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St Peter and St Wilfrid, Ripon Cathedral , Yorkshire, West Riding

(54°8′5″N, 1°31′15″W)
Ripon Cathedral
SE 314 711
pre-1974 traditional (England and Wales) Yorkshire, West Riding
now North Yorkshire
  • Rita Wood
10 Nov 1998, 30 Apr 1999, 24 Aug 2014

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Ripon cathedral is on the south side of the old town; it stands above the river Skell, a tributary of the Ure, with sloping ground on all sides but the north. The building is largely composed of severe but satisfying Transitional and Early Gothic, and is especially striking for its crisp (restored) W front. There is a short central tower, nave, choir and transepts, all aisled. The two W towers were united with the 12th c. nave by the later aisles: nothing W of the crossing was recorded for this Corpus, but the elevation of the un-aisled late 12th-century nave has been reconstructed (Leach and Pevsner 2009, 656-8). In 1836 the church became the cathedral of the new diocese of Ripon and in theory the ancient title ‘minster’ became obsolete though it is still used occasionally. Along with Bradford and Wakefield cathedrals, Ripon is one of the three cathedrals of the diocese of West Yorkshire and the Dales, which was created in 2014.

Structural weakness in the tower has meant that in this area twelfth-century work remains only in the N and W arches and the NW pier. Both transepts have E arcades of two bays (S transept arcade modified in late 15th century). Much of the C12th architecture in transepts and choir has pointed arches predominating and only subsidiary use of round-headed arches. Dates suggested cover the period from c.1175-80 to c.1220-30. The stone used for the late 12th- and early 13th-century work at the cathedral is, according to Leach and Pevsner, 'a warm light brown sandstone said to be from a quarry at Hackfall 9 miles up the River Ure; the later phases mainly use Magnesian limestone' (Leach and Pevsner 2009, 643).

To the S of the S choir aisle is a building which appears to be separate from the cathedral, but is interconnected. It has three floors, the top floor being added as a Lady Chapel about 1300. This top floor is now the cathedral library and treasury; it is entered by a wooden staircase from the S transept. Its N wall is formed by the original outside face of the S wall of the choir aisle, on a level with the capitals of its priincipal windows. Similarly its W wall is the outside E wall of the transept. The intermediate floor is occupied by the chapter house or cathedral office, with a small chapel or vestry in the apsed E end; the chapter house opens off the S choir aisle. There is sculpture in corbels of its vaulting, but this is likely to have been constructed to support the chapel added above. The undercroft has a small chapel in the E apse, and rooms for the choir school to the W. In the undercroft the exterior wall of the S choir aisle forms the N wall of the chapel, and at least one buttress intrudes into the space. Entrance to the undercroft was from the chapter house by a stair in the thickness of the transept wall; a modern doorway is from outside just below ground level.

Areas with sculpture include: interior and exterior parts of the N and S transepts and the three levels of the chapter house; vaulting supports in the S choir aisle. Photography concentrated on round-headed arches or recognisably Romanesque forms. Sculpture of a mechanical, architectural, kind, is seen in corbels of vaulting, capitals to doorways and windows, also in the NW pier of the crossing. A large weathered font is included. There were several C19th restorations, the latest by Sir G. G. Scott, 1862 etc (Pevsner 1967, 404). Phased plan available in Leach and Pevsner 2009, 639. The discussion of the cathedral in that volume is by Christopher Wilson (pp. 637-664).


The site was occupied by the monastery founded about 655 and noted by Bede. This was enlarged under its second Abbot, Wilfrid. The monastery was destroyed by the Danes, though the tiny crypt of Wilfrid’s church survives under the nave and crossing of the cathedral. After the Conquest, the site became a collegiate church and remained so until the Reformation. Its collegiate status was re-established in 1604.

Pevsner, 403-4, dates the earliest C12th work of Archbishop Roger to 1175-80 if not earlier, noting that it would be early for England. See also Leach and Pevsner 2009, 637.


Exterior Features



Exterior Decoration

String courses
Corbel tables, corbels

Interior Features


Tower/Transept arches

Vaulting/Roof Supports





S Transept doorway: The W doorway of Kirkstall abbey has a similar composition of twinned shafts. To the inner face beside the capitals is a flat panel in which are two or three upright leaves to L and R; this is also seen at Kirkstall.

Font: Both Pevsner 1967, 410, and Wilson (Pevsner and Leach 2009, 660) consider the font likely to be late 12th-century; though it may be so in date, it hardly merits the adjective 'Romanesque'. Fonts for larger churches are nothing like the general run, but may be ahead of fashion.

Exterior string courses: these are strongly modelled, making crisp lines around the architecture; they have a character quite different from their plain-and-chamfered Romanesque predecessors.

Chapter house vault: Stone vaulting in the chapter house is supposed by Hearn not to be original, but supplied later, probably to support the Lady Chapel above. The corbels supporting it and the central piers would therefore be later than this period, but they can be seen as late C12th or early C13th, as by Pevsner (1969, 407) and Wilson (in Leach and Pevsner 2009, 651-2).

The apsed building to the S of the S choir aisle is so simple in style that the older portion was long regarded as a fragment of an earlier church, perhaps immediately post-Conquest or even earlier, and writers who took this view included Sir Giles Gilbert Scott, Hallett (not cited in bibliography), and Canon Wilkinson, author of the guidebook sold in the cathedral in 1998. However, John Bilson in 1911 agreed with Professor Lethaby (1875; not cited) that there was nothing to be seen earlier than the rebuilding initiated by Archbishop Roger, and M. F. Hearn in his comprehensive study of 1983 demonstrates the apsed building is coeval with the present church, and suggests it is likely to have housed the aula capituli mentioned in 1228. See also Wilson in Leach and Pevsner 2009, 644, 651-2). It is called 'the chapter house building' in the present report.

To summarise Hearn’s conclusions, in the late twelfth-century this was a two-storey structure bonded to the transept and entered from the choir aisle. The lower storey made up the falling ground level, was divided into two sections and had entrances from the W as now, and from a turret stair in the SE corner. There was, he thinks, no exterior doorway. [This would make the lower rooms almost as secure as the curious windowless room over the N porch at Selby Abbey.] Fenestration was one small window to each of the five bays, and one axial window in the apse. The upper storey was likewise divided into two, and it had two doorways in from the S choir aisle. Hearn considers the vaulting at this level might date from any time between 1185-1350, and possibly from the construction of the Lady Chapel above. The building history and the uses of its various rooms would make a fascinating study in itself, but is not relevant to the Corpus.

Book comment: The later Wilkinson book is an updated but not critically-revised reissue of a 'thumb-nail sketch' of the 1960s.


M. F. Hearn, 'The beginnings of the Gothic Style in Northern England', Part 6, Transactions of the American Philosophical Society 73 (1983).

P. Leach and N. Pevsner, Yorkshire West Riding: Leeds, Bradford and the North (Yale, 2009).

N. Pevsner, Yorkshire: West Riding. The Buildings of England (Harmondsworth, 1959), 2nd. ed. revised E. Radcliffe (1967).

G. G. Scott, 'Ripon Minster', Archaeological Journal 31 (1874), pp. 309-318.

W. E. Wilkinson, Ripon Cathedral: a short history and guide (York, 1993).

W. E. Wilkinson, The Pictorial History of Ripon Cathedral (London, 1969).