Built in 672 by Saint Wilfrid, Ripon Cathedral’s Crypt predates England itself by 255 years, and it’s still accepting pilgrims and visitors today.
Accessed by steep and narrow steps, a claustrophobic and gloomy passageway winds underneath a medieval cathedral. This cramped tunnel leads to a white painted void, believed by its creators to be a faithful representation of Jesus’s modest tomb.
With an arched ceiling, a simple altar, and a 14th-century alabaster carving of the resurrection, the otherwise chilly emptiness of this simple whitewashed crypt disguises its rich historical significance.
Ripon’s crypt, and the long-vanished basilica it was originally built beneath, were the first of their kind to be built in the Kingdom of Northumbria, a territory that once covered most of Northern England and part of Southern Scotland.
The structures were the brainchild of Wilfrid, then the Bishop of Northumbria. Freshly returned from the earliest known Anglo-Saxon pilgrimage to Rome, Wilfrid was enthused by the Roman penchant for collecting holy relics and building sturdy stone churches. He swiftly replaced Ripon’s wooden monastery with a fine stone basilica and crypt for displaying all the items of saintly importance he had collected on his travels.
Most Christians in seventh-century Northumbria followed the Irish or “Insular” monastic tradition, a tradition somewhat at odds with the ideas of the Christians of Rome. Yet well-traveled Wilfrid, with his swanky Roman-style basilica, crypt, and relics became an influential figure in the eventual conversion of the Anglo Saxons from the Insular tradition to Roman Catholicism.
Perhaps fittingly, after his death, the canonized Wilfrid wound up being interred as a holy relic in the crypt he had commissioned, although his remains were moved to Canterbury in 948 after the destruction of the Basilica in a conflict. Over a millennium later, the stalwart crypt has so far survived everything history has thrown at it.