Celebrate St Wilfrid’s Festival and remember just what the saint meant to the city of Ripon, says David Winpenny, Co-Chairman of Ripon Civic Society.
Tomorrow’s St Wilfrid’s Procession will mark the 900th anniversary of the charter granted to the Archbishop of York by King Henry I in 1108 to hold a fair in Ripon to mark the feast of one of the cathedral’s patron saints. It is not entirely clear what the feast day represents, though Wilfrid’s return from unjust exile in 705 is usually put forward as the reason. Whatever the cause, Wilfrid had a great impact on the city in which he is buried – not just in the annual celebration of his life, but also in Ripon’s growth and its buildings.
Wilfrid’s shrine brought pilgrims to the city, and undoubtedly helped its growth. Ripon is fortunate in having what is claimed as the country’s oldest places of Christian worship – the crypt of Wilfrid’s great church. It has been here since 672 when Wilfrid started the building, described by his friend and first biographer Eddius as ‘a church built of dressed stone, supported with columns and complete with side aisles.’ Wilfrid was buried in the church in 709, and though it was razed to the ground in 948 the crypt survived, and the site was used for subsequent churches.
What is now the cathedral is the pivotal point of Ripon’s development, and the great church, developed over the centuries since Archbishop Roger began the present structure in the 12th century, has always dictated the layout of the city. Ripon’s ecclesiastical importance as one of the residences of the archbishops of York, with its own legal jurisdiction and powers, meant that much of the city’s structure was developed by the church. The Market Square and its surrounding medieval streets were the result of archiepiscopal initiatives. Still today we live in a city that was influenced by St Wilfrid’s decision to construct his church on the site at the end of the ridge the oldest part of the city occupies.
Even when the church lost much of its secular power Ripon remembered St Wilfrid. Women were still tested for their chastity by being threaded through St Wilfrid’s Needle in his ancient crypt. In some form the procession marking his return was celebrated. His Minster continued to be a focal point for the north-western part of the huge Archdiocese of York.
And when the resurgent Roman Catholic Church built its new church in Ripon in 1860, just 10 years after the Catholic hierarchy was legally re-established in England, it was inevitably dedicated to St Wilfrid. It was designed by York-born Catholic architect Joseph Hansom, who also developed the Hansom cab, the taxi of the 19th century. St Wilfrid’s is a typical Hansom building, somewhat conventional in its detail but interesting in its planning, with its tower over the east end instead of one conventionally at the west. This seems to have been a deliberate decision to give Ripon another vertical emphasis to rival the Minster’s towers, the spire of Holy Trinity church and the obelisk – a function that it still serves.
And we must not forget that Wilfrid still presides over the Market Square from his ‘bath’ on the front of the NatWest Ban building.
None of this would have happened without Wilfrid – indeed, the city would probably not have existed at all without his decision to establish his church here. So as we celebrate his Festival this weekend, let us thank St Wilfrid for establishing the city and nourishing it over the last 1300 years.
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