15 August 2019
‘inspires awe and wonder’
for over 1,300 years
Peterborough Cathedral says it ‘has been a holy place for over 1,300 years’ and that it ‘inspires awe and wonder in everyone who approaches the magnificent west front; even more so when they enter inside.’
I spent much of Tuesday [13 August 2019] on my first-ever visit to Peterborough Cathedral, which is dedicated to Saint Peter, Saint Paul and Saint Andrew. The three arches forming the Great West Front are the defining image of the cathedral, which is unrivalled in mediaeval architecture.
This is also one of the early centres of Christianity in central England and one of the most important 12th-century buildings in England.
The statues of the cathedral’s three patrons, Saint Peter, Saint Paul and Saint Andrew, look down from the three high gables of the West Front. Although it was founded in the Anglo-Saxon period, its architecture is mainly Norman, following a rebuilding in the 12th century.
Despite extensions and restorations over the centuries, this Cathedral remains one of the most important 12th-century buildings in England to have remained largely intact in England, alongside the cathedrals in Durham and Ely.
The cathedral is known for its imposing Early English Gothic West Front or façade. With its three enormous arches, it is without architectural precedent and with no direct successor.
The appearance is slightly asymmetrical, as one of the two towers that rise from behind the façade was never completed.
Archaeological evidence suggests there may have been a Roman building on the site or close to it. The cathedral dates back to the church founded at Medeshamstede ca 655 by Peada, son of Penda, the Anglo-Saxon king of Mercia. This makes it one of the early centres of Christianity in central England.
Viking invaders destroyed the monastic settlement at the church in 870. The Hedda Stone, which survives in the cathedral, is a mediaeval carving said to commemorate the destruction of the monastery and the death of the abbot and monks at the hands of the Vikings in 864.
During the monastic revival in the mid-10th century, Bishop Athelwold of Winchester founded a Benedictine Abbey dedicated to Saint Peter in 966 on what remained of the earlier church. A new basilica was built, but the original central tower was retained, and the town surrounding the abbey eventually became known as Peter-burgh. The community was further revived in 972 by Archbishop Dunstan of Canterbury.
This newer church had a substantial west tower. But only a small section of the foundations of the Anglo-Saxon church remain beneath the south transept.
King Harold stopped at Peterborough on his way to Hastings in 1066, and was accompanied by Abbot Leofric and other monks.
During the resistance to the Norman invasion, the abbey was damaged by Hereward the Wake in 1070. It was repaired and continued to thrive until it was destroyed by fire, along with much of the town, in 1116. Abbot John de Sais began building a new church in Norman style in 1118.
Records from the mid-12th-century list the abbey’s reliquaries, including two pieces of swaddling clothes that wrapped the baby Jesus, pieces of his manger, a part of the five loaves that fed the 5,000, a piece of the raiment of the Virgin Mary, a piece of Aaron’s rod, the supposed arm of Oswald of Northumbria, which was brought to Peterborough ca 1000, and relics of the three patrons of the church, Saint Peter, Saint Paul and Saint Andrew.
When the Prior of Canterbury, Benedict, was appointed Abbot of Peterborough, he brought relics of Saint Thomas Becket with him. He had witnessed Becket’s murder, and he when he moved to Peterborough he brought the relics in a special reliquary. The Becket Chapel and the adjacent hospital were built in 1174-1177 to house these relics. The relics promoted the importance of Peterborough as a centre of pilgrimage and increased the wealth of the abbey.
By 1193, the building was completed to the west end of the nave, including the central tower and the decorated wooden ceiling in the nave. The ceiling, completed between 1230 and 1250, is one of only four such ceilings in Europe, and although it has been over-painted twice, in 1745 and 1834, it retains its original character and style.
Then, after completing the Western transept and adding the Great West Front Portico in 1237, the mediaeval masons switched over to the new Gothic style. Apart from changes to the windows, the insertion of a porch to support the free-standing pillars of the portico and the addition of a ‘new’ building at the east end around the beginning of the 16th century, the structure of the building remains essentially as it was when it was completed 800 or 900 years ago.
Peterborough was then part of the Diocese of Lincoln, and the new monastic church was consecrated by Robert Grosseteste, Bishop of Lincoln in 1238.
