In the mid-seventh century, St Wilfrid, then abbot of the monastery at Ripon, took the bold step of building a stone basilica with a crypt, so bringing to the kingdom of Northumbria a style of building that he had seen in Rome. The church above-ground has been rebuilt more than once on a grander plan than Wilfrid’s, but his crypt survives intact and has been a very special place for more than 1300 years. It is a national treasure and makes Ripon unique since it is the oldest structure of any English cathedral. Entry is free, and by the entrance there is a touchscreen which allows you to explore its history, construction, and purpose. Wilfrid designed his crypt so that pilgrims could pass through and venerate the saintly relics kept there. The narrow corridors for entrance and exit echo the catacombs, while the central chamber was designed to call to mind Our Lord’s Sepulchre.
Wilfrid’s crypt reflects the ecclesiastical structures that he had seen on his travels to Rome and in Rome itself, no doubt also including the few catacombs that were accessible in the seventh century. We know that on his first visit, in c.655-56, he spent many months in devotion at the shrines of saints. By the time the crypt was built he had also spent a considerable amount of time in Gaul, which likewise had underground chambers for saints’ relics in some of the major churches. The crypt was built within an excavated pit, and then the upper church was built above, covering a larger area. Although the church and the crypt were connected by the entrance and exit passages, they were not structurally related: the crypt was not load-bearing and was a complete structure within itself. It is this structural integrity and independence that has allowed the crypt to survive intact, despite the various sequences of destruction and rebuilding that have taken place above ground.