The origins of the Cathedral Church of St Peter, St Paul and St Andrew hark back to 655 AD when the site was one of the earliest monastic settlements in central England. All went on swimmingly until 854 when the Viking “Great Heathen Army” led by “Ivar the Boneless” laid waste to East Anglia. A Benedictine monastery was refounded on the site between 966 and 970, where it played host to King Harold’s army en route from York to defeat at the Battle of Hastings in 1066.

In 1070, the unfortunate monastery was relieved of much of its wealth by another gang of Danish marauders eager to prevent the newly installed Norman Abbot from getting his hands on it. A year later, King William countered by extending his policy of protecting abbeys and cathedrals and built a motte and bailey castle on the north side of the monastic grounds, installing sixty knights to keep the peace. 

The current building commenced in 1118 after a fire in 1116 destroyed the monastery and much of the nearby town. When King Henry II appointed Abbott Benedict in 1177, he inherited a partially finished church in a greatly indebted monastery on the edge of the watery fens. The previous abbot, William of Waterville, had been deposed two years earlier on trumped-up charges, though he was guilty of borrowing money for building without visible means of repayment. During the period without an abbot, all the dues had been paid to the King rather than the monastery, compounding the reduction in revenues occasioned by the Norman knights taking over a large section of the monastery lands. The finances were in a parlous state; uh, thanks, Henry!!

Previously Chancellor to the Archbishop of Canterbury and Prior to the monastery there, Abbott Benedict had been in Canterbury when Thomas à Becket was murdered. He knew well the power of relics in assisting with financial rehabilitation. At Peterborough, Benedict needed to do two things: finish building the abbey church and restore order and prosperity to the monastery. He lingered in his new post for only a few days before vanishing back to Canterbury, taking one monk with him. There he purloined some relics of Thomas à Becket, including his shirt, surplice, two vials of blood and some of the floor stones from the site of the murder, returning with them to Peterborough. Cheeky, no?

During his time as Chancellor at Canterbury, Benedict had overseen the rebuilding of the choir following a disastrous fire, employing the latest technique: the pointed arches and slim columns of the Gothic style. He was determined to inject some of this elegance into the partially completed church in Peterborough. The original Norman front was to have two west towers, but only the northern one and the base of the southern one had been completed when Benedict arrived from Canterbury.

Nothing says “pilgrim attraction” like a venerated saint’s relics, and there was no time to waste. Benedict did not bother dismantling the existing western front but slapped a new Gothic one in front of it.

The result is three pointed arches over deep recesses that seem to have been carved out of the front. It’s magnificent but also a bit odd. One would expect the central arch to be the largest, as at Lincoln Cathedral; here, it is the smallest, causing the central gable (the triangle above the arch) to look squashed between the ones on either side. The doors and windows in the large side arches aren’t centred; they appear to be struggling for a good viewing position, like a child with an ill-fitting Halloween mask. Finally, the square towers on each end have non-matching spires.



The central porch, with its Perpendicular window, was added in the 14th century.

What we see today is largely the structure completed in 1238.

Stepping inside, we are greeted by almost entirely Norman architecture. The bays are defined by the size of the arches at the lowest level. The layer above, the triforium, is double-arched. The third level, the clerestory, has three stepped arches (a larger central one flanked by two smaller ones). Quite an engineering feat, isn’t it?

Above is the earliest of English cathedral ceilings, dating from c1250.

Each lozenge (diamond shape) contains an image—they run the gamut from kings to grotesques to animals playing instruments. In England’s Cathedrals, Simon Jenkins likens it to a carpet in the air.

It was waay, waaay up, but I managed to capture a few shots; it’s hard to hold the camera steady enough to get a really clear image against such a dark background.

While researching for the blog, I found a reference to a book in Princeton University’s collection.

The book contains a chromolithographic reproduction of the ceiling. A bit of introductory text precedes a single folded sheet containing seven panels, which reach slightly over 6 feet when unfurled.

