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Peterborough Cathedral

The first abbey was established at Peterborough (originally called Medeshamstede) in around 655 AD and it has thus been a site of Christian worship for almost 1350 years, one of the first centres of Christianity in central England.  The first Abbey was largely destroyed by Viking raiders in 870.  In the mid 10th century a Benedictine Abbey was created by Athelwold, Bishop of Winchester from what remained of the earlier abbey, with a larger church and more extensive buildings.  The abbey’s ancillary buildings were destroyed in Hereward the Wake’s resistance to the Norman takeover in 1069, but the church survived until an accidental fire swept through it in 1116.

Only a small section of the foundations of the Saxon church remain beneath the south transept but there are several significant artefacts including Saxon carvings from the earlier building.

 A new church, the present building, was begun by the then Abbot (John de Sais) in 1118 and finally consecrated by Grossteste, Bishop of Lincoln, in 1238.  This church is built largely of Barnack Ragstone a local limestone quarried at Barnack near Stamford.  The quarry site, now a Special Area for Conservation known as the Barnack 'Hills and Holes', is one of Britain's most important wildlife sites, well known for its flowers and rare orchids and well worth the short journey from Peterborough to visit.

Despite general changes in style, by 1193 the building was completed to the western end of the Nave in the Norman, or Romanesque, style in which it had been begun.  Only in completing the Western transept and adding the Great West Front Portico in 1237 did the medieval masons adopt the then more modern 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 on completion almost 800 years ago.

Most significantly the original wooden ceiling survives in the nave, the only one of its type in this country and one of only four wooden ceilings of this period surviving in the whole of Europe, having been completed between 1230 and 1250.  The three other examples are at Zillis in Switzerland, at Hildesheim in Germany and at Dädesjö in Sweden. Of these the longest is less than half the length of the Peterborough ceiling. It has been over-painted twice, once in 1745 and again in 1834, but retains it retains the character and style of the original. 

The main beams and roof bosses of the tower date back to the 1370’s and those of the Presbytery to 1500.  The renewal of the Presbytery roof coincided with an extensive building programme which included the processional route provided by extending the East End of the church.  This ‘New Building’ is an excellent example of late Perpendicular work with fine fan vaulting probably designed by John Wastell, who went on to work on Kings College Chapel in Cambridge.

In 1539 the great abbey of Peterborough was closed and its lands and properties confiscated by the king.  However to increase his control over the church in this area he created a new bishop and Peterborough Abbey church became a Cathedral.

Two queens were buried in the Cathedral during the Tudor period.  Katherine of Aragon’s grave is in the North Aisle near the High Altar, whilst Mary Queen of Scots was buried on the opposite side of the altar, though her grave is now empty (she was re-buried in Westminster in 1612).

St Oswald’s Arm (the Abbey’s most valued relic) disappeared from its chapel about the time of the reformation but the chapel still has its newel staircase or watch-tower where monks kept guard over it day and night.

 

All the stained glass windows, the High Altar and medieval choir stalls and all the monuments and memorials of the Cathedral, were destroyed by Cromwell’s soldiers in 1643.  This has left the church with a light and uncluttered feel to it.

The Central tower, which had been restructured in the 14th century had to be re-built again in the 1880’s and after this the whole central and eastern area of the church required refurbishment, providing an opportunity for the creation of the fine, hand carved choir stalls, cathedra (bishops throne) and choir pulpit and the marble pavement and high altar which are at the centre of worship today.

In the 21st century the Cathedral still follows its centuries old pattern of daily worship, though the medieval monastic pattern of 8 services per day has been reduced to morning prayer, daily Eucharist and evensong on most days of the week.  The Cathedral remains, however, a vibrant and developing community with outreach and education programmes, performances and civic events.