Monday, 7 May 2012

St. Wilfrid’s Needle - Ripon

Drawing of the plan of the crypt

(From drawings by Mr. W. H. St. John Hope and Mr. T. Wall.)

"The Saxon Crypt, sometimes called St. Wilfrid’s Needle.—From a trap-door in the pavement below the piscina a flight of twelve steps winds down into a flat-roofed and descending passage, 2½ feet wide and slightly over 6 feet high, which, running a few feet northwards and bending at right angles round the south-west tower pier, extends eastward for about 10 yards, with a descent of one step near the end, and terminates in a blank wall. There is a square-headed niche at the turn and a round-headed niche at the end, both meant, doubtless, to hold lights. Three feet from the end a round-[72]headed doorway, 2 feet wide and over 6 feet high, opens northwards, with a descent of two more steps, into a barrel-vaulted chamber, 11 feet 5 inches long from east to west, 7 feet 7 inches wide, and 9 feet 10 inches high. In the north wall of this chamber, and approached by three rude steps, is the celebrated St. Wilfrid’s Needle, a round-headed aperture pierced through into a passage that runs behind. This aperture was connected with one of those superstitions that so often flourished before the Reformation in notable centres of religion, and ability to pass through it or ‘thread the needle’ was regarded as a test of female chastity; but it was, of course, in the later middle ages that this superstition arose, and the ‘needle’ (or rather needle’s eye) is evidently only one of the original niches with the back knocked out. Of these niches (which again were doubtless for lights) there are four in the chamber besides the ‘needle,’—one in each wall,—and, like the niche, at the end of the passage of entrance, they all have semicircular heads each cut in a single stone. That in the west wall has a hole or cup at the bottom, probably to hold oil in which a wick might float, while the others (except the ‘needle’) have a sort of funnel at the top, doubtless to catch the soot from lamps. In the east wall there is also a round-headed recess of larger size, the meaning of which will be discussed later. An excavation made in 1900 has lowered the earthen floor and revealed a set-off running round the chamber,and upon the ground at the east end are traces of a later mediæval altar, namely, a long stone parallel with the east wall and having behind it a small rectangular enclosure bounded by other wrought stones. Some of the latter were only laid bare at the above-mentioned excavation, when, moreover, the enclosure was found to be a pit containing bones, some of which had belonged to a man, others to an ox, others to a bird. These were probably regarded as relics, and may have been buried here at the Reformation for safety,but it is possible that they were placed here at an earlier period, and that this is an instance of a relic-pit. Two other deposits have been found in the crypt in modern times, one behind the niche in the south wall of this chamber, the other behind the niche at the end of the passage of entrance. Most of the bones in these deposits were human, but one had belonged to an ox, another to a bird, another to a sheep, while others could not be identified. These bones again were probably ‘relics,’ and had almost certainly been built up behind the niches at the Reformationfor concealment. From the west end of the chamber another doorway similar to the last opens, with an ascent of one step, into a second chamber, 12 feet long from north to south, 4 feet wide, 9 feet high, and roofed with a semi-vault rising eastwards, in which there has been a square opening, probably for ventilation. At the north end a flight of four steps, lighted doubtless from the square niche in the west wall, ascends eastwards to the passage behind the ‘needle.’ Of these steps the lowest occupies the whole width of the chamber, while the second, on being cleaned at the time of the excavation above-mentioned, was found to have its upper and western surfaces sunk in the middle and traversed at one end by two parallel raised bands, and to show traces of that yellow enamel-like substance with which, indeed, the whole crypt seems to have been originally overlaid. In roof, width and height the passage at the top of these steps resembles that by which the crypt was approached, but it is spanned at the entrance by a round arch, and gradually ascends, terminating in a staircase now blocked at the fourth step (or perhaps the fifth, since one seems to have been removed at the bottom), while in the roof may be traced the shape of the long opening (rounded at the western end) through which these stairs once led up into the church. From the point at which they are blocked the distance to the arch that spans the passage is about 18 feet. It will be noticed that the floor of this passage is level with the ‘needle,’ which on this side, moreover, has been broken through so as to open out like a funnel".

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