Wilfred & His Buildings


(Selsey in Sussex, Hexham in Northumbria, etc.).

In the previous chapter it spoke of the somewhat heated! Conference held at Whitby in 664 A.D., and it may be remembered that the most successful controversialist there present was Wilfred, Abbot of Ripon, an earnest and hard-working but ambitious and rather tackless personage, who had once been a monk at Lindisfarne (Holy Island), and had afterwards been trained in Lyons and Rome.

A few years after the Whitby affair this Wilfred was appointed Bishop of York, but in 678 A.D., he quarrelled with his sovereign, Ecgfrith of Northumbria, and was deposed. The cause of the trouble was the virginal Queen Aethelthryth (Aetheldrida), afterwards known as St. Audrey, wife of Ecgfrith, and daughter of Anna, King of East Anglia (Norfolk and Suffolk), who, for twelve years of married life kept her husband at arms` length, and finally announced her intention of becoming a nun.

In this she had the support of Wilfred, and at last she took the veil at his hands, and ultimately became Abbess of Ely, in which office, so Bede tells us, “she never wore any linen, but only woollen garments, and would rarely wash in a hot bath, except just before Easter, Whitsuntide, and Epiphany.” Ultimately she died of swelling in her throat which a certain doctor named Cynefrith had unsuccessfully operated on.

Some years after her death the recollection of her austerities caused her to be regarded as a saint; and the nuns decided, therefore, to dig up her bones, and to employ them as holy relics, it being the custom of that age to use the bones of the saintly dead as a means of effecting what would now be called “faith-cures.” But when they opened her coffin they found to their amazement that the body – as sometimes happens – had not decomposed, and that the incision in her neck, which had been a gaping wound when  she died, had shrunk – very naturally – to an almost indistinguishable little cut; and this, they said, proved what a chaste life she had lived, and thereafter her re-coffined remains became one of the chief attractions of Ely.

Meanwhile Wilfred had made the long journey to Rome to complain to the Pope about his expulsion, and the latter had sent him back with a letter to the King saying that he must be reinstated; but Ecgfrith, displaying a very English independence, had refused to accept the Papal decision, and Wilfred, to his astonishment, had found himself in prison at Dunbar, then part of the English kingdom of Northumbria.

Nine months later, however, he ahd been released, and had wandered southwards to Sussex, where he had established himself on Seal`s Isle, now called Selsey, and had done five years` of fine missionary work amongst the still heathen South Saxons.

After the deaths of Ecgfrith and his virgin queen, Wilfred was invited back to York; but once more he got into trouble and was transferred to the less important see of Leicester. Again he went to Rome, but on his return in 705 A.D., he was obliged to content himself with the new see of Hexham in Northumberland; and there he remained till he died, in 709 A.D., while on a visit to the monastery of Undalum, now called Oundle.

His body was taken back to Ripon and was laid in the Abbey which he himself had built there in 699 A.D.; but later it is said to have been transferred to Canterbury, though both places afterwards claimed his bones, and a shrine was erected at Ripon about 980 A.D., which was believed to contain them.

Nothing now remains of any buildings which Wilfred may have constructed at York : and at Selsey his church is now at the bottom of the sea, for the low and sandy coast of Selsey Bill has been, and is  still being, steadily eaten away by the waves, and the site of the buildings is now a mile/1.6km and more away from the shore, though to this day the fishermen there will tell you that of a Sunday morning you may sometime hear its submerged and muffled bells pealing out when the wind blows in from the south.

At Ripon there are a few traces of his work, and a small crypt under the existing cathedral still stands almost in the condition in which he left it more than 1200 years ago, so far as the structure is concerned. At Hexham, however, a somewhat similar but more imposing crypt built by him is to be seen; and in this chapter it will be more useful to describe the latter.

