St Wilfrid’s Parish church in Ribchester dates back to at least the eleventh century, but there may well have been earlier churches on the site beforehand. A blocked Norman doorway in the north wall is probably part of an earlier structure, and two small fragments of Saxon crosses from the ninth century found nearby at Anchor Hill, suggest there was an earlier church on this spot or close to it.
The church is in the main part Medieval, in the Early English tradition. The chancel, parts of the nave and vestry date from around the 1220s. The distinctive narrow lancet windows of this period can be seen in the chancel. This part of the building also has a three seat sedilia in the wall (for the priests to sit in during services) and a rare two bowled piscina (for washing the church vessels after the mass), shaped like flower petals. These features date from the 1300s and are similar to those found at Whalley Church (click here to see that blog). The octagonal font could also be from this era.
The church had extensions built in the 1300s in the form of two chantry chapels, where priests would perform special extra masses for the souls of rich benefactors. The one in the north of the building is known now as the Dutton Choir. This has a rare medieval wall painting of St Christopher carrying Jesus, only a portion of which remains. There are also fragments of medieval glass in the east window. On the pillars between this chapel and the nave are a number of intriguing small carved faces. The other chantry chapel to the south is now known as the Houghton Choir and this features a wooden Medieval screen.
The oak beamed roof was repaired and altered in 1527 and the impressive tower was added sometime around this same era. The octagonal pulpit of 1636 bears the initials of Christopher Hindle, the vicar of the time.
In the 1700s some of the most striking features were added. The large dormer windows, that look so out of place to us today were installed, to allow more natural light into the church. In 1736 the musicians gallery was built, intriguingly placed on the oldest features of the entire church- reworked Roman Tuscan columns ! Debate has raged over the years as to whether these are genuinely Roman, but the view is now that they are, and with so much Roman building material in Ribchester it does seem highly plausible.
An interesting feature is the list of former rectors, displayed on a painted board inside the church. It’s the first entry that really catches the eye- the name at the top of the list : Drogo. Just a single name, no indication of whether it is a first or last one. J.R.R Tolkien was a frequent visitor to nearby Stonyhurst College (see here) , and we’ve often wondered if he saw and used the name in his books about Middle Earth. Tolkien liked to work out long family trees for all of his characters (often published in the appendices of his books), and Frodo the hero of the Lord of the Rings had a father named Drogo. Was this the inspiration ?
Outside there are two more noteworthy features. The first is the unusual stonework at the base of the church, on the south side (see the two pictures below). Blocks of stone are carved into what looks like a star shape and a chess board pattern. These are not mentioned in any of the histories of the church- are they Roman, Saxon, Medieval or more recent ? There is a modern grill next to one of them, so we can’t assume they are old.
A second striking feature is the sundial. It’s 17th century, but the tall flight of steps that it stands on is much older, probably medieval 13th-14th century. At the top of them would have stood a tall cross, now long gone with no trace of it to be found, a fate of many crosses throughout the country. The top step supporting the sundial bears the thoughtful inscription: “I am a shadow, so art thou. I mark time, dost thou?”
As with many of our oldest churches in Lancashire, there are far more features to see than those listed in this blog post. It really is worth more than one visit, as are all the historical sites in Ribchester.
Site visited by A. and S. Bowden 2015
Opening Times: The church is usually open at the weekends
Parking: There is a large pay and display car park in Ribchester, by the playing fields. It’s a short walk to the church and Roman Museum from there
A short drive away: Stydd Church, chapel of the Knights Hospitallers
Ribchester : A Short History and Guide, A.C.Hodge and J.F. Ridge (1997), Carnegie Publishing
The Parish Church of St Wilfrid Ribchester: A Short Guide, Rector of Ribchester, leaflet available in the church
Henry Taylor: The Ancient Crosses and Holy Wells of Lancashire, A Revised Version, Volume III, Blackburn Hundred, A.J. Noble (2004), North West Catholic History Society
Corpus of Anglo-Saxon Stone Sculpture, Volume IX, Cheshire and Lancashire, Richard N. Bailey (2010) British Academy, Oxford University Press
Roman North West England: Hinterland or ‘Indian Country’ ? Tom Saunders (Editor),(2011), Council for British Archaeology North West