The three of arches forming the Great West Front are the defining image of Peterborough Cathedral and it is unrivalled in mediaeval architecture. The line of spires behind it, topping an unprecedented four towers, evolved for more practical reasons. There was a desire to retain the earlier Norman towers, even though they became obsolete when the Gothic front was added. The old towers were retained and embellished with cornices and other gothic decor, while two new towers were added to create a continuous frontage.
The Norman tower was rebuilt in the Decorated Gothic style ca 1350-1380. Its main beams and roof bosses survive), but two tiers of Romanesque windows were combined into a single set of Gothic windows, and the turreted cap and pinnacles were removed and replaced by battlements.
The Abbots of Peterborough became mitred abbots in 1402, with all the authority of bishops.
Between 1496 and 1508, the Presbytery roof was replaced, and a rectangular building with perpendicular fan vaulting was built around the end of the Norman east apse. The fan vaulting may have been designed by John Wastell, the architect of King’s College Chapel, Cambridge, and of the Bell Harry Tower at Canterbury Cathedral.
When Katharine of Aragon, the divorced first wife of Henry VIII, died in 1536, she was buried in the monastic church. The site of her grave carries the words ‘Katharine Queen of England,’ a title she was denied at the time of her death. Her grave is still honoured by visitors who decorate it with flowers and pomegranates, her symbol.
Before the Reformation, it had the sixth-largest income of any monastic foundation in England, and had 120 monks, an almoner, an infirmarian, a sacristan and a cellarer.
At the Dissolution of the Monasteries at the Reformation, the great abbey church closed, its lands and properties were confiscated, and the collection of relics was dispersed, stolen or lost.
However, the abbey church survived because it was chosen by Henry VIII as the cathedral of the new Diocese of Peterborough in 1541, and the last Abbot of Peterborough, John Chambers, became the first Bishop of Peterborough.
Mary Queen of Scots was buried here in 1587, five months after her execution nearby at Fotheringhay Castle, but her body was later removed to Westminster Abbey on the orders of her son, King James I.
During the English Civil War, the cathedral was vandalised by Parliamentarian troops in 1643. Most all the stained glass, the mediaeval choir stalls were destroyed, and the high altar and reredos were demolished, as well as the cloisters and the Lady Chapel. All the monuments and memorials in the cathedral were also damaged or destroyed.
Some of the damage was repaired during the 17th and 18th centuries. Extensive restoration work began in 1883, after large cracks appeared in the supporting pillars and arches of the main tower.
The central tower and its foundations, interior pillars, the choir and re-enforcements of the west front were rebuilt by John Loughborough Pearson, and stepped battlements was removed from the central tower, reducing its height. New hand-carved choir stalls, a cathedra or bishop’s throne, choir pulpit and the marble pavement and high altar were added.
The presbytery was remodelled in the 1890s. The spectacular sculpted baldachino or ciborium over the high altar, added in 1894, was closely modelled on the canopy over the High Altar in the Church of Santa Maria de Cosmedin in Rome, but with the addition of a figure of Saint Peter holding the keys.
Edith Cavell was a student teacher at Laurel Court beside the cathedral cloisters in 1880s (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)
The cathedral was hit by a fire in 2001 while a restoration of the painted wooden ceiling was near completion. An extensive programme of repairs to the west front began in 2006. The sculptor Alan Durst was responsible for some of the work on the statues on the West Front.
The Diocese of Peterborough covers the northern half of Peterborough in Cambridgeshire, and the counties of Northamptonshire and Rutland.
The Dean of Peterborough is the Very Revd Chris Dalliston, the Vice Dean is Canon Tim Alban Jones, the Precentor is Canon Rowan C Williams. Other canons include the Canon Missioner, Canon Sarah Brown, and the Vicar of Peterborough, Canon Ian Black.
Peterborough Cathedral was one of the last great churches to be built in the Romanesque style. The cathedral celebrated its 900th anniversary last year .
Today, it says ‘it is a place rich in history and with a lively story to tell, yet it is more than a museum.’ It adds, ‘Today’s community continues the tradition started by the first monks: of prayer and welcome, mission and service, love and care for all.’