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For visitors who come to Hexham Abbey in search of the past the greatest thrill of all is the Anglo-Saxon crypt. A steep stone stair descending from the nave takes you back thirteen hundred years, into rooms and passageways left intact from St Wilfrid’s original church. The only comparable crypt is beneath Wilfrid’s other great church at Ripon. Everything that he built above ground at Hexham has gone, except for carved fragments set in the walls of the nave. Only his crypt is essentially as it was first built.
There is only one contemporary reference to the crypt. Wilfrid’s follower and biographer, Stephen, wrote about the deep foundations of the church ‘and its crypts of wonderfully dressed stone’. But the crypt itself is first-class historical evidence, revealing why it was built, what took place in it, the character and beliefs of its designer. Below his church we come very close to Wilfrid himself.
Wilfrid’s understanding of Christian faith and worship developed during his stay in Gaul and his first visit to Rome. There, Stephen tells us, ‘in the oratory dedicated to St Andrew the Apostle, he humbly knelt before the altar ... and besought ... the Lord would grant him a ready mind both to read and to teach the words of the Gospels.’ When at last Wilfrid returned to Northumbria, he came full of enthusiasm. In his homeland on the very fringe of Christendom he would build stone churches like those of Rome. No matter that native craftsmen could not work with such cold, herd material; a supply of stone ready quarried and shaped lay close at hand, three miles down the river at Corbridge. Three hundred years before, Carla had been a major Roman fort, supply base and town.
It is likely that every stone in the crypt came from that very handy quarry. Some still have lewis holes, slots into which Roman engineers once fitted wedges to hoist the stone blocks into position in the abutments of their bridge over the Tyne. Most have diamond broaching, to carry rendering. Several have sharply cut frieze patterns; a recurring leaf-and-berry design seems to come from an interior wall of a fine house that must have kept its roof until Wilfrid commandeered it in entirety for recycling. And in the roof of the north passage are two inscribed stones. One was set up at Coria about 208, when Septimius Severus and his two sons dedicated a granary before setting out on their Scottish campaign. The emperor died soon after at York; it was not long before his elder son, nicknamed Caracalla, murdered his brother Geta and had his name chiselled out from all such stones. The other is half an altar set up to Maponus Apollo, a Celtic god merged with one from the Roman pantheon.
Wilfrid went back to Rome in 679, and it is likely that he brought back with him some memento of his favourite saint. If he could touch with a piece of cloth the holy relics in St Andrew’s Monastery (whose prior, St Augustine, had led the first Christian mission to England) he could take the sanctified fragment for awe-struck Northumbrians to have their very own link with Rome and with a disciple of Christ who had been present when Christianity was born. Wilfrid was clearly a first-class showman, intent on conveying to others his own enthusiasm. As a fitting showplace for his relics, what better than an underground chamber directly below the high altar of his church? In choosing so dramatic a setting he was influenced by what he had seen of underground catacombs at Rome, and what he had read of the shrine of the Holy Sepulchre at Jerusalem.
The complex plan of the crypt perhaps explains why Stephen wrote of it in the plural, for there is no trace of another. It was built in a vast hole, dug out before the walls of the main church were put up. Passages run along north and south of the central shrine and its antechamber. Each has sharp corners, uneven floors and steep steps, but no trace of any lighting. Both are now blocked, but once they opened outside Wilfrid’s church, perhaps in the side chapels that Stephen mentions. One seems to have admitted pilgrims to view the relics, the other allowed monks into the shrine itself.
What may have happened is this: attracted by what they had heard of a great stone church and wonderful holy relics, pilgrims walked many miles to wonder and pray. They entered by a passageway (now sealed) beside and below the later north-west pier of the crossing. They groped down steps and along a narrow passage, bumping into walls, corners and roof, lost in the darkness of ignorance. One last turn and trip and they were in a dimly-lit, smoky antechamber, where they could see through the arch on their left a barrel-vaulted room aglow with light and colour. Four oil lamps burned in bowls cut below niches. They showed up biblical scenes on the plastered walls; they glinted on a silver plaque set on a casket. The pilgrims knew well what that casket held. There was a moment for awe-struck prayer, and then they passed on; the stair up to the centre of the church was ahead and right, so there was no need to turn their backs on the sacred treasure.
The relics and their casket have long since vanished. Perhaps they were buried with other monastic treasures during 9th-century troubles; 8,000 coins in a bronze bucket were found a thousand years later, but no wooden box or cloth fragment would have survived. There is, though, a silver plaque from Hexham with a saint’s head upon it in the British Museum. Now, the paintings have gone from the walls, and most of the plaster. The three niches left are cluttered with candles and electric lamps, and there is harsh but necessary lighting in the once dark passages. There is still the magic of a shrine that was created in the very earliest days of English Christianity, and a room where many thousands of humble folk once wondered at the beauty and majesty of faith.
Text: Tom Corfe
Illustrations: Tom Corfe, Sheila Corfe