Deep in the North of England sits a town called Hexham. It is a nice town, with nice shops, nice people, and a pretty big abbey. You’d never think that, over a thousand years ago, this was the site of a bold, and ultimately victorious, propaganda effort. Late seventh century Britain was home to a conflict between two competing visions of Christianity, one which preferred the practices of the Irish, and one which demanded conformity with romanitas (I’ll not delve into the details here). In 674 Wilfrid, then bishop of York, began building a church at Hexham which would be a physical expression of the supremacy of romanitas and orthodoxy. A church built in the Roman style, with Roman stone taken from a Roman bridge, containing features Wilfrid had seen in Roman churches, and filled with relics collected while he was in Rome.
In an unusual departure, before the church itself was built, Wilfrid had a large pit dug, in which a crypt for the Roman relics was constructed. This may have been an effort to emulate Roman catacombs. The exposed crypt was then buried beneath the church itself, leaving three narrow points of access for pilgrims and clerics. The crypt, once full of relics, was designed to inspire awe in the pilgrim; the steps down are steep, and the passage follows a path which does not reveal the crypt itself until the last moment. The small room, dimly lit, smoke- and incense-filled, the remains and articles of saints on display, granted an ethereal life by the flickering light, would have had a tremendous impact on the medieval mind…
Though now there is only one rather large church at Hexham, in Wilfrid’s day there were two, the remains of both hidden in the foundations of the present building. A short walk from the entrance to the crypt, hidden beneath a trapdoor, we find the Roman bones of the old church. Aptly sitting above is the cathedra, the bishop’s chair, which Wilfrid himself may have sat on, richly decorated, and surprisingly comfortable…
A statement in stone
Though Wilfrid had to depart the region not long after becoming bishop (let’s be nice and say that he wasn’t very good at making friends), he was soon back again, and then had to leave again, but returned for a successful third act, living out his days at Hexham. Wilfrid’s churches were highly embellished, designed to be opulent and impressive, illustrations of power and wealth. Made from Roman stone, with glass windows (a rarity in Britain at the time), sculptures created by Gaulish craftsmen, and lavish decorations, Wilfrid’s establishments were both a powerful statement in favour of romanitas, and an indication of his own skill and ingenuity in bringing such complex projects to a successful conclusion.