Ripon Cathedral: History, Crypt & Library

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

England has many churches, but Ripon Cathedral is unique. In this lesson, we are going to check out this structure and its history, and see why it's so important.

Ripon Cathedral

Christianity is the main religion practiced in England today. However, it wasn't always this way. It took centuries for Christian priests, monks, and clerics to override the Celtic and Roman religions that dominated Britain. So, how'd they do it? One method was in building churches and attracting people using religious relics, many of which were said to heal illnesses and answer prayers.

There are a number of important churches that helped establish the dominance of Christianity in England, but a notable one is Ripon Cathedral. Located in what is now North Yorkshire, this English church harkens back to a time before England was really even England.

Ripon Cathedral

Founding of Ripon

The story of Ripon Cathedral begins with St. Wilfrid, a 7th-century bishop who was instrumental in bringing Roman-style Christianity to the region. At the time, this was actually an Anglo-Saxon kingdom called Northumbria. St. Wilfrid settled here and founded a monastery in Ripon, one of the first Benedictine monasteries of Northumbria.

This monastery was a simple structure with a wooden church, built in the local Anglican style. However, he soon decided that his monastery needed a proper, stone church and around 672 CE he commissioned craftsmen from across Britain to come and build one. The church was to be a stone basilica, a form he'd seen in Rome but which had not really been introduced throughout Britain yet.

Ripon Cathedral was founded by St. Wilfrid, a bishop and abbot of the 7th century

The Anglo-Saxon Crypt

Before the actual building could be constructed, St. Wilfrid wanted a crypt built below the church. The point of the crypt was to house religious relics that St. Wilfrid had acquired, which could be displayed for pilgrims to come and revere.

This was not common in England at this point, so where'd St. Wilfrid get the idea? He had previously spent time in Rome, where large cathedrals displayed troves of relics in underground crypts. Historians believe that St. Wilfrid had access to the sacred catacombs of Rome as well. After Rome, St. Wilfrid had traveled through Gaul, where underground relic chambers were being used. St. Wilfrid clearly liked the idea, and introduced it to Northumbria.

The crypt itself is austere and modest, composed of narrow passages and niches in whitewashed walls for displaying religious relics. It was built pragmatically to let pilgrims shuffle through, but was also based on accounts of the simple tomb where Christ's body was laid after the Crucifixion.

Ripon Cathedral is actually the fourth structure to stand on the site, since St. Wilfrid's church was later destroyed. The crypt, however, is still the original Anglo-Saxon structure built by the canonized abbot of Ripon. It was built as its own structure, which is why it's survived years of rebuilding above it. In fact, this crypt is the oldest surviving structure of any church in all of England. As if that wasn't enough reason to visit it, St. Wilfrid himself was interred here after he died in 709 CE.

The Cathedral

Over the centuries, the church built by St. Wilfrid suffered Viking raids, Danish invasions, Norman attacks, and even a conflict between an English king and the Archbishop of York. Finally, the crumbling structure was rebuilt as a grand, medieval church by Archbishop Roger de Pont l'Eveque in the 12th century.

The Archbishop was insistent that St. Wilfrid's tomb should be directly below the cross, so the new church had to be realigned. This meant that the east end protruded beyond the flat ground and onto a sloping hill which had to be built up. Complications from maintaining the stability of this ground plague the cathedral to this day. As a result, parts of the cathedral have had to be rebuilt many times over the years, leading to an eclectic mix of architectural styles.

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