Saints have always been a help to a place. Where would Durham Cathedral be without its close association with St Cuthbert? Or Winchester without St Swithin, whose rainy day we fear? Or, of course, Ripon, for without St Wilfrid we might well not have a city at all.
Five years ago this column celebrated Wilfrid’s legacy to the city. As well as the cathedral (and, as it developed, the city that surrounded it, including the square that was laid out for the ruling Archbishops) Wilfrid’s name is remembered in St Wilfrid’s Needle in the cathedral crypt, through which virtuous women could pass easily, while the unchaste got stuck; in the name of the Roman Catholic Church on Coltsgate Hill; and, of course, in the procession that annually winds its way through the city’s ancient streets.
The St Wilfrid Procession seems to have been linked to the granting of a charter by King Henry I in 1008 to hold a fair in Ripon to mark the feast of one of the cathedral’s patron saints – though whether it was Wilfrid or St Peter is not entirely clear. Whatever the case, the feast day soon came to be associated firmly with St Wilfrid, possibly celebrating his return from unjust exile in 705.
Through the centuries the form of the procession has undoubtedly changed, though the representation of the saint on horseback seems to have been a constant thread – even if for many years the figure on the horse was a dummy rather than a real man! These days, of course, St Wilfrid, in full bishop’s regalia, leads the procession of floats and bands, much to the enjoyment of locals and visitors. No doubt such rejoicings and jollifications always attended the event, in whatever form it appeared.
But has something been lost over the years? Have we lost a vital link in the chain that stretched back to the time of St Wilfrid? In making the procession an entirely secular event, almost co-incidentally led by a man, dressed as a medieval bishop, on a horse, have we lost sight of the essential nature of the event?
Now you can, of course, argue that this is a good thing. The streets of an English city are perhaps not the place for the earnest penitential processions of Spain and Italy, nor even of the slightly jollier ‘Pardons’ of Brittany and the Low Countries. Of course, there are places in Britain where individual churches carry around statues of Our Lady and the saints, but these are private enterprise affairs, not city-wide celebrations.
So how could Ripon inject a little of the original meaning back in to the St Wilfrid’s procession? A possible way of doing it occurs in the Hertfordshire city of St Albans around 22 June, the feast day of the saint from which the city takes its name. The St Albans Pilgrimage is an impressive affair, held over two days. It starts with a spectacular re-enactment of the story of Alban, which processes either from the site of the Roman town of Verulamium, below St Albans Cathedral, or, as this year from the north end of the main street down to the Cathedral. The main figures in Alban’s story are represented by 15-foot-high puppets, accompanied by local school children dressed as Roman soldiers, as flowers or as angels.
The whole atmosphere is like a carnival, but along the way the story of Alban in re-enacted by the puppets; outside the Town Hall Alban, guarded by soldiers, is arraigned by the Roman magistrate for sheltering and changing places with a Christian priest. He is condemned to death. A spring of water breaks out to quench his thirst – the spring is provided by the local fire service with a hose from the Town Hall roof.
The procession then moves, complete with brass band, to the west front of the cathedral – near the spot where the real Alban was executed. There the puppets re-enact his beheading, including the moment when the executioner’s eyes drop out for shame – which is why two huge eyeballs from part of the procession! At each place that the tableaux are presented the story is told and a brief prayer links it to today.
After the beheading, many of the people who follow the procession enter the cathedral for a celebratory service – celebrations that continue with further services in the afternoon, including an evensong to which thousands of people come with red roses (symbol of Alban because roses are said to have sprung up at his feet as he went to his death) and process to the shrine of St Alban to lay them around it. Next day a street party along the city’s main street continues the carnival atmosphere, while, of course, the Cathedral continues to celebrate the feast with special services.
Now, it’s very easy to say ‘Go and do thou likewise’ to Ripon; but there are, of course, many differences. First, the story of St Alban is short and simple, and lends its well to a graphic retelling with puppets. Second, thanks to the rediscovery by Sir Gilbert Scott in the 19th century of the shrine of St Alban, used as infill for a post-Reformation wall, there is a focal point for the pilgrimage. And the Cathedral has made a point of establishing and maintaining links with churches and communities named after St Alban, many of whom send pilgrims to the city to celebrate the feast.
As undoubtedly good and holy as was St Wilfrid, his story is harder to encompass simply – and perhaps his character was not as straightforward as, seemingly, was Alban’s. Yet there is perhaps scope for at least adding something more about Wilfrid to the current procession, and for the Cathedral to make more of it, too. Oh – and a little afterthought; the St Alban’s Street party was organised and funded by the local district council; perhaps here, too, ‘Go and do thou likewise’ might be quoted . . .
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