Peterborough Cathedral

Posted by admin | March 29, 2012 4
Peterborough Cathedral (1118–1375), the Early English Gothic West Front.

Many times I have charged on an express train through Peterborough on the East Coast Main Line between London and Edinburgh wondering slightly as the station sign flashes by what the town was like. I knew vague snippets; the once illustrious travel company Thomas Cook is based there, it has been a New Town since 1967, the famous Perkins diesel engines were made here and somewhere there was a Cathedral. These are perfectly proper thoughts as you go through the station for it was the 1850 opening of the Great Northern Railway’s main line from London to York that transformed Peterborough from a market town to an industrial centre. Lord Exeter, the local big wig, had opposed the railway passing through Stamford, so Peterborough, situated between two main terminals at London and Doncaster, increasingly developed as a regional hub.


The Guildhall or Butter Cross (1669–1671), Cathedral Square, Peterborough.


Built on the line in Cambridgeshire where the River Nene leaves permanently drained land for the marshy Fens it has been an important stop on the Great North Road from St. Pauls Cathedral to Edinburgh.  Going into the town you come to Cathedral Square, formerly the bustling market place in front of the Cathedral but now cleared of stalls and centred on the Guildhall or Butter Cross (1669–1671) it is a fine appetiser for the great feast, the remarkable Romanesque cathedral beyond. However the true nature of the building is not yet apparent for looking through the Norman gateway into the precinct the eye is led onwards to the three huge Gothic Arches of the West Front.


You are naturally drawn through this impressive gateway, into the cathedral close and towards these remarkable arches.  However when you enter this huge and now, after restoration, light edifice through these great gothic arches you realise that this is not a gothic cathedral.  Rather its genesis can be read clearly in the arched stonework, this is Norman Romanesque echoing the Benedictine mother house at Cluny for it was originally founded as a Benedictine Abbey. Today it is one of the 26 great medieval cathedrals of England with its patrimony enhanced not just by its antiquity and somewhat miraculous survival but also by being the original resting place of two Queens pivotal in history, one a princess of Aragon who was Queen of England and one a Queen of France who became Queen of Scotland. The walls of this huge and ancient foundation just breathe history.


Founded in 655 the first church on the site was the seventh century foundation of a Celtic abbey by Abbot Saxulf and linked to King Peada, the first Christian King of Mercia. Peterborough Cathedral was built in the 12th and 13th Centuries and has a unique Gothic facade. It has had a chequered and at times precarious existence. Founded as a Benedictine Abbey on the site of the earlier Saxon church and re-consecrated in 972, it burned down in an accidental fire in 1116 and was 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.


Cathedral Plan



A Gothic screen was also added to the Norman nave at Peterborough on the West Front, but this is an architectural oddity with no precedent or successor. The screen is composed of three enormous open arches, the two outer ones being much wider than the one which frames the central door. The overwhelming composition is somewhat spoilt by the later porch and the fact that two towers of very different height pop up from behind the screen. Despite this, it is regarded as one of the supreme masterpieces of Gothic, revealing the enormous diversity and imagination of English medieval architects.


Construction of the Cathedral



Inside the cathedral is the grave of one of the most important Queens of England, often and wrongly dismissed as an historical footnote to the “Seven wives of Henry VIII.” Little could she have known what life held for her when she was born in 1485 to their Catholic Majesties, Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile. By the time she was 15 her parents had united Spain, expelled the Moors and sent Christopher Columbus to discover the Americas. All their children were betrothed in dynastic marriages designed to cement the influence of Castile and Leon. Imagine what it must have been like for this 15 year old girl who had spent her teen years growing up in the Alhambra Palace in Granada to be sent in 1501 with a huge dowry to wed, in an arranged marriage, a prince she had never seen, the son and heir of Henry VII of England, Arthur, Prince of Wales. Katharine was never to see her parents or Spain again.

The Royal Standards of England and Castile
mark Katharine of Aragon’s grave. 

