Tales of a Ricardian Traveler – Ripon Cathedral and Richmond Castle

Lady on Horseback

Lady on Horseback, mid-15th c., British Museum

I admit I have a special fondness for the “third smallest city in England” – Ripon.  It’s located in North Yorkshire and is a bustling cathedral town, famous for its racetrack and the “Ripon Hornblower”. It’s also well-situated for making day trips to a plethora of Ricardian sites, including Middleham Castle, Barnard Castle, Sheriff Hutton, Jervaulx Abbey, Fountains Abbey, Coverham Abbey, and Skipton Castle.  It was the place where the Archbishop of York had one of his personal palaces, although all that remains of that nowadays is a stone archway on Kirkgate Street.  It has a wonderful little butcher shop that sells delicious pork pies, and a clutch of terrific pubs — One-Eyed Rat being my favorite.  Not bad for a 1,300-year old town that seems to have escaped the economic booms and ravages of the Industrial Revolution.

But what I always enjoy whenever I go there are the famous 15th century wood carvings at Ripon Cathedral. They depict Biblical scenes, medieval beasts and mythical monsters in the most vivid manner. The “misericords” or “pity” or “mercy” seats are particularly  renowned.  A misericord is a ledge that is attached to a tip-up seat in the choir stall, which allowed the worshipper to take the weight off his or her legs but still technically stand for prayer.  The carvings can only be seen when the seat is in the “up” position, which would be for most of the Mass (the only time the canons could sit would be during the Epistle and the Gradual, and the Responses at Vespers).

Ripon Cathedral - West Facade (built 1220)

Ripon Cathedral – West Facade (built 1220)

Ripon Cathedral sits on the site of the first stone church building erected in Northumbria, in 672, under the guidance of Saint Wilfrid.   His Saxon crypt is still intact under the cathedral’s foundations and can be explored by visitors, as demonstrated in this YouTube video.  The present building’s west front was built in 1220, its two towers originally capped with spires.  In 1439, the college of the church comprised 32 members (7 canons, 6 vicars, 6 deacons, 6 incense carriers, and 6 choristers).  In 1458, the central tower suffered a partial collapse which destroyed the existing choir stalls.  It was not until the 1480s that restoration work began, and continued into the reigns of Henry VII and Henry VIII.  According to accounts from 1520/21, the wood carvers were paid 4-6 pence per day for their work on the choir.  The misericords on the south side of the choir date from 1489; the ones on the north side from 1490.  Similarities with the misericords of Beverly Minster suggest they were done by the same hand.

Ripon’s carvings have a large proportion of spiritual or doctrinal images, although there is one “profane” carving of a man exposing himself (!).  Scenes from the Old Testament were viewed as metaphors for Christ’s baptism and resurrection, while other images offered morality lessons.  Reynard the Fox, for instance, makes an appearance to warn gullible Christians against Satan’s treachery.   There is also a really wonderful carving of an elephant carrying a castle-like “howdah”, with 11 men riding on top and one being held in the elephant’s trunk.  Some speculate the 12 men represent the disciples, with Judas being held in the trunk.  Medieval people were, indeed, familiar with elephants.  Louis IX of France gave an elephant to Henry III in 1255; crowds flocked to see it and Matthew Paris made a sketch.


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Effigy of Thomas Markenfield, with unique livery collar

Effigy of Thomas Markenfield, with unique livery collar

There is a beautiful alabaster effigy of Sir Thomas Markenfield, who died in 1398. He is wearing a most unique livery collar that reflects his service to Richard II, as it shows a stag at rest within a park pale.  His descendant, another Thomas, was appointed High Sheriff of Yorkshire in 1484 and fought with Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth.   Markenfield Hall is only 3 miles from the cathedral and is considered one of the best-preserved moated 14th century country houses in England. The current owner opens it up to the public at limited (and erratic) times of the year, so if you’re lucky you might get a tour of it.

Also of interest to Ricardians is a banner commemorating Richard III’s 550th birthday that was donated to Ripon Cathedral by the Richard III Foundation.  It is displayed in the cathedral’s library and is worth checking out.  The occasion of the king’s birthday in 2002 was celebrated by a medieval mass with the mayor of Middleham and the dean of Ripon Cathedral officiating – reflective of the enduring attachment that is still expressed in Yorkshire for this long-dead monarch.

Richmond Castle - 12th century square keep

Richmond Castle – 12th century square keep

Next, we drove 30 miles north to Richmond Castle, one of the great Norman fortresses of the medieval era.  Like many castles, it is situated high above the local river (in this case, the River Swale), and its square keep – designed to express the power and wealth of its owner – dominates the town buildings that cluster at its foot.

Richmond Castle was founded in 1070 A.D. by Alan Rufus, a Breton kinsman of William the Conqueror who commanded the Breton contingent of the Norman army at the Battle of Hastings.  As a reward for his service at Hastings and later in putting down a revolt in the North in 1070 (a brutal affair known as the “Harrying of the North”), the Conqueror bestowed upon him a vast group of lands and estates that would become known as the “Honour of Richmond”.   Alan Rufus built Richmond Castle to be the focus of his Honour.  Because of his service to the king, he was very much an absentee owner and delegated its defenses to select feudal knights.  The town prospered and was granted borough status as early as 1145.

The title of the Earl of Richmond was originally created for and given to Alan Rufus, and his heirs, but through the centuries it was severed from the Honour itself.  During the 13th and 14th centuries, the Honour of Richmond passed between various hands – technically, it owed allegiance to Brittany/France but also to England.  So, it was periodically confiscated whenever the political winds shifted.  In 1435, the title passed to the Plantagenets and ultimately to Margaret Beaufort’s son, Henry Tudor.  Edward IV confiscated the title from Tudor, and he granted the Castle to his brother George, Duke of Clarence, until his execution in 1478, at which time it was granted to Richard.  Richard had already possessed the Richmondshire (Yorkshire) estates from the Honour by virtue of a July, 1471 grant from Edward IV.  Both the Castle and the Richmondshire portion of the Honour remained in Richard’s possession until his death at the Battle of Bosworth.

If the weather is clear and warm, Richmond Castle is the perfect place to bring a blanket and a good book to read (I would say a picnic lunch, too, but am not sure if food is allowed to be brought in).  There is a broad green lawn in the center of the castle complex, and there are lots of nooks and crannies to explore.  Climbing the ramparts of the curtain wall is rewarded with stunning views of Richmond’s town, the River Swale, and the Yorkshire Dales.  We spent a good 2 hours there, and found a delightful little tea shop just yards away from the Tower’s gate where we enjoyed scones with cream and jam.  In all, Richmond and Ripon are two laid-back places that are not overrun by tourists and offer many pleasures – historical and sensory – for the Ricardian traveler.

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