“ A monastic church was founded here by King Peada in 655 AD, destroyed by the Danes in 870, rebuilt as part of a Benedictine Abbey and re-consecrated in 972, burned down in an accidental fire in 1116 and re-built in its present form between 1118 and 1238. The porch was added about 1380, the eastern extension around 1500 and the central tower was re-built in the mid 1300's and again in the 1880's. In 1539 the monastery was closed by Henry VIII, but 18 months later in 1541, the church became the Cathedral of the new Diocese of Peterborough, with the last abbot as the new bishop, and Peterborough became a city. In the Civil War much damage was done to the Cathedral by Cromwell's troops, and the Lady Chapel, Chapter House and Cloister were destroyed; only fragments of the stained glass windows were saved and these were later pieced together to form the apse windows. The choir stalls, bishop's throne, marble floor and high altar were all created by the Victorian architect Pearson after the tower had been re-built. In the 1960's new figures were added to the West Front and in the 1970's the spectacular hanging cross was added to the Nave. Since the disastrous fire of November 2001 a massive cleaning and restoration programme has been undertaken, but there is still an expensive and endless task remaining to maintain the building and fulfil its purpose. „
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I am a chorister at Peterborough Cathedral, and enjoy singing there very much. The cloisters are splendid, especially in the summer, when, before practice, we sit outside and enjoy the peace and quiet! If you have a chance, climbing all the way up to the top of the Cathedral is rather stunning with a marvellous view of the city, which actually isn't as bad as you say it is!
I grew up just outside Salisbury and like most others in that location, I was successfully indoctrinated in the belief that there is no better architectural splendour on God's good earth than Salisbury Cathedral. My childhood was punctuated with afternoon field trips filling out work sheets, annual school carol concerts playing my clarinet very badly in the school orchestra and even two weeks of so-called post O'level 'work experience' playing in the cathedral shop. All these and more conspired to fill me with a sense of my home city's superiority in the cathedral stakes.
By contrast Peterborough took on something of a bogey-man city status. As a student I would endure awful minibus journeys across the country to play ice-hockey at the Peterborough Ice Rink in the wee-small hours of the night. It seemed to be a place riddled with roundabouts and very little charm. Then 18 months ago the company I worked for moved its head office to Peterborough and I began a tedious life of commuting an eighty-mile round trip to the city. From our office we could look out across a rapidly developing building site at what seemed to be a really rather nice looking old cathedral. I'd been working there for over a year before I ever ventured into the Poundland-Paradise that is Peterborough.
However, despite my dislike of the city I held out some hope that the Cathedral might be worth a visit. I kept saying to myself 'I'll go and have a look at that sometime' but I never did - at least not until the day I left the company and I headed off to keep my promise to see the cathedral. It was a very wet and miserable day, I didn't have an umbrella and my expectations were frankly not very high. Would the cathedral live down to my expectations or would it surprise me - read on to find out.
(BUT FIRST - an apology to any readers living in Peterborough. I am harsh about your city which I find hard to love or admire but that may be my dislike for my employers coming through in spades rather than any form of justified bigotry. To be fair I've always worked in pretty rotten towns or cities and Peterborough is no worse than the others. So, sorry if I offend but I don't suppose I'm the first to be unflattering about the city!)
~~But first, a bit of history~~
Peterborough Cathedral has had a tough time over the centuries - it's not a building I'd want to insure because it's had more than its share of bad luck. Back in the 7th century, somewhere around 655 there was a 'monastic church' on the current site of the cathedral. Let me just get you to stop and think about that again - 655, that's really very early - think about it, most of us were probably running round with bones in our noses at the time.
The Vikings came along a couple of centuries later and destroyed the church in 870. Just over a hundred years later a Benedictine monastery was built on the site which in turn burnt down in 1116. Undaunted, the present cathedral was then put up between 1118 and 1238. They popped a porch on in the 14th century, built the eastern extension somewhere round about 1500 and in 1539 Henry the Eighth shut the monastery only for it to reopen two years later as the Cathedral of Peterborough. Hold that thought about Henry the 8th, he'll pop up again in this review.
