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The History and Architecture of Peterborough Cathedral

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"The History and Architecture of Peterborough Cathedral"
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Peterborough Cathedral is perhaps the second finest Norman church in England after Durham Cathedral, and is certainly one of the least altered. The city of Peterborough, in north Cambridgeshire, has relatively few attractions for the visitor, but the cathedral makes the trip very worthwhile.

• History

A monastery dedicated to St Peter was built in 656, but this was sacked by the Danes in 870. The Bishop of Winchester built a replacement a century later but this was destroyed by fire in 1117. The core of the present cathedral was begun on the same site, as an abbey church, in 1118 and completed in 1143. To this was added the cathedral nave, built between 1194 and 1197. The bulk of the cathedral was therefore built in the Romanesque style. Local limestone from Barnack near Stamford (the monks owned the quarry) was used in the construction.

However, the west front of the cathedral, which is one of the most dramatic such fronts in medieval architecture anywhere, is more Gothic in conception, having been added as an afterthought some ten years after the rest of the building was complete. Indeed, it appears that the original front was remodelled while it was still under construction, for reasons that are still a mystery. The small Galilee chapel at the centre of the west front was added in 1370.

Although Peterborough Cathedral was built as part of a monastic site there are only vestiges to be seen today of any other abbey buildings (notably the walls of the cloisters). It was at the time of the Dissolution of the Monasteries, in 1541, that the Anglican Diocese of Peterborough was created, and the abbey church was preserved to become the seat of the new Bishop of Peterborough. The decision was probably helped by the fact that King Henry VIII’s first wife, Queen Catherine of Aragon, had been buried in the Cathedral in 1536 (and her tomb can still be visited).

The central tower dates from the 14th century but had to be rebuilt in the 1880s.

The far east end of the Cathedral is a spacious retro-choir that was built around 1500 in late Perpendicular style with magnificent fan vaulting.

Along with many other English cathedrals and churches, Peterborough Cathedral suffered from the vandalism of Cromwell’s soldiers, in Peterborough’s case in 1643. However, the loss of medieval stained glass, choir stalls and monuments, as well as a massive high altar, have left the cathedral with a much lighter and airier appearance and feel than might be expected from a Romanesque building.

• Cathedral Exterior

The main feature of interest is the west front, which is 156 feet wide and therefore wider than the nave that opens behind it. The dominant feature is a trio of arches which are 81 feet high and deeply recessed with rich mouldings. The central arch is narrower, and therefore more pointed than the other two, although the gables surmounting the arches are of the same height and angle of point.

The effect of the front is enhanced by two small towers at either end, thus giving the front a pleasing symmetry of five vertical elements that alternate between narrow and broad. Spires were added to the towers in the 14th century.

However, a jarring note was introduced by the building of a square tower behind the front on the north side that is unmatched by a similar tower on the south side (there is a tower base but it is not built to the same height as on the north side and is therefore not easily seen from ground level). When looking at the west front one is struck by the tower peeping, off-centre, over the top of the façade. One feels that having no towers in this position would have been better than having two.

Another feature that detracts from the perfection of the west front is the Galilee chapel, or entrance porch, that is set in front of the central arch. This was possibly built as a means of adding support to the pillars of this arch, and it is not unattractive in its own right, but the visitor will rightly wonder what the front would have looked like without this intrusion.

Apart from the west front, Peterborough Cathedral is not of great architectural merit when viewed from outside, although the three tiers of windows on the south transept are impressive and represent the oldest part of the building.

• Cathedral Interior

The nave is typical of Romanesque cathedral naves in having a three-decker set of well-proportioned round arches rising from solid pillars, with aisles on either side. At Peterborough the pillars are not as massive and imposing as at Durham, for example, being multiple-shafted. The side aisles are stone-vaulted with massive ribs, but the main nave is not, and this is where Peterborough’s chief treasure lies.

The nave ceiling is wooden and painted, the decoration having been applied between 1230 and 1250. Although the paint has been restored twice in the Cathedral’s history, the geometrical pattern is as it was originally designed and it is therefore one of only four such ceilings of this date to have survived in all of western Europe, and the only one in Britain. It is work of very high quality and well worth the effort of the journey for this feature alone.

The ceiling of the presbytery area of the choir was one of the features desecrated by Cromwell’s troops and was among the restorations made in the 19th century by Sir George Gilbert Scott. Although not all Victorian restorations of English cathedrals were done with particular sympathy to the original design, the work at Peterborough does seem to have bucked the trend. In particular, the painting of the semi-circular apse ceiling (which formed the end of the cathedral before the retro-choir was added) was very well executed. It shows Christ in glory surrounded by apostles, with their haloes and surrounding script picked out in gold.

The whole of the tower, presbytery and choir area was restored under Scott, including new choir stalls, marble paving, bishop’s cathedra and high altar.

The fan vaulting of the retro-choir is exceptionally fine and was almost certainly the work of John Wastell, who would later create the vaulting at King’s College Chapel in Cambridge. It is notable (here and at King’s College) that the fans are not complete semi-circles but bump into each other at the sides, although they meet their opposite numbers at the mid-line of the ceiling without interruption. This is an excellent example of how artistic perfection must sometimes be compromised for the sake of engineering safety, because the purpose of a vault is to support the weight of a roof and distribute stresses, but the Peterborough fan vaults make this compromise in a way that is still extremely pleasing to the eye.

A visit to Peterborough Cathedral is almost certainly going to be a rewarding one, for anyone who appreciates fine proportions, clean lines and unfussy decoration.


• Clifton-Taylor, A. The Cathedrals of England. Thames and Hudson, 1967.

• The Rough Guide to England. 8th ed. 2008.

More about this author: John Welford

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