Hexham is a small Northumbrian town on the banks of the Tyne, some twenty miles/32km west of Newcastle, and about three and half miles/5km from the ruins of the old Roman-British city of Corstopitum, adjoining the modern Corbridge. Corbridge, mention in passing contains a church, of which the porch and part of the nave date from about Wilfred`s age; but its interest is overshadowed by that of its more historic neighbour.

The history of Hexham begins very shortly after that of Corstopitum ends; for the latter city was deserted by the British when they were falling back before the advance of the English invaders in the Fifth and early Sixth Centuries, and Hexham, at that time called Hestoldesham or Hextildesham, took its place as the local metropolis, and was already a town of importance in 674 A.D., when the chaste Queen Aethelthryth gave it to Wilfred so that he might build his abbey there.

The church which he erected was of such size and magnificence that, according to Eddius, his choir-master, there was no building anything like so splendid on this side of the Alps. It was 150feet/45.7m; and though it was incorporated as part of the nave of the Twelfth Century Priory erected upon the same site, and suffered destruction during a wild invasion of the Scots in 1296 A.D., modern excavations have exposed its east end under the present choir, and its west end is still to be discerned in a few of the lower courses of the masonry in the existing west front.

The crypt, however, remains structurally exactly as it was in Wilfred`s day, which was but 259 years after the withdrawal of the roman legions from Britain; and if you have pictured your Anglo-Saxon ancestors as barbarians in those early years of their residence in our island, its recommended that you make the journey to Hexham, to estimate the great size of Wilfred`s church by pacing 150feet/45.7m along the present nave, and then visit this perfect little underground crypt, where once the bones of dug-up saints were kept as miracle-working relics, and where the pilgrims of the Seventh Century used to pay their homage.

You go down, just as they did, by a flight of narrow steps in the middle of what is now the west end of the nave, and at the bottom you find yourself in an ante-chamber today illuminated by electric light but in those remote times dimly lit by lamps burning in recesses in the walls, still to be seen. In front of you is an arched doorway leading into the confessio, or sanctuary where the relics were kept, this being a small chamber with an arched roof.

The pilgrims, it would seem, were not allowed to enter the sanctuary, but having made their prayers at its entrance, they passed out by a passage on the left, leading back to the upper church by a flight of steps now blocked up. There is another passage to the right, used by the priests to enter the sanctuary, but here again the steps are blocked up, and you can follow it for only a few mysterious yards/metres.

The whole crypt was constructed of dressed stones filched from ruined Corstopitum, and one of the blocks which roofs the passage whereby the pilgrims made their return journey was originally a Roman dedicatory tablet, and you may look up at the old inscription upon it which once contained the name of the Emperor Geta, son of the Emperor Severus who died at York in 211 A.D. This Geta`s name was afterwards everywhere erased by his brother and murderer Caracalla, and here you may see the letters carefully hammered out, though the imperial titles still remain.

These blocks were all hidden by a layer of cement smoothed over them by Wilfred`s builders, but this has now fallen off, excepts on parts of the ceiling, where it remains just as it was. The whole place, in fact, is substantially as it was 1300 years ago; and the impression it makes upon the modern visitor is profound: there is nothing to be compared with it in all England, for the crypt at Ripon is much inferior.

Upstairs in the western nave the font used in Wilfred`s time, with its original lining of lead, is still employed at modern baptisms, and around the walls of the building there are several fragments of the first church, richly carved. In the middle of the choir, too, stands the self-same Episcopal throne whereon Wilfred used to sit. It is made of a block of stone, out of which the seat is scooped; and on the arms the original scroll-decoration still remains perfect.

Looking at it one recalls the vicissitudes of the life of this early English bishop, and his long journeys to Rome to obtain redress for his wrongs. When he used to sit here, however, he was an old man, and the evening of his troubled days had come upon him; and though his mind sometimes must still have turned sadly to the memory of his lost see of York, we may suppose that he looked back with some satisfaction to the years of his great work at Selsey where he had baptised so many of the men of Sussex in that cathedral of his which now lies till the end of time at the bottom of the sea.