A longstanding mystery about the purpose of the cross shaped arrow slits in the battlements of Ripon Cathedral appears to have been partly solved following an onsite visit of two archery specialists, although the results have led to more questions.
Guy Wilson was formerly Master of the Armouries at the Royal Armouries Museum in Leeds and Chairman of the International Committee of Museums and Collections of Arms and Military History from 2002 until 2010. A former colleague, John Waller, is a world authority on historic combat and a noted fight director having directed combat sequences in many films and stage and opera productions in addition to being an advisor to major archaeological sites, notably the Mary Rose and the Towton battlefield. Both volunteered to take a longbow and a crossbow to the battlements at the request of the cathedral’s archaeologist, Liz Humble, who is also Director at Humble Heritage Ltd.
“It has long been thought that the arrow slits had been placed into the battlements in the early fourteenth century to defend what was then Ripon Minster against a series of attacks by the Scots army of Robert the Bruce . They besieged Ripon in 1318 when the Minster held out for three days before a ransom was paid after threats to burn the whole town,” said Liz.
“However, there is an alternative explanation that the slits were never intended to be used and were purely decorative features or were designed as sham defences to give an impression of extra strength.”
Guy and John proved that the arrow slits could not have been used to defend the cathedral because the pitch of the medieval roof and its proximity to the slits meant that archers could not have stood far enough away at the correct angle to draw a longbow or use a crossbow.
Liz commented: “That seems conclusive but in solving the bigger mystery, we have uncovered a smaller one to which none of us has an answer. That is the question of why the arrow slits have been elaborately chamfered on the inside (normally done to enable an increased field of view for archers) as in this case it appears to be unnecessary and expensive. Was it because the masons wanted to show off their expertise, had the masonry been reused from another building, or was it perhaps done to the greater glory of God? We shall probably never know.”