Peterborough

On my previous visit to Peterborough Cathedral in January of 2004 it was still possible to detect the acrid smell of burnt plastic, lingering reminder of a fire which on the 22nd of November 2001 came close to depriving the world of a unique piece of architectural heritage. Although I might be a exaggerating the seriousness of the fire, which was detected at an early stage in a pile of chairs where it appeared to have been started deliberately, the importance of the building itself cannot be overstated.

The Great West Front with its three magnificent, 85 foot high arches is like nothing else in Christendom and the painted wooden ceiling, likewise dating from the 13th Century, is the only surviving example from that period in Britain. But however fascinating it may be to marvel at the specifications, it is the unobstructed view of the interior from West to East that truly impresses. For once, there can be no disputing the calibre of the Victorian restoration and the removal of any type of screen between the nave, sanctuary and apse was a bold but successful move. Some of the former Abbots, who served in an age when mystery had to be maintained and parishioners were strictly divided from the clergy during worship, may be turning in their graves but not for nothing do so many people count this cathedral as a firm favourite.

The Saxon Abbey of St Peter was founded in the 7th Century and went through the usual depredations of fire and ruin, whether by accident or invasion, for five hundred years until 1116 when the current building was begun. Its construction took so long it spanned several architectural developments; so much so that even a novice can detect the difference between the round (Romanesque) arches of the nave and transepts and the pointed (early Gothic) arches of the West Front. The fact that a porch in yet another style (Perpendicular) had to be added a couple of hundred years later in an attempt to counteract a pronounced forward lean just makes it even more interesting.

It was not until after the Reformation that Henry VIII made St Peter’s Abbey into a cathedral in 1541 and while some might believe it was because his first wife had recently been interred here, it probably had more to do with his own personal aggrandisement. For the rest of Henry’s lifetime, poor Catherine of Aragon was referred to only as the widow of his brother, Prince Arthur. In 1587 she was joined by Mary Queen of Scots, buried here after having been beheaded at nearby Fotheringhay Castle. Although the latter was subsequently moved to Westminster Abbey when her son ascended to the throne of England, both Queens are commemorated with all due dignity at Peterborough cathedral. Well, that is if you allow for the fact that Old Scarlett, the grave digger who buried both of them, gets not one but two portraits above the main entrance.

This gallery of pictures from last month’s visit illustrates some of the fascinating historical titbits which make a visit so much more fun than any dry catalogue of ecclesiastical architecture. I make no apology for interspersing my pictures with plenty of human touches. If some of the finest fan vaulting in the country cannot cope with the juxtaposition of a papier mache nativity camel then it has no business in a place of Christian worship.

Leave a Reply