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English Church Architecture -

North Yorkshire.


RIPON CATHEDRAL (SE 314 711)     (November 2004)

(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 Wilffrid 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 c. 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.

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(Below: the W. front doorways.)