During the Civil War the cathedral took a battering - Cromwell's boys destroyed the Cloisters, the Lady Chapel and the Chapter House. The Victorians added the beautiful wooden choir stalls and tarted up some other bits of the interior and as recently as the 1960s and 70s small changes were also added. Just when you think nothing else can go wrong, along came a fire in 2001 to mess things up all over again.
~Where is it? How can I find it? ~
Peterborough is slap-bang in the middle of 'nowhere in particular', just off the A1. The cathedral is slap-bang in the middle of Peterborough. If you are coming in to the city just follow the signs and you really shouldn't miss it. There's lots of parking - just follow the signs and ask if you get lost.
The cathedral sits just off what's known as Cathedral Square - characterised by a very pretty old Guildhall (that'll be the place with bored looking teenagers smoking, looking hard and discussing the terms of their ASBOs) and lots of burger vans scenting the air with the aroma of fried onions. Look for the Starbucks on the left and a cute little shop called Reba on the right of the entrance to the cathedral close. As you go under the arch there's a café on the left that serves drinks and nice meals and down some steps you can go to the cathedral shop and a more general tourist office.
~Let's go and have a look~
First impressions as I stepped into the cathedral close were 'Well the grounds aren't much to write home about'. That's my Salisbury superiority factor coming through again - we have acres of beautiful grass and splendid old mansions. The poor cathedral feels a bit encroached upon - like a grand lady being jostled by the riff raff.
Right ahead of you is the imposing West Front, which at the moment is sadly half-covered in scaffolding. This was built in the 13th century and is gothic in style. There are three arches and each has a figure at the top - St Peter, St Paul and St Andrew. These are the patron saints of the cathedral. You enter the cathedral through a door in the middle arch - this porch was apparently added later to stop the pillars of the arches buckling.
Into the cathedral and no sooner was the door closed, than a very nice lady leapt up from her desk to come and meet us. She wore a badge saying 'welcomer' and true to the job description, she did make us feel very welcome. She gave us a small pamphlet, asked if we wanted to take photos (there's a camera charge of £1.50) and told us that even though there was a service in progress, we were free to wander around but should avoid using flash photography until they had finished.
Our first impressions on entering - very positive and very welcomed. Oh and what beautiful natural light.
We set off to head clockwise round the cathedral - have you ever noticed that everyone always seems to do that? Does it tempt the devil to go widdershins or something like that? So starting at the very beginning - spiritually and sort of geographically - there's the font. Tucked in a corner near the door , it's a fine example of architectural salvage. Allegedly 13th Century but it was found in a garden in the 19th century. Waste not want not, as they say.
Next we headed down the left side of the main nave - the middle section being used for the service. Along this section there are lots of display boards telling the story of the cathedral. Immediately I felt lost without my school worksheet and clipboard - it was just crying out for a bit of note taking. Sadly you can't see the walls behind which is a slight shame - I always like a good look at who's buried or commemorated in the walls. I learned from this display that the Saxon church in my village - a good 40 miles from Peterborough - was a daughter house of the original Peterborough community.
We sat down for a while and listened to the end of the service. When they had finished and the crowd dispersed or gone for tea and buns in the South Transept, we stepped into the main part of the nave and looked up at the ceiling. This is absolutely stunning. It's a painted wooden ceiling that's said to be unique in England and one of only 4 in Europe. It was originally painted in 1230 and is more than twice as big as the next largest. I've got to admit I was impressed. Contrasting with the age of the ceiling, the next thing you notice is a very modern crucifix hanging from the ceiling, which dates to 1975.
Next we walked down the middle through the choir stalls - these are beautifully carved and Victorian in age. At the end of the stalls we were under the central tower and looked up to find another fine painted ceiling, At this point it hit me just how long the cathedral was - there was still another section ahead of us and we'd only just reached the 'cross-bar' of the north and south transepts.
The North transept houses the 'Treasury' which, when you go in and see all the silver, glass and other valuable, reminds you that a treasury is (rather obviously) the place to keep your treasures.