Her nephew was Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor 
and most powerful ruler in Europe, which is why Henry VIII 
treated her with great care. Charles son, Philip II, was later to 
marry Katharine’s daughter Mary and later still to 
launch the Armada against
Ann Boleyn’s daughter, Elizabeth I.


Katharine of Aragon



Katharine 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 Katharine and Henry to marry and they did, remaining together for 20 years. However, Katharine produced a daughter, Mary Tudor, but despite many attempts was unable to give Henry a living male heir. Henry became convinced that this was a punishment from God for marrying his brother’s widow.

A C17 engraving of the North Front by Daniel King


Katharine was Queen consort of England as the first wife of King Henry VIII of England and Princess of Wales as the wife to Arthur, Prince of Wales. In 1507, she also held the position of Ambassador for the Spanish Court in England when her father found himself without one, becoming the first female ambassador in European history. For six months, she served as regent of England while Henry VIII was in France. During that time the English won the Battle of Flodden, an event in which Catherine played an important part. The controversial book “The Education of Christian Women” by Juan Luis Vives, which claimed women have the right to an education, was dedicated to and commissioned by her. Such was Katharine’s impression on people, that even her enemy, Thomas Cromwell, said of her “If not for her sex, she could have defied all the heroes of History.” She successfully appealed for the lives of the rebels involved in the Evil May Day for the sake of their families. Furthermore, Katharine won widespread admiration by starting an extensive programme for the relief of the poor. She was also a patron of Renaissance humanism, and a friend of the great scholars Erasmus of Rotterdam and Saint Thomas More.


Memorial to Nurse Edith Cavell, executed
for treason by Germany, Brussels  1915



Now to cut a long story short, Henry fell for Anne Boleyn, a lady in waiting in the retinue of Queen Katharine, having discarded her sister Mary who had been his mistress, 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 Katharine 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.



Henry’s preoccupation with a male heir was not unfounded. The Tudors were still a relatively new dynasty and their legitimacy was open to challenge. Before Henry’s father ascended the throne, England was beset by civil warfare over rival claims to the English crown, and Henry may have wanted to avoid a similar uncertainty over the succession. A long civil war (1135–54) had been fought the last time a woman, (Empress Matilda), had inherited the throne. The disasters of civil war were still fresh in living memory from the Wars of the Roses. It should be remembered that Henry was married to Katharine for 20 years and in total to his other wives for 14 years.



The painted ceiling of the Cathedral



When Katharine died at Kimbolton Castle in 1536, Henry refused to have her body taken to Westminster Abbey because she was only a Princess Dowager (her title as widow of Arthur) and she was buried in Peterborough Cathedral. Her grave can still be seen and is nowadays honoured by visitors and often decorated with flowers and pomegranates (her symbol). Her daughter Mary was to reign as Queen for five years. Her first act was to pass a law cancelling the annulment of Katharine’s marriage to Henry and restoring to her the title “Queen of England.” Henry VIII had not ruled on the annulment himself but that had been done at Dunstable Priory by the Boleyn’s family’s former chaplain, now Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer. “Bloody Mary” was to have him burnt at the stake in Oxford.  Katharine’s grave in the cathedral carries the legend “Katharine Queen of England”, the title she was denied at the time of her death.


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, King James I of England (James VI of Scotland), became King.



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.


Today, like all these medieval cathedrals what impresses about Peterborough is the sheer scale of the cathedral and precincts. The huge sturdiness of this impressive structure speaks of the resources devoted by the community to building it over hundreds of years. With its majestic West Front and atmospheric interior this Norman Cathedral is rich in beauty, history and culture. As a visitor attraction it is well run with excellent guides and displays, precincts and cloisters. It has a very good café in the precinct and shop in the cathedral. It doesn’t charge for entry but asks for voluntary donations and the vergers are particularly helpful, including the one from Castile we spoke to.

History speaks to you from every stone for like all these cathedrals this was originally Catholic but after Henry VIII’s break from Rome was vested in the Church of England. Each year in January the cathedral holds a service attended by the Spanish Ambassador and dignitaries for the intriguing Queen, Katharine of Aragon, whose divorce from Henry VIII changed the course of English history and indeed the religion of most of its inhabitants.


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