Another place that features in The Northumbrian Saga is Ripon in Yorkshire. After marrying the unfaithful Eadred at the beginning of the story, Aethelwin and her half sister Ailith travel south to the opposite end of Northumbria to their new home of Shepworth, a fictional village I set on the opposite side of the River Skell to Ripon. Situated between the Pennine mountain range in the west and the Vale of York to the east, Ripon is one of the most picturesque locations in Yorkshire with its own history of kings, saints and warfare.
The name Ripon is thought to have derived from the name of a group or tribe that once lived in the region. This group was known as the Hyrpe or the Hyrppes and they have lent their names to many other places, such as Ripley (Woodland of the Hyrpes), Ribston (Hyrpes stone) and possibly even Repton in Derbyshire further south (Hyrpa dun or hill of the Hyrpe). As such there have been many versions of Ripon’s name, including Hrypis/Hripis, Inhrypamin, Onripum, Rypum/ Rhypum, and Ripun by the time of the Domesday book in 1089. Ripon was used interchangeably with Rippon until the 19th century when the second p was dropped for good and became the spelling we know today.
During the Roman period Ermine street ran very close by, the main north south artery that effectively split the island in half, stretching from London in the South and as far as Hadrian’s wall in the north. Various artefacts of Roman provenance such as pottery shards, evidence of metal working, Roman buildings and even burials have been found in the nearby countryside. So far no evidence has been discovered that Ripon itself was in use until the Anglo-Saxon period.
The first instance of the site of Ripon being used was some time in the first half of the 7th century. A settlement of Celtic monks from Melrose had been established there under Abbot Eata around 659. This group even included a young guest-master called Cuthbert, who later became the patron Saint of Northumbria.
According to Bede by 661 there were around 40 families living at Rhypum. This suggests that the monastery was thriving under Eata, yet this was not enough to impress everyone. During the 7th century the kingdom of Northumbria was undergoing a transition not just from paganism to Christianity, but from Celtic Christianity to Roman Christianity. Saint Wilfrid, then a cleric to Prince Ahlfrith of Northumbria, was given the monastery of Ripon and made its abbot by the young prince. Wilfrid was a great supporter of Roman Christianity and he didn’t lose any time in evicting Eata, Cuthbert and the Celtic monks in favour of Benedictine monks. Three years later the Synod of Whitby finally determined that the official religion of Northumbria would follow Roman Christianity.
In 672 Wilfrid moved the old monastery closer to the current Cathedral’s location and rebuilt it in the Roman basilica style. Stonemasons, plasterers and glaziers were brought in from Gaul (Italy and France) and were set to work at Ripon. Two years later they were put to work at the monastery at Hexham further north on Hadrian’s wall.
Saint Wilfrid led a very colourful existence, both admired and detested by many who knew him. In 692 he refused to make Ripon the centre of a bishopric and this seems to have been the last straw in a long line of conflicts with Ahlfrith’s younger brother King Ecgfrith and the Northumbrian church. Wilfrid was banished from Northumbria in 678 and spent the rest of his life travelling to the continent, Wessex and Mercia with brief stints back in Northumbria after King Ecgfrith’s death.
Wilfred returned to Ripon for the last time in 706 where he lived until his death in 710. His body was brought back from Oundle in Northamptonshire, where he had been visiting at the time, and was buried at his church at Ripon. His return from exile is still celebrated each year in the town with a special procession on his feast day. This tradition originates much later in history however, from a special grant by King Henry I in the 12th century. It would be over 1140 years after Wilfrid’s death, in 1836, that Ripon church was granted the title of Cathedral and finally became the official seat of a Bishopric.
The Ripon Jewel was also found within the grounds of Ripon Cathedral in 1976 and thought to be 7th century in date. This would place it firmly in the period of the church’s foundation and the time of St Wilfrid. It is a small round ‘doughnut’ shaped disk of gold designed in the cloisonné style which was popular during this time. At one point amber, garnets, glass and other jewels would have been used as further adornment.
In 934 AD King Athelstan granted Ripon the privilege of Sanctuary after finally bringing Northumbria into the new Kingdom of England. Yet sanctuary was not enough to protect the people or the church against the wrath of the King of England. 16 years later the church was almost completely destroyed by King Eadred of England when he launched an attack on Northumbria in retaliation for taking the Viking Eric Bloodaxe as their King over him. Afterwards, all that survived of Saint Wilfrid’s basilica was the crypt which can still be seen today. It is the oldest surviving post Roman crypt or vault surviving in England and it is one of the finest examples of early Anglo-Saxon building and decorating techniques, especially with regards to reuse of Roman brickwork in construction.
A new church was eventually built on the site of the old one which survived until 1069 and the Harrying of the North by William the Conqueror. The norman Archbishop of York, Thomas of Bayeux, built yet another church in 1080 and almost exactly 100 years later Roger de Ponte l’Eveque rebuilt the church in the norman transitional style. The central tower of the church collapsed in the late 15th century but was also rebuilt.