Peterborough Cathedral

Peterborough Cathedral.  Image by NotFromUtrecht, Wikimedia Commons
Peterborough Cathedral. Image by NotFromUtrecht, Wikimedia Commons

Peterborough Cathedral is a monastic cathedral located in Cambridgeshire, England. The Norman cathedral you see today was dedicated to Saints Peter, Paul and Andrew. The building is remarkable among medieval cathedrals in Great Britain because of its unusual triple front and generally asymmetrical appearance.

The first abbey was established in Peterborough (originally called Medeshamstede) in 655 AD by King Peada, son of King Penda of Mercia. When Peada died, his brother Wulfhere continued the work. Bede mentions in his “Ecclesiastical History of the English People” that Saxulf was the founding abbot of this monastery. Saxulf later became Bishop of Mercia. This community was destroyed by Viking raiders in 870. One chronicle mentions the brother of one of the Danish leaders was killed in the initial attack on the abbey and the leader ordered the slaughter of all the monks. The monks were buried in a mass grave and a carved stone marked the spot called the Hedda Stone. This stone can still be seen today. The abbey was revived by Dunstan, Archbishop of Canterbury in 972. The town near the abbey was eventually named Peterburgh after the saint the monastery was dedicated to.

The Hedda Stone.  Image by NotFromUtrecht, Wikimedia Commons
The Hedda Stone. Image by NotFromUtrecht, Wikimedia Commons

Abbot Leofric was the last Anglo-Saxon abbot of Peterborough before the Norman Conquest. He was the nephew of Earl Leofric and his famous wife Lady Godiva. Abbot Leofric fought with the last Anglo-Saxon King Harold against William the Conqueror and the Normans at the Battle of Hastings but became ill and was forced to return to the abbey where he died on November 1, 1066. The abbey was greatly damaged during the uprising of local folk-hero Hereward the Wake against the Norman invaders. The church was repaired only to be destroyed by fire in 1116.

Construction of the current building began in 1118. It isn’t well known that Peterborough had a collection of St. Thomas Becket’s relics. Abbot Benedict was prior of Canterbury when Becket was murdered there in 1170. Benedict became Abbot of Peterborough in 1177 and found he needed funds to complete the nave. He traveled to Canterbury and returned with some of Becket’s relics. Pilgrims flocked to Peterborough and the funds were raised to complete the nave. The cathedral was finally consecrated in 1238.

The structure of the building remains essentially the same as it was upon consecration. The original wooden ceiling survives in the nave and is the only one in the country and only one of four wooden ceilings from this period in Europe. The Norman Tower was rebuilt in the Decorated Gothic style circa 1350 and the addition of Perpendicular fan vaulting was made between 1496 and 1508. During the Dissolution of the Monasteries under King Henry VIII, the abbey of Peterborough was closed with its lands and properties confiscated by the king. In an effort to increase his control over the church in this area of the country, Henry created a new bishop and Peterborough Abbey church became a Cathedral thus allowing it to survive the Dissolution.

There were two queens buried in Peterborough from the Tudor era. The first was Catherine of Aragon, the Spanish princess who was Henry VIII’s first wife. Her grave is in the North Aisle of the cathedral near the High Altar. Mary Queen of Scots was buried here on the opposite side of the altar after her execution during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I in 1587. However her grave in Peterborough is now empty. Mary’s son, who became King James I of England upon the death of Elizabeth I, had his mother re-interred in Westminster Abbey in 1612.

Grave of Katherine of Aragon in Peterborough Cathedral
Grave of Katherine of Aragon in Peterborough Cathedral

The cathedral was ravaged during the English Civil War. Nearly all the stained glass was destroyed and the altar and reredos, cloisters and Lady Chapel were demolished. Some of this damage was repaired in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The Central tower and the west front were in danger of collapse and were rebuilt in the 1880’s along with the interior pillars and the choir. In the 1960’s, new figures were added to the west front. After a disastrous fire in November of 2001, a cleaning and restoration process has been undertaken.

An interesting historical side story is that of Peterborough Abbey’s most valued relic: the arm of Saint Oswald. Oswald was a convert to Christianity and King of Northumbria from 634 to 642. He was born in 604 and while a youth, his father died and a rival took the throne forcing Oswald into exile. He returned to Northumbria in 634 to raise an army. As he prepared to fight a much larger force, he raised a cross and prayed for victory. Oswald won the battle and ruled as king of Northumbria until his death.

While Oswald was king, he became known for his piety and generosity. During the celebration of an Easter feast, he supposedly gave away all the silver plates along with the food to the poor who had suffered through a harsh winter. The chronicles say his chaplain, Bishop Aidan blessed Oswald, saying “may this arm that has been so generous never parish”. When Oswald died in battle against King Penda of Mercia in 642, his arm was taken to Bamburgh where it remained uncorrupted. About 1000 AD, a monk stole the arm from Bamburgh and took it to his abbot at Peterborough in an effort to gain favor. The arm remained the primary relic of Peterborough and the chapel still has a watch-tower where the monks safeguarded it day and night. St. Oswald’s arm disappeared from the chapel during the reformation along with its silver casket.

19 thoughts on “Peterborough Cathedral

  1. That cathedral is so beautiful. Just one of many not visited during the times I lived in England – can’t do it all! Now on the “bucket list”, with Ely and Lincoln and Gloucester 🙂


  2. Thank you so much for presenting a piece of early English history I had not seen before. It is amazing some of the disasters that have been part of the history of so many of the cathedrals around the world and yet they have survived.


    • You’re welcome rafterd. The fact that these buildings are still standing is what compels me to write about them. I really like the early history of the Roman and Anglo-Saxon churches. But the Normans knew how to craft and build a great cathedral!


  3. How fascinating, and how beautiful! I would love to see this, one of our most magnificent cathedrals. I didn’t know that Peterborough was where Katherine of Aragon was buried, or Mary Queen of Scots (temporarily). And that is fascinating about St Oswald’s arm. So much destruction happened during the Reformation (and then the Civil War) – it’s a crying shame, but I guess we have to accept it as part of history. You have really made me want to visit some English cathedrals! 🙂


    • My plan is to visit all the graves of Henry VIII’s wives. I’ve been to four out of six so Peterborough will be on my itinerary when I return to England. I find Peterborough to be particularly beautiful. Maybe we should meet up there Jo! 😉


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