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Peterborough Cathedral

History

The first abbey was established at Peterborough (originally called Medeshamstede) in 655 AD and it has thus been a site of Christian worship for almost 1350 years. The first Abbey was largely destroyed by Viking raiders in 870. In the mid 10th century a Benedictine Abbey was created 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.

A new church, the present building, was begun in 1118
and finally consecrated in 1238 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 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 re-furbishment, 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 centre 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

 

Architecture

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. This church is built largely of Barnack Ragstone a local limestone quarried at Barnack near Stamford. Despite general changes in style 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, 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. It has been over-painted twice, but retains it original style and pattern.

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.

Attractions

The West Front with its unique English Gothic Portico.
The 13th century painted nave ceiling.
The burial places of Katharine of Aragon and of Mary Queen of Scots.
The fan vaulting of the Eastern (New) Building.
The Hedda stone (8th Century Saxon carving from the original church).
St Oswalds chapel with its 12th century watchtower.

Local Interest

In the City -
- Cathedral Square with 15th Century St John the Baptist Parish Church and 17th
Century Guildhall
- Peterborough Museum and Art Gallery on Priestgate.
www.peterboroughheritage.org.uk
- Flag Fen, one of Europe’s most important Bronze Age sites. www.flagfen.com
- Nene Valley Railway www.nvr.org.uk
And nearby -
- Burghley House 01780 752451; www.burghley.co.uk
- Sacrewell Farm Park
- Thorney Heritage Museum 01733 270908
- Elton Hall 01832 280468
- Prebendal Manor 01780 783575 www.prebendal-manor.co.uk
- Crowland Abbey 01733 210499