects, some of doubtful sobriety, including a fox caught by hounds, a man wheeling his drunken wife in a barrow, Jonah being spewed from the whale, and two Blemyae.  Pliny (A.D. 23-79) described these last as a headless race of beings, six feet tall, with eyes and mouths in their stomachs.  The two depicted here, however, seem quite well disposed.


Monuments around the building include a number listed by Gunnis (Dictionary of British Sculptors: 1660-1851, London, The Abbey Library, 1951), among them:  (i) to Sir Edward Blackett (d. 1718), by John Hancock (fl. 1703-18) - a monument which is 24' high (7.3 m.) and described variously by Gunnis as 'grand' and by Pevsner as 'grotesque' (Nikolaus Pevsner & Enid Radcliffe, The Buildings of England: Yorkshire West Riding, Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1967, p. 411);  (ii) to Hugh Ripley (d.1637), by Daniel Harvey of York (1683-1733), apparently a replacement of a monument defaced in the Civil War;  and (iii) to William Weddell (d.1789), by Joseph Nollekens (1737-1823.  The best is another by Nollekens, featuring 'a bust of great elegance on a pedestal, the whole in what purports to be a rotunda, as they were built in gardens at the time' (Pevsner).  Nollekens was a fine artist who made a particular reputation for himself carving busts of Fox and Pitt the Younger.  He was also the subject of 'probably what is the most candid, pitiless and uncomplimentary biography in the English Language, Nollekens and His Times [by] J.T. Smith, the sculptor's pupil, friend and disappointed executor' (Gunnis).