Saturday, October 27, 2007

Repton, Derbyshire

Here is a hidden marvel, a gem of Anglo-Saxon architecture that is familiar to scholars of the early history of English buildings, but not well known to non-specialists. It is the crypt of St Wystan’s church, Repton, a building with a history stretching back to the 7th century.

It’s quite unusual for a parish church to have a crypt. You usually find these underground spaces beneath large cathedrals, where they housed sacred items such as the remains of saints. Parish churches didn’t often run to such precious relics, but monasteries sometimes did, and the church at Repton began as a monastic church, and an important one, that became the burial place of the kings of the Saxon Midland kingdom of Mercia. King Ethelbald of Mercia, who died in 757, was buried here; so was King Wiglaf (died 840). When Wiglaf’s grandson Wystan was murdered, he was laid to rest here too. When Wystan was canonized, Repton became a place of pilgrimage.

To house these hallowed remains the Saxon masons built a crypt about 16 feet square. The crypt was probably first constructed in the 7th century, but was rebuilt in the 9th century, when it took the form that it still has today – a square space with a vaulted ceiling held up by four columns, each made from a single stone and each encircled with decorative spiral bands. It’s quiet, dark, and small, but there would have been space enough for the royal tombs and the saint’s shrine, and there are two staircases so that pilgrims could file down one and up the other, in a steady one-way traffic of devotion.