Ripon Minster, North Yorkshire is the sort of building you could only find in England. In the Middle Ages, it operated – along with Southwell and Beverley Minsters – as a kind of pro-cathedral for the massive diocese of York, and only became head of its own diocese in the nineteenth century. It’s quite dumpy for a great church, but still on a legitimately cathedral scale. But a casual visit belies the series of quite catastrophic structural failures it had.
Under the current church is the crypt of the original Anglo-Saxon minster: the only pre-Norman Conquest fabric surviving in an English cathedral. However, it was not immediately bulldozed by the invaders for a Romanesque juggernaut. Instead, it wasn’t rebuilt until late in the twelfth century, in the soon-to-be fashionable French Gothic style, almost certainly taking after York Minster’s choir, which was taken down and replaced in the later Middle Ages. Quite ahead of the crowd, then.
Therefore little Ripon has the rarely-recognised distinction of being the one of the earliest pure Gothic buildings – pointed arches, grouped lancets – still standing in England, possibly earlier than Canterbury or Wells. That is, if much of the original job by these twelfth-century Franglais cowboys actually stayed up. Even though the stone rib-vault was clearly given up on by the time they reached the upper storey, there were a series of complications: the three north-west bays are all that survived of the original five-bay Early Gothic choir.
The first cock-up, one with repercussions for nearly three centuries was the clueless setting-out of the central crossing tower. Ripon was aiming to be a mini-York Minster, and York had at this time an unusual unaisled nave: no open arcades as is common in every church. Nevertheless, someone clearly thought that having the nave wider than the choir was a good idea. So they built the foundations of the north-west pier further north than its eastern companion, meaning that the tower is not a square.
It also means that the west wall of the transept is shorter than the east wall, meaning they have to embarrassingly squash the third series of arches in the upper gallery because they didn’t fit (they did do it correctly on the other side). After finishing the nave, these builders packed up and thought they’d got away with it.
When the west front was built up around the 1230s, part of the central tower was taken down because, well, it had really slender piers and it was skew-whiff: what did you expect? Then, at the end of the century the choir was in such a state the whole east end had to be rebuilt, probably removing an eastern squared ambulatory in favour of a sheer cliff-like facade that the English preferred. The new east front is perhaps the closest you can get to what the choir of Old St Paul’s in London looked like, strictly Geometric, like what was going on in France at the time, except it has absolutely enormous buttresses. And still they ended up chickening out putting a stone vault on it in case it all fell down.
As was usual in extensions to great-church architecture, care was taken to match the proportions of the new work to what could be preserved of the now century-old choir. However, some parts of the matching between old and new were better than others, as is some of the architectural sculpture. Ripon’s canons however, probably just pleased that the choir was now stable and their problems were over.
Then of course, even though the tower had been lowered, it was still too much for the all-too-slender Early Gothic crossing piers. In 1450, the SE pier gave way, bring down with it two crossing arches, the remaining 3 Early Gothic bays on the south side of the choir and the south transept arcade. These were rebuilt in the Perpendicular style – meaning the choir has three different elevations – and the remaining crossing piers were encased to an absolutely ludicrous degree, except that misplaced north-west one (because it was the only one not supporting a rebuilt tower arch), which is why when you look down the nave now, the western crossing looks hilariously lopsided.
Wait, I haven’t finished yet. Remember that unaisled nave? Yep, that fell down too around 1500, and was all but replaced, except by some tantalising fragments at each end, by arcades that are only two stories tall. They’d clearly got a parish-church architect in – a good one mind – and one who could do ENORMOUS BUTTRESSES which were becoming rather familiar at Ripon.
So there you go. The blokes who did the Minster at Ripon in the late twelfth century may have seemed like a cheap way to a get a fancy French-style cathedral, but they were clearly dealing in the sort of Gothic that fell off the back of a lorry.
Here’s all my pictures of Ripon from my recent visit: it’s a lovely place, and I promise that it’s very unlikely anything else will fall down while you’re there.