From Princeton’s website:

The plate is signed by the lithographers, Day & Son, and by the painter/lithographer John Sleigh (active 1819-1881, sometimes written John Sliegh). The architect and watercolorist William Strickland is recorded as working in London in 1839. It is conceivable that such a complex project might have taken ten years to complete; copying the ceiling, transferring the designs to multiple lithographic stones, and printing the plates. The color registration alone is an astonishing tour de force. Princeton now holds only one of five copies in this country.

How great is that? I think a reproduction would make fabulous wallpaper.

Let’s turn now and visit the choir, which, unusually, is to the west of the crossing at Peterborough and comprises two bays.

You can see the choir labelled on the floor plan below. The nave stretches for ten bays (the spaces in between columns, depicted in orange), including the two occupied by the choir.

To get a real sense of how long the nave is, note that you can just glimpse the brown choir stalls way in the distance down the centre aisle. They must have moved the font at some point because it used to be to the right, just inside the main doors. Now it’s smack dab in the centre.


While I love getting photos without people in them, you get a real perspective on the actual height of the building by comparing someone standing beside one of the pillars. Glenn, patient as ever, is happy to oblige.

The great west window.

The vaulted ceiling of one of the side aisles.

Peterborough Cathedral is home to the tomb of Catherine of Aragon, the first of Henry VIII’s six wives (spelt Katharine in this instance). An abbreviated backstory: though Catherine had six pregnancies over the course of her 24-year marriage to Henry VIII, their only living child was a daughter, future Queen Mary (aka Bloody Mary). Henry was desperate for a son to secure the succession, and his roving eye had already lighted on Anne Boleyn (ironically, one of his wife Catherine’s ladies-in-waiting). Henry requested that the Pope annul his marriage with Catherine; the Pope refused. Henry broke from the Catholic church in 1532 and proclaimed himself the Supreme Head of the Church in England. His marriage to Catherine was then declared null and void. Henry promptly married Anne Boleyn in January 1533.

Catherine was banished to progressively less salubrious accommodation, starting with More Manor in Hertfordshire, onto Buckden Towers and finally, Kimbolton Castle, where she died on January 7, 1536, most likely of cancer.

Peterborough Abbey was the nearest great religious house appropriate to Catherine’s station, and the King ordered that she be buried there. This neatly avoided having a politically fraught burial in London, where the King was residing with his exceedingly unpopular new wife, Anne Boleyn. It must have been rather annoying for Henry that having gone to all that trouble, their much-anticipated child was another daughter, future Queen Elizabeth I.

The comings and goings of Henry’s wives really began to pick up speed at this point. Henry’s self-styled divorce from Catherine had not gone down well with the populace, and he likely reckoned he wouldn’t get away with another one so soon. Instead, he fell on the time-honoured method of disposing of inconvenient persons: charges of treason leading to execution—no second ex-wife cluttering up the landscape. Henry went one further: Anne was beheaded (along with her father, her brother and several other male friends and relatives) on May 19, 1536, all on trumped-up charges of treason, adultery and incest. Eleven days later, Henry married Jane Seymour (one of Anne Boleyn’s ladies-in-waiting – are we noticing a pattern here?). Jane died in October of 1537 of complications following the birth of their son, the future King Edward VI.

Wife #4, Anne of Cleves, lasted less than six months—married and divorced in 1540. Henry married Catherine Howard nineteen days after that—she lasted until November 1541, when she was stripped of her title and beheaded in February 1542. Henry once again invoked charges of treason for committing adultery. Henry paused for a little over a year before marrying Catherine Parr, his sixth wife (and third Catherine), in July of 1543. She outlasted him—Henry VIII died in January of 1547, but not before wreaking havoc on more than his wives. Not content with proclaiming himself the Supreme Head of the Church in England, he embarked on the Dissolution of the Monasteries, disbanding more than 800 monasteries, priories, convents and friaries, expropriating their income, disposing of their assets and ending the livelihoods of more than 14,000 monks, nuns and friars, and countless monastic servants and tenants.

