Peterborough Cathedral

13062036_261530060855750_114611907704354958_n  The Cathedral Church of St Peter, St Paul and St Andrew sits in the centre of Peterborough. Surrounded on three sides by church buildings, and fronted by a grass lawn, the precinct is entered by a stone gateway on the west side. On approach it is possible to note that the Cathedral has a lop-sided appearance as one of the great towers, to the right hand side behind the stone façade was never completed. Three large arches of the early Gothic style welcome visitors, each containing the statue of one of the saints to which the Cathedral is dedicated. Built in the 12th Century, at around the same time as both Ely and Durham Cathedrals, Peterborough Cathedral is the only one of its style to have survived virtually intact.

But what about its history? Well there are various phases of build evident both around the existing Cathedral and earlier buildings lurking within and beneath. Investigations have highlighted a boundary ditch in the range of the Cathedral, as well as early stonework monuments, indicating the possibility that a Roman temple or similar structure existed on the site. In the 7th Century, an Anglo-Saxon church, known as Medeshamstede, complete with monastery was known to have been on the site, a Hedda stone from this phase is prominent in the Lady Chapel in an alcove. The church and monastery existed until around 870, following its rapid decline after it was most likely sacked by Danish Invaders in a known raid a few years earlier in 864. The Hedda stone is carved with 12 figures thought to be the Abbott and Monks, who were murdered in this raid.

Around 100 years later, in the mid-tenth century, there was a monastic revival, which saw the re-dedication of certain abbeys and cathedrals, including Ely and Ramsey. At this point the Church of Medeshamstede began a new phase of building work under the sponsorship of the Bishop of Winchester, which included new halls, a second tower and extensions to the west. A Benedictine Priory was also added around 966. The original surviving church tower was dedicated to St Peter and the surrounding town became known as a Burgh. It is from this that the city gets its modern name, Peterborough. In 972, Dunstan, Archbishop of Canterbury further endorsed Peterborough, increasing its popularity.

In around 1000 AD, a monk is alleged to have stolen the relic of St Oswald from Bamburgh Castle and presented it to the Abbot at Peterborough, in an effort to gain favour. A chapel was built to house the relic, dedicated to St Oswald; alas the relic – said to be St Oswald’s arm, was to vanish during the reformation of the monasteries in the 16th Century. Nonetheless during its 500 years residing within the Cathedral, it drew many pilgrims, which earned the priory and the town a substantial amount of revenue. As a result, it was nicknamed Guildenburgh – The Golden Borough.

Aside from the Hedda stone, and a significant number of other artifacts, the early foundations of the original Anglo-Saxon church are the only survivors of this period, under the South Transept, although in the past decade, workman doing maintenance on outer walls of the precinct found a number of 11th Century Anglo-Saxon grave markers, felt to be those of local townspeople. A later list of relics written in the 12th century lists two pieces of swaddling cloth from baby Jesus, as well as part of his manger, a small part of one of the five loaves, but no fish, from the feeding of the 5,000, a section of the Virgin Mary’s raiment, a piece of Aaron’s rod and relics from all three dedicated saints. Finally, there were certain contact relics – items associated with their closeness of proximity – of murdered Archbishop of

Canterbury further endorsed Peterborough, increasing its popularity.

In around 1000 AD, a monk is alleged to have stolen the relic of St Oswald from Bamburgh Castle and presented it to the Abbot at Peterborough, in an effort to gain favour. A chapel was built to house the relic, dedicated to St Oswald; alas the relic – said to be St Oswald’s arm, was to vanish during the reformation of the monasteries in the 16th Century. Nonetheless during its 500 years residing within the Cathedral, it drew many pilgrims, which earned the priory and the town a substantial amount of revenue. As a result, it was nicknamed Guildenburgh – The Golden Borough.

Aside from the Hedda stone, and a significant number of other artifacts, the early foundations of the original Anglo-Saxon church are the only survivors of this period, under the South Transept, although in the past decade, workman doing maintenance on outer walls of the precinct found a number of 11th Century Anglo-Saxon grave markers, felt to be those of local townspeople. A later list of relics written in the 12th century lists two pieces of swaddling cloth from baby Jesus, as well as part of his manger, a small part of one of the five loaves, but no fish, from the feeding of the 5,000, a section of the Virgin Mary’s raiment, a piece of Aaron’s rod and relics from all three dedicated saints. Finally, there were certain contact relics – items associated with their closeness of proximity – of murdered Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Becket, which were “liberated” by its Prior, Benedict, who had witnessed his murder. When Benedict arrived at Peterborough with the reliquary, he was given the role of Abbot.