~ The Tomb of Katherine of Aragon~
The next significant stop on our way round got me really quite choked with emotion. This is the tomb of Katherine of Aragon, the first wife of Henry VIII. I will hold my hands up and admit to total ignorance about Katherine - yes, I would have figured out she was Spanish but that's as far as my guessing would have gone. So for the sake of others whose schooling missed out the Tudors (and please indulge me if you know this already) I'll just summarise what happened.
Katherine was sent over from Spain to marry Henry's elder brother who was heir to the throne. However he died shortly after the wedding and left her as a widow. Apparently she and Henry then fell in love - he was 18, she was 23 - but nobody was too sure about the etiquette of her marrying her dead husband's younger brother so they asked the Pope for advice. Trouble was that there was no evidence either way of whether the original marriage had been consummated. The Pope gave permission for Katherine and Henry to marry and they did, remaining together for 20 years. However, Katherine produced a daughter, Mary Tudor, but despite many attempts was unable to give Henry an living male heir. Henry became convinced that this was a punishment from God for marrying his brother's widow.
Now to cut a long story short, (and to cover up that I get a bit woolly on the sequence of events), Henry fell for Anne Boleyn, created the Church of England with himself as the head, decided the Pope had no right to have given permission for his original marriage and so dissolved it. Poor Katherine was out on her ear after 20 years of marriage and saw her role demoted from Queen to Princess Dowager (a status based on her position as the widow of her first husband). History tells that she never stopped loving Henry and watched quietly from the sidelines as the silly man proceeded to divorce and execute his way through a few more women in pursuit of a son and a bit of hanky panky.
When Katherine died at Kimbolton Castle in 1536, Henry refused to have her body taken to Westminster Abbey because she was only a Princess Dowager and she was buried in Peterborough Cathedral.
When I finished reading all of this in the small exhibition I turned round to look for the grave. A small dark stone stands just a couple of inches above the floor with a vase of flowers on it. In brass letters above is written 'Katherine Queen of England'. Even though she was only recognised as a Princess Dowager at the time, the cathedral gives her the status she should have been due. And that's what got me all choked up.
Leaving Katherine behind, we headed on to the far end of the cathedral to the Eastern Building - otherwise known as the 'New Building' because it's only 500 years old. There are two fancy things to notice here - the vaulted stone ceiling which was designed by the architect who did Kings College Chapel in Cambridge, and the Monks Stone (or Hedda Stone) which is one of the few things remaining from the original 7th century church.
Turning the corner and heading back up the cathedral we stopped to look at the painted figures on the ceiling above the Apse. The original paintings were destroyed during the Civil War by soldiers acting for Oliver Cromwell. The other thing to look out for in this section is the former grave of Mary Queen of Scots. She was imprisoned and executed at Fotheringhay Castle in the village of Fotheringhay, a few miles down the A605. Her body was then embalmed and left unburied in Fotheringhay for over a year before it was moved to Peterborough Cathedral. Her dying wish had been to be buried in France so Peterborough must have been quite an insult. Her body was moved to Westminster Abbey more than 20 years later when her son became King.
From this side of the cathedral you can step outside to see the cloisters - we didn't so I can't say anything about them. There are a number of smaller chapels in the South Transept but we'd seen plenty by this stage and were ready to head out into the rain again.
~Opening Hours and costs ~
Monday to Friday 09:00 to 18:30
Saturday 09:00 to 17:00
Sunday 07:30 to 17:00
There is no entrance fee for the cathedral and no pressure applied to give a donation, however most visitors may want to leave some money and a board near the entrance suggests what might be appropriate - but you can leave whatever you want.
~Do I recommend a visit?~
It's a stunning cathedral with some really interesting things to see - I very much enjoyed our visit and came away with a sense of 'How did something that fantastic end up in Peterborough?' Would I go out of my way to visit if I wasn't in the area? Possibly not - but with a bit of pre-research to track down the main attractions, I think you could make a good day out of a visit to Fotheringhay, Peterborough Cathedral and then off to Stamford town or Burghley Hall.