Peterborough Cathedral is a very old place set in one of the country’s newest towns.

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Something of a contradiction...

Settlement by the River Nene on the edge of the Fens goes back to Romano- British times. Indeed, the history of the Peterborough area began even earlier, as the Bronze Age site at Flag Fen testifies. But the story of the citys magnificent cathedral begins in the seventh century. Like neighbouring Ely and Crowland, it has endured the tender attentions of the Vikings, destructive fires, the Reformation, Oliver Cromwells troopers and centuries of wear and tear. The resting place of two queens, it has been an important place for more than a thousand years.

Who founded it?

Englands earliest historian, the Venerable Bede, tells us in his Ecclesiastical History a character named Saxulf created a monastery at what was then Medeshamstede before 673. Contemporary records indicate an early patron was Peada, king of Mercia, which roughly equates to the modern Midlands. The early monastery was most likely set up by Celtic missionaries from the north; like Ely it was for both monks and nuns as modern archaeology has confirmed. In a time when England was still semi-pagan, the monastery was a centre for missionaries bringing the new religion to more remote regions, such as the fenland. It is at least as old as Ely (circa 673) and predates Crowland (699). This early monastery grew and prospered until rudely interrupted by the crisis of the later ninth century.

The Vikings...

Danish invaders swept through East Anglia in 870. The wealthy Anglo-Saxon monasteries were easy targets, and Peterboroughs was no exception. Although ruined and abandoned for nearly a century it was revived by the Benedictine order in about 972. Aetholwold of Winchester visited the abandoned site, where cattle and sheep roamed; inspired by a vision he was determined to rebuild the monastery dedicated to St Peter. Sure enough the monastery was rebuilt, along with a defensive wall. The place was now a burgh or fortified place, hence the name Peterborough. For a while the monastery thrived under the Bendectines, less austere than their Celtic predecessors. But a fresh wave of invaders spelt new danger.

Enter the Normans.

After 1066, Abbot Brand backed the Anglo-Saxon resistance, meaning Peterborough was singled out for special treatment by William the Conqueror. Upon Brands death in 1069, the king imposed a Norman cleric, Turoldus, as the new incumbent. Hereward the Wake, a tenant of the abbey and according to legend Abbot Brands nephew, did not take this lightly. Along with his Viking allies he plundered the abbey. He claimed he was saving its treasures from the thieving Normans, many of the monks disagreed. The abbey got off relatively lightly; in the 1086 Domesday Book it came 11th in the rich list of English religious communities, with a yearly income of 323. Apart from rent from tenants, it derived income from pilgrims, who flocked to see relics such as the uncorrupted arm of Saint Oswald of Northumbria and, later, the bloodstained shirt of Thomas Becket. A fire in 1116 largely destroyed the Saxon building, and a third abbey had to be built. It took more than a century to complete, but in that time the cathedral took on its modern appearance.

Why did it take so long?

It was a ruinously expensive project so the more pilgrims the better. One abbot, William de Waterville, was caught trying to steal St Oswalds arm presumably in a bid to raise cash. But Abbot Benedict came from Canterbury to build the Becket Chapel in the 1170s just outside the abbey gate, inviting visitors to drink water flavoured with the saints blood a surefire money-spinner. The huge Gothic west front is largely Benedicts work. It stands 85ft (26m) high and has three arches dominated by the weathered figures of Peter, Paul and Andrew to whom the church is dedicated. Benedict also had the nave completed in the Romanesque style. Its highlight is the painted wooden ceiling, telling stories of saints and sinners from the Creation onwards. Modern conservation helps to preserve and interpret this treasure, said to be unique in England; it was fortunate to survive the 16th century Reformation.

Speaking of which...

In 1539, Abbot John Chambers cut a pragmatic, if unheroic deal, with Henry VIIIs commissioners to dissolve the monastery but preserve it as a cathedral. Thus it avoided the destruction wrought elsewhere. If anything it extended its influence, carving out a diocese covering the Soke of Peterborough, Rutland and Northamptonshire. But iconoclastic Puritan soldiers took belated revenge in the 1640s and 1650s. They destroyed stained glass windows and any statues or relics they deemed idolatrous, while shooting at the ceilings. The choir stalls were also destroyed; you can still see a memorial to the local Orme family defaced because Puritans disliked the popish practice of saying prayers for the souls of the dead. The cathedrals precincts were badly damaged, with the monks former dormitory and cloisters used as stone quarries.

And the queens?

Katharine of Argon, Henry VIIIs discarded queen, died at nearby Kimbolton in 1536. She was taken to Peterborough for burial as it was the nearest cathedral; her grave is in the north aisle. Mary Queen of Scots was imprisoned in England for many years and finally executed at Fotheringhay in 1587. She too was buried at Peterborough, but her son, later King James I, had her body moved to Westminster Abbey. Both queens have displays dedicated to telling the stories of their lives.

What about the modern day?

During the 1880s the building was in danger of collapse, and only by taking down and rebuilding the whole central tower was it saved. During the second world war ARP fire-watchers twice prevented incendiary bombs dropped by German aircraft from burning it down. After another fire in 2001 a huge restoration project has taken place. Today the cathedral gets visitors from all over the world, while for local people working in a city which has suffered from unsympathetic modern development, it is an oasis of calm.

WEBSITE

www.peterborough-cathedral.org.uk

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