A Short History of Peterborough Cathedral
5 Mar 2021
Located in the heart of East Anglia, Peterborough Cathedral has been established for well over a thousand years. Surviving invasions, world wars, and even the Dissolution of Monasteries by King Henry VIII, today it stands as a true testament of time.
Revered as one of the finest Norman Cathedrals to still exist in the UK, it’s also one of most significant, having been the burial place of two queens. Find out more about the incredibly turbulent Peterborough Cathedral history and why it remains one of the most important Cathedrals in the UK.
A Few Facts About Peterborough Cathedral
Peterborough Cathedral is the burial place of Catherine of Aragon
It was also the birthplace Mary Queen of Scots, who was later moved to Westminster Abbey by her son in 1612, King James I
Ever wondered how tall Peterborough Cathedral is? 44 metres high!
The triple front (and generally asymmetrical appearance) is a remarkably Medieval feature, which can be seen on many medieval Cathedrals in Great Britain.
Building Peterborough Cathedral: The Middle Ages
There is evidence to suggest that before Peterborough Cathedral was constructed, there was a substantial Roman building, such as a temple or monumental arch in its place. Archaeological evidence showed a boundary ditch and stonework, which matches constructions of that time.
In the year 655 AD, the first abbey in Peterborough was founded by King Paeda - son of King Penda of Mercia. At the time, Mercia was a pagan Saxon kingdom, but as part of a marital contract with the neighbouring Christian Northumbria, Christian missionaries were allowed to create religious houses here.
Comstructed initially from timber frames, its first name was: Medeswell. Because of its convenient location on the north bank of the River Nene, it was later named Medehamstede, which roughly translates to “farmstead in the water meadows.”
According to ancient records, the Medeswell monastery was said to have been attacked by Viking invaders in 870 AD, who were assumed to be the Great Heathen Army as led by the famous Ivar the Boneless - who went on to invade much of East Anglia in that same year.
Although much of the original monastery was destroyed by the Vikings, few relics remained untouched and were preserved by those at the Cathedral. One of these included a stone relic, known as the ‘Hedda Stone’ which can still be seen on display in Peterborough Cathedral today. At the time, the Hedda Stone marked the spot where the mass grave of the monks was created, after the order of the Vikings had them all killed.
Photo credit: Peterborough Telegraph
Peterborough Cathedral: The Earlier Years
Over the first five centuries, the monastic church of Peterborough endured several battles, robberies and invasions. But it was also a period of rapid growth, including the construction of the initial stonework of the church which we know as Peterborough Cathedral today.
Almost 100 years later, the monastery was re-founded under order of King Edgar and Bishop Aethelwold of Winchester. It was transformed into a Benedictine house - an independent religious space, governed by one single abbot.
Around this time, a small town began to emerge to the eastern side of the monastic building, which the community bounded by constructing an embanked burgh wall for safety. It was later named ‘Peterbrugh’ after the saint the monastery was dedicated to under its re-development.
1070 - 1071
Shortly after the Battle of Hastings, Hereward the Wake (known as Hereward the Exile) raided the monastery and town of Peterborough with an army of Danish mercenaries, preventing the wealth of the recently formed Peterborough from falling to the new Norman Abbot.
Very soon after that, with a period of royal unrest causing much concern, William I then decided to impose order for sixty of his knights to live at Peterborough Abbey and its monastic estates for protection. As such, there were orders for a motte and bailey to be constructed on the north side for protection - the most popular choice of royal protection at this time. Part of this motte continues to remain in place and can be seen if you enter the Cathedral’s garden - known as Tout Hill.
1102 - 1118
Despite a period of the unrest, the next few years continued to be full of disarray for the monastic abbey at Peterborough.
In the year 1102, the monastery was attacked by Flemish mercenaries, who stole much of the Cathedral’s gold and silver. Meanwhile, just 13 years later in 1116, a fire broke out at the local bakery, destroying much of the monastery and the town. The replacement church began construction later in the year, and is the same Cathedral building we know today.
1143 - 1177
Much of the Cathedral’s expansion began between these years, after it was granted a market charter by King Stephen during his reign. The building work included; construction of the Becket Chapel, a hospital to house the monastery’s holy relics, as well as modern, commercial streets around the building, leading to the first ‘new town’ development in Peterborough.
1230 - 1250
Much of the structure of Peterborough Cathedral which we know today was completed between these years. Most significantly, the original wooden ceiling which supports the nave remains in place - the only one of its type in the UK, and one of only four wooden ceilings to have survived in Europe until today.
After much construction, the monastic church was finally consecrated in 1238, officially declaring the grounds of Peterborough abbey as a sacred space.
1307 - 1375
As Peterborough’s commercial streets began to evolve and the town’s population grew, so too did the wealth of the Cathedral, allowing for rapid expansion in the town and stronger foundations for the Cathedral itself.
Between the years of 1300 - 1375, many additional features were added to Peterborough, including; building a bridge across the River Nene, strengthening the main monastic gateway, the addition of a Galilee Porch ot the west front of Peterborough Cathedral, as well as alterations to the central tower’s main beams. All of these modifications remain in place today and can be seen dotted around the city.
Unfortunately mid-way during the city and abbey’s expansion, the Black Death hit Peterborough, wiping out approximately a third of the townspeople and half of the monks living at the monastery. As such, the abbey became a central burial place for many of the local townsfolk and monks.
1392 - 1452
Despite the tragedies of the mid 14th Century, there was some light in Peterborough Cathedral, when it later became the birthplace of royalty. The future King Henry IV’s two daughters were born at the monastery; Blanche and Philippa. Philippa later grew up to become Queen of Denmark.
