Peterborough Cathedral, Cambridgeshire

During the 7th century, when a monastery at Medeshamstede was founded by the first Christian king of Mercia, the strategic location of this church ensured that it grew to be the most important in the kingdom. Totally destroyed by the Danes in AD870, a second abbey was built and refounded as a Benedictine house just 100 years later. Dedicated to St Peter, the abbey was enclosed by a huge wall at the turn of the century and the site was then known as Burgh St Peter (or, the 'fortified' place of St Peter). Unfortunately this second Saxon building was also destroyed, but this time by an accidental fire started in the kitchen.

Building work on the third abbey at Peterborough commenced at the east end of the church in 1118, and was eventually completed in 1238. Using local stone a splendid Norman interior was created showing all the traditional architectural features of that period, such as sturdy pillars, rounded arches with rich mouldings, blind arcading and rib vaulting. It has been cited as being amongst the finest and purest Norman work in the country, and gives the current Peterborough Cathedral a very majestic feel.

The Benedictine monastery was dissolved in 1539 but two years later Henry VIII created the new see of Peterborough and it became the cathedral. Legend has it that the King favoured Peterborough as his first wife, Katharine of Aragon, was buried at the abbey, and her body still rests in the north presbytery aisle.

Although the major part of Peterborough Cathedral remains as it was first built, there have been some post Norman alterations and additions. In the first half of the 14th century the Norman central tower was replaced by a lower version in the Decorated style, and shortly afterwards a Perpendicular porch was added to the west front of the church. At the beginning of the 16th century the apsidal east end was extended and squared off with the building of an elegantly fan-vaulted retro-quire. Having escaped desecration at the time of the Dissolution, Peterborough Cathedral did not fare so well during the Civil War. Cromwell's soldiers marched in and systematically destroyed all the things that had beautified and embellished Peterborough Cathedral, including the stained glass, the statuary, the carved choir stalls and the high altar. A few years later the cloister was demolished and stone quarried away for local building, and this was soon followed by destruction of the Lady Chapel.

Nearly all of England's great churches received Victorian restorations, many included the work of Sir George Gilbert Scott, and Peterborough Cathedral was no exception. Scott's exquisitely painted ceiling in the apse replaced the medieval ceiling destroyed at the time of the Civil War. But it is not just the impressive architecture, the fabulous ceilings, or the sympathetic restorations which continue to attract thousands of visitors each year. This massive building, over 481ft (147m) long, located in a bustling market town is a reminder of early Christianity in a place as important today as it was in Saxon England, and many of the relics found in Peterborough Cathedral depict the life and times of the foundation. Despite the disappearance of nearly all the monastic buildings, there is sufficient evidence within the old abbey church alone to allow an imaginative view of the monks living and working in this magnificent complex.


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