The Cathedral Gardeners: Winter Interest

by Rob Glover & Rachel Hancock

As we approach Spring, I’ve looked at some key plants we have in the Cathedral gardens to keep them colourful and interesting throughout the season, when other plants are only just starting to wake up.


Dogwood plants can have fantastic fiery stems, in shades of red, yellow and orange. When grown together they have an effect where the stems seem to almost glow.

This year we have added Cornus sanguinea to our wildflower area. The addition of the wildflower meadow at the East End of the Cathedral last summer was a huge success, however as most meadow plants are annuals (flower for one year only) or herbaceous perennials (die back over winter), the area risked being less inspiring over winter. We have added Cornus, to add some colour and height during the winter months.

If you choose to cultivate your dogwood to have winter interest stems, you will first need to allow the plant to establish, about two years, then each spring you can cut back hard. This is because the new growth on the plant is what has the bright colouring. By cutting right back you will encourage more of the vibrant new growth. This can be done down to 2-3inches from the ground.


Daphne’s are a compact fragrant shrub with yellow, pink or white flowers. The variety we have at the Cathedral ‘Eternal Fragrance’ is still covered in pale pink flