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Ripon Cathedral’s new gargoyles

Oliver Caroe and Liz Humble


N 2015 Ripon Cathedral carried out

a programme of stonework repairs

funded through a grant from the

Cathedrals Fabric Commission for

England’s (CFCE) First World War

Centenary Cathedral Repairs Fund.

A modest but compelling component of

the programme was the replacement of

three gargoyles on the north elevation of

the presbytery aisle, in bays which survive

from the late 12th century.

Initially, two gargoyles were identified

by inspection from the ground as being

eroded beyond conservation or repair

and these relict stones were the focus of

a competition to select carvers to design

and carve replacements. A third gargoyle

was later added when, on close inspection,

it too was discovered to be beyond repair.

This article focusses on the

competition and aims to provide a case

study for commissioning works of this type

to identify and nurture carving talent.


There has been a church on the site of

Ripon Cathedral since 672AD. Archbishop

Roger de Pont-l’Évêque started rebuilding

in the late 12th century. The Early English

west front was commenced in the early

13th century, while the north presbytery

was partly rebuilt in the late 13th century.

Major repairs were required when the

central tower partially collapsed c1450,

and in 1660 the central spire collapsed,

prompting major rebuilding of the

presbytery and south transepts and the

removal of the west spires.

Restoration and re-ordering work was

carried out in the Victorian period, most

extensively by George Gilbert Scott, and

further conservation and repair continued

in the 20th century. Some of this

Victorian and later work is of the highest

quality and invention, defining aspects of

the current character of the cathedral. It

includes some very strong, wonderfully

grotesque gargoyle replacements.

The surviving 12th-century fabric

was of particular importance for its

ground-breaking use of architectural

forms. It was contemporary with the new

work of the Canterbury Cathedral choir

following the 1174 fire and exemplifies

the development of early Gothic in

the north of England. This north east

portion of the cathedral is therefore

of the highest national significance.

Gargoyles (the name comes from

the Latin


, meaning throat) were

introduced to medieval cathedrals from

around 1200. As well as their practical

purpose – to throw rainwater clear of

the masonry walls – they may have been

intended both as a visual reminder of the

presence of evil and to scare evil spirits

away. At Ripon, gargoyles continue to be

important functional components of the

cathedral’s rainwater disposal system, in

some cases incorporating lead pipes that

discharge overflow water from the gutters.

In preparation for this project,

cathedral archaeologist Liz Humble

provided an invaluable gazetteer of

the cathedral’s gargoyles. Her report

revealed that our three gargoyles

probably dated from the late 13th or

early 14th century. As work progressed

on site, further archaeological evidence

helped us settle on a more confident

dating of early-mid 14th century for

the parapet above, so the gargoyles

are therefore of or around this period.

Being among the few remaining pre-19th

century examples on the cathedral, their

remnants were of such significance that

very careful thought and preparation

was clearly warranted for this project.



It was during the development of a

stonework conservation policy for the

cathedral in late 2014 that it became

clear that the remnants of two of the

gargoyles were illegible and beyond

repair. In consultation with the fabric

advisory committee (FAC) and the

CFCE an application was made to create

two new works of art which would be

sympathetic to the history and style of

the building and which would convey

the spirit and intent of the original

stone carvers’ work, allowing our new

artists some freedom of expression.

More of the detail of an adjacent

gargoyle had survived and many of its

root decorative details – the claws and

belly feathers – could be clearly read.

Dean of Ripon Cathedral the Very Revd John

Dobson blesses one of the new gargoyles. The original

gargoyle retained much more legible stonework than

the other two which were replaced, making this a

particularly demanding commission for stone carver

Martin Coward. He was tasked with producing a

design that would reproduce the original gargoyle

and inventively extrapolate the missing features.