Just a few weeks after my visit to Hexham and I find another great church with 7th century origins. From the side elevation Ripon Cathedral even shares a similar look due to the squat tower at the centre, though once you understand the history of the building then you’ll understand that there was no plan that produced this.
The two churches do share origins though – both were projects of St Wilfrid, inspired by the basilicas he had seen in Rome. Like Hexham he made use of nearby Roman masonry (in this case from Aldborough), and like Hexham the crypt survives beneath the medieval church. Like Hexham, Wilfrid’s church here was adopted as a site to build a major centre for pilgrimage by the Normans and it is here that the stories converge significantly.
Roger de Pont l’Évêque, who was Archbishop of York in the mid 12th century began the rebuilding, but it’s clear that he was no engineer. His insistence that the crossing (the point where the transepts, nave and choir meet) be directly above St Wilfrid’s crypt was a poor decision as it meant that the east end, the focal point of the cathedral had to be constructed on sloping ground. The scaffolding present on the day of my visit amply demonstrated this fact centuries later.
The problem took a dramatic turn in 1280 when the eastern facade and half of the choir collapsed. Disaster at the time but fortuitous in some ways. The great west end is one of the best examples of Early English architecture, but the loss of more of the same means the church also features a new altar window in the style known as Decorated.
Less than 150 years later and the central tower collapsed, ostensibly due to an earthquake, though this isn’t a seismic hotspot. I’m no expert but surely subsidence is more likely. Fifty years after that and the nave walls were replaced (Perpendicular was in fashion now). Consequently there’s no uniting style, but instead you have a collection within (and without) a single structure.
I noticed something else once I ventured inside. Attempting to get a shot of the length of the building I was struggling to align key features in my photograph, and for good reason. For one thing the pillars supporting the great Norman arch at the end of the nave are asymmetrical as you can see below, but more importantly, beyond the rood screen the choir runs slightly to the left. Another consequence of the site topography? It would be easy to assume so but I raised the matter with one of the cathedral official to check.
She told me that this was a common feature in church construction. (Really? How come I’d never noticed this elsewhere?) She backed this up by saying that because the cruciform design of a church recalls Christ’s execution, the slight deviation in the line represented the tilt of his head to one side as his life ended. Was she right? I don’t know but it’s a pretty plausible explanation.