At the time of the Dissolution of the Monasteries (1536-1539), what we know today as Peterborough Cathedral was Peterborough Abbey church. So how did it escape the destruction suffered by many of its brethren, like Glastonbury and Fountains Abbey? A lot of the credit goes to John Chambers, Peterborough Abbey’s last Abbot (1525-1539) and Peterborough Cathedral’s first Bishop (1541-1556). Chambers was astutely political—adroit and pragmatic. When Richard Cromwell, nephew of Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII’s chief minister, arrived demanding the keys to the abbey, Chambers handed them over without demur, acutely aware of the fate of others who had refused and paid the price with their lives.

Chambers was appointed “guardian of the temporalities” or, in modern parlance, custodian of the buildings. He received a pension and became a royal chaplain.

Then, in 1541 Henry VIII created six new dioceses with attendant cathedrals (Bristol, Chester, Gloucester, Oxford, Peterborough and Westminster), effectively reducing the political reach of a number of existing bishops. The see of Lincoln, one of the largest of the old dioceses, stretched from the River Humber to the Thames, and it particularly stuck in Henry’s craw, The new diocese of Peterborough neatly cut the ground (literally) out from under the Bishop of Lincoln.

Thus John Chambers was created Bishop of Peterborough; he not only survived but thrived. Through three reigns at a time of unprecedented religious turmoil: the Dissolution of the Monasteries, the extensive further evangelical changes wrought by Henry’s son, Edward VI, and the beginning of the bloody counter-reformation under Henry’s eldest daughter, Mary, from his marriage to Catherine of Aragon.

Mary, Queen of Scots (cousin of Queen Elizabeth I), was buried here after her execution in 1587, which took place at nearby Fotheringhay Castle. Mary’s son, King James I, later had her remains exhumed and reburied in Westminster Abbey.

The Parliamentarians wrought havoc on the fabric of the Cathedral in 1643. The original choir stalls and nearly all the stained glass were destroyed. All but three of the misericords were demolished.

What you see here was created in 1883 under the direction of the meticulous John Longborough Pearson—If you couldn’t get George Gilbert Scott, Pearson was your man.

Now we are looking through the choir into the presbytery beyond.

If we walk through the choir, we will arrive at the crossing, with the North and South transepts jutting out on either side.

The transepts are quite large, as you can see – four bays on each side and three windows at the end (on the left)

Moving back into the crossing, we look up into the tower.

This shot, from Historic England’s website, looks across the north and south transepts, which are three window-filled levels high. I imagine this photo is taken from the watching gallery, designed to keep a beady eye on what had been (until the blood of Thomas á Becket arrived) Peterborough’s most prized relic, the arm of King and, later, Saint Oswald, the first Christian monarch of Northumbria (633-42).

The market for relics must always have been a bit sketchy because, like Becket’s bits, St. Oswald’s arm also came to Peterborough under a cloud. In 1000, a monk from Peterborough Abbey purloined it from Bamburgh Castle in an effort to curry favour with his Abbot. I get a vision of a monk opening his trenchcoat to display various limbs on offer, much as thieves of today sell stolen watches. But, honestly, who does that?

We are now looking into the presbytery or sanctuary.

The high altar is tucked beneath a pink marble Victorian Baldacchino.

It’s a bit over the top for the severely Norman surroundings.

But I’ll forgive anything to enjoy the ceiling over the aspidal end of the sanctuary.

Isn’t it lovely? Nestled high above three levels of windows.

We will now go beyond the sanctuary to the easternmost part of the Cathedral, the retrochoir.

Here we find glorious fan vaulting. I think I spent more time looking up at Peterborough than any other cathedral I’ve visited.

This lovely ceiling was constructed between 1496 and 1509 when Abbot Kirkton oversaw the building of the retrochoir, designed by John Wastell, who also created King’s College Chapel in Cambridge; indeed, it looks very similar.



We have now traversed the building from west to east. Unlike a lot of cathedrals, Peterborough doesn’t have a lot of side chapels down the aisles for us to explore, so let’s go outside and look at the cloisters, the outer walls of which remain. The inner walls were destroyed during the Civil War.

Around the south and east end of the Cathedral are the remains of some of the former monastic buildings, which have been re-purposed over the years—some are houses, and others are used as offices.

Thus ends our tour of Peterborough Cathedral. I hope you enjoyed it. We are going for a pint!