“Holy air encased in stone” … that is how Sir John Betjeman described the crypt at Repton, and it was this that we had come to see… we hoped. On a previous visit, the crypt had been locked. This time, as we descended the worn stone steps that lead beneath the nave, we were really hoping the door would yield.
Early in the eighth century, the crypt was built to a mausoleum for the relics of the royal house of Mercia. It is one of the most intact survivals from the Anglo-Saxon era, preserved perhaps as it was closed and forgotten, remaining lost until it was rediscovered by a workman excavating a grave space in the nave in 1779. He fell through its roof and found himself in a wholly unexpected and sacred space.
It is believed that the crypt was first constructed as a baptistry, during the reign of King Æthelbald who reigned from 716 to 757. The Repton Stone, found near the church but now in a museum, is believed to show the king, and is thus the earliest full-scale depiction of a British monarch.
The crypt is sunk into the earth and built over a spring which drains to the east. You have to wonder how long that spring had been a place of veneration… perhaps predating Christianity in the area by a very long time.
King Æthelbald was possibly the first to be interred there when it became a place of burial, followed by King Wiglaf in 840 and Wiglaf’s grandson Wystan, who was murdered in 849. Records say that a great light shot up to heaven when Wystan died and many miracles were attributed to his relics.
Repton became a place of pilgrimage until the saints remains were moved to escape the Great Heathen Army of Viking invaders in 873. The army overwintered in Repton and a vast mound has been excavated there containing the bones of around hundreds of them, disarticulated and neatly stacked.
The volume of pilgrims was so great that rough-hewn passages had to be cut through the fabric of the church and stone to enable a ‘one way system’ to manage the number of people visiting the relics of the kings.
The church today reflects the whole of English history from that time onward… the scars and damage of the Reformation, the rebuilding and changes in fashion, the burials of medieval knights and Tudor dignitaries… it is all there to read in the glass, wood and stone of a little parish church.
The door yielded reluctantly to our touch and we stepped back in time to breathe the ‘holy air encased in stone’. There are no relics remaining of those long-dead kings, only the niches were their bones were laid to rest. They were never buried here; the bodies were first interred then the bones, once the flesh was gone and the bones were clean, were recovered and placed in the crypt.
The columns that have supported the vault for one and a half thousand years are decorated with ascending spirals, a symbol that links back to the very earliest rock carvings… and the silence is complete. Each breath resonates in a very strange way, making you very conscious of your life in this house of the dead. Conscious too of your presence within a greater human story.