The monastery continued to be a big force in King Henry IV’s life, where he visited midway through the 15th Century for a short stay during his pilgrimage.
Photo credit: tripadivsor
Peterborough Cathedral and King Henry VIII
During the reign of King Henry VIII, much change affected the monastic church of Perterborough, including the year of 1541 when it was finally chartered as Peterborough Cathedral.
1510 - 1587
During King Henry VIII’s reign (1509 - 1547) - and beyond - Peterborough Cathedral played a key role in matters of royalty.
For starters, around the year of 1530, it is believed that Peterborough Cathedral was the destination for Cardinal Wolsey to celebrate Easter before making his way up north to go into exile after falling out of favour with the King. Just six years later (1536), Catherine of Aragon - King Henry VIII’s first wife and Queen, was buried in the monastic church.
However, in 1539, the great abbey was closed and confiscated by the King in his attempt to dissolve all monasteries in the country. As part of his desire to increase his control over the church, just two years later, Henry VIII created a new bishop, allowing Peterborough Abbey to become a Cathedral, and therefore survive the Dissolution.
The foundation charter was established on 4th September 1541, declaring that a crown-appointed dean and six canons would run the establishment. It was also later added that six minor canons, a deacon, sub-deacon, eight singing men and choristers, two schoolmasters and six almsmen would support their work.
The admission of two schoolmasters and choir boys allowed King Henry VIII to create a grammar school in the Precincts, laying down the foundation of the King’s School which we know today.
But it wasn’t just Catherine of Aragon who was laid to rest in the church during the Tudor era. In August, a whole five months after being excited at nearby Fotheringhay Castle, Mary Queen of Scots was buried at Peterborough Cathedral.
Later, when Mary’s son became King James I of England, he had his mother’s grave transferred to Westminster Abbey in 1612.
Photo credit: The History Press
Peterborough Cathedral and the English Civil War
Oliver Cromwell and his troops set out to dissolve Peterborough Cathedral and other monasteries in the local area during the English Civil War.
During the English Civil War, the Cathedral was ravaged. Peterborough - a city with Royalist sympathies - was taken by Colonel Oliver Cromwell. He destroyed nearly all the stained glass windows, the altar, reredos, cloisters and Lady Chapel, before setting fire to Peterborough Cathedral’s historic library and archives.
Peterborough Cathedral cites the Royalist newsbook Mercurius Aulicus, who described the event at the time:
'It was advertised this day from Peterburgh, that Colonell Cromwell had bestowed a visit on that little City, and put them to the charge of his entertainment, plundering a great part thereof to discharge the reckoning, and further that in pursuance of the thorow Reformation, he did most miserably deface the Cathedrall Church, breake downe the Organs, and destroy the glasse windowes, committing many other outrages on the house of God which were not acted by the Gothes in the sack of Rome, and are most commonly forborn by the Turks when they possesse themselves by force of a Christian city.’
1653 - 1690
After the destruction of the English Civil War, much of the stonework from the Cathedral was transported away and used to build Thorpe Hall, the new property for local magnate and Lord Chief Justice Oliver St. John.
Unfortunately, the plague returned to Peterborough again during the decade of 1660. In an attempt to avoid infection, the Cathedral clergymen fled the city, leaving St John’s parish priest Symon Gunton to bury a third of his parishioners.
Peterborough Cathedral: the Restoration Years
After centuries of unrest, Peterborough Cathedral was finally able to restore during the reign of Queen Victoria in the 19th Century.
Much of the 19th Century was reigned by Queen Victoria, who really drove the rapid growth of cities, including Peterborough.
The years of peace and the wealth that came from industrialisation allowed much of the damage caused during the Civil War to be gradually repaired for Peterborough Cathedral and again restored in the second half of the century.
Much of the refurbishment work included rebuilding the Central Tower, moving The King’s School from the Precincts to Park Road, and the restoration of Catherine of Aragon’s tomb. The city began to modernise and grow faster than it ever had done.
Peterborough Cathedral and World War II
Despite being predicted as a safe area for children living in high-risk cities to be evacuated to, Peterborough was, sadly, a hotspot for air raids during the Second World War.
1940 - 1944
During the second world war, Peterborough was chosen as a ‘safe’ area for the children of London to be evacuated to. Unpredictably, Peterborough actually suffered a lot of air raids with around 650 air raid sirens being called in the city over these years.
This caused a significant amount of damage in the city of Peterborough - and not just in the centre. Fortunately for the Cathedral, only minor damage was ensued, thanks to the work of a dedicated team of fire watchers.
Peterborough Cathedral Today
Over the past 50 or so years, Peterborough Cathedral has remained a centre for worship and education. Despite a fire breaking out in the South Transept in 2001, much of the Cathedral has been restored to its original beauty and is preserved for future generations.
Today, the Cathedral continues to follow its traditional pattern of daily worship, as well as serving many outreach and educational programmes, teaching local residents and schools about its significance in history.
Usually, you can find a lively curated programme of events, including concerts, talks, and exhibitions. You can view upcoming Peterborough Cathedral events over on their website.
Coach Hire Peterborough
Looking for coach hire in Peterborough? Over the past 60 years, we’ve provided private coach hire services in and around Peterborough, as well as its neighbouring areas. We pride ourselves on ‘doing it well,’ and always strive to deliver a safe and reliable service for our passengers.
This includes being fully accredited by Coach Marque UK, as well as being members of The Guild of British Coach Operators - so you can be sure that you’re being provided with a great experience every time you travel with us.
For a competitive quote for coach hire in Peterborough or in the surrounding areas, please contact our dedicated Customer Liaison team.