It was thought King Harold stopped in Peterborough on his way to Hastings from York in 1066. It is accepted that the Abbott at this point, Leofric, and several of the monks and townspeople joined the party on their way to fight the invading Normans. Leofric died on the journey and his monks and the civilians were killed in the battle. Local hero Hereward the Wake led a party of Danes to the Abbey where they raided and took as much of the assets as possible to prevent the new Norman Abbott from getting hold of it. In 1116, the church burned down as a result of an unattended fire.

In 1118, Abbott John de Sais began construction on a new church. In order to fund the venture, a new market place and shops are built in the church grounds and outside of the precinct walls. The new area of town remains to this day in the same layout as it was originally constructed 900 years ago. Henry II visited Peterborough Cathedral in 1154, accompanied by his chancellor, Thomas Becket, later to become Archbishop of Canterbury. Following the decline of their relationship, Thomas was murdered 16 years later, ostensibly on the orders of the King, for which he was later to pay penance. Following his death and the aforementioned transfer of his relics, a new Chapel, the Becket Chapel was constructed to house the relics, particularly the Becket casket which is now on display in the Victoria and Albert Museum.13077099_261530134189076_1006542124755896129_n

By 1238 the new Cathedral was finished and consecrated. Notable visitors aside from those previously mentioned included Kings Edward I, II and III, the Prince of Wales – Edward, the Black Prince and Henry VI. Both Philippa and Blanche, daughters of Henry IV were born at nearby Peterborough Castle. Following her lonely death at nearby Kimbolton in 1536, Katherine of Aragon, first wife of Henry VIII was buried in Peterborough; just three years later as the dissolution of the monasteries gained momentum, Henry took control and closed the Abbey, claiming it as a Cathedral. A School was founded in the Bishop’s House, which is still open although in different premises. In 1587, Mary, Queen of Scots was executed on the orders of Henry’s second daughter, Queen Elizabeth, at Fotheringhay and her body was laid to rest next to that of Katherine. After Elizabeth’s death and the succession of James I, he had his mother moved to Westminster, where she lays facing both Elizabeth and her sister Mary I.

In the 17th Century during the English Civil Wars, Katherine’s tomb amongst others was desecrated when troops under Oliver Cromwell’s command, took control of the Royalist town. They also damaged much of the interior, along with the stained glass windows. Charles I was held prisoner within the precincts for two days in 1646. A popular local legend states that several ghosts are present in and around the Cathedral and its buildings. Including one in the upper areas carrying a candle, a ghostly choir, four monks who stole out one night for an illicit drinking session, one in one of the houses. There is also the ghost of a gentleman said to have fallen from the gatehouse during an attempt to gain entry during the Civil War.

13103267_261530164189073_794421909027505046_nKatherine’s tomb was later replaced at the end of the 19th Century with a plain black marble slab and wrought iron fencing where visitors often leave gifts of pomegranates and flowers, and each year on the anniversary of her internment, a celebration of her life takes place at her grave. On my many visits here, I am always struck by the presence around her tomb. It has a feeling of grace, of tranquility. Serenity. Unexplainable but definitely there. I am by no means religious, and I keep an open mind regarding spirituality, but even I cannot deny that there is something there, which draws me back time and again and gives me such a feeling of peace where she lays.

Other notable burials included several of the past Abbotts and bishops, not just of Peterborough but also York and Worcestor, the man who buried both Queens, Old Robert Scarlett, is buried in the entrance, and several relics of saints are interred by the altar. Edward the Confessor’s nephew, Ralph the Timid is also buried within the Cathedral, along with 7th Century Saints Kyneswide – daughter of King Penda of Mercia and Tibba, her cousin. Kyneburga, sister of Kyneswide was also originally buried here, but was later transferred to Thorney Abbey in around 970.

Peterborough Cathedral was fortunate in that it did not suffer the same fate as many other grand religious establishments during both the Dissolution and the later Civil Wars, despite direct action against her in both. Renovation work began on the damaged interior in the 19th Century, using remaining rubble from surrounding monastic buildings, and restoration work is ongoing at the present, particularly on the statues both inside and outside the Cathedral. Supporters are able to donate funds in return for adopting a stone in the cathedral fabric.

All in all, Peterborough is a beautiful Cathedral, well worth a visit if you should be in the area. I often lurk around, and have been known to take part in the fun ghost walks which centre around the Cathedral Precincts on Halloween. *Tip… standing down the right hand side of the Cathedral, if you look up to the Tower window, you will see a face, lit up by a flickering candle. Go on…. I dare you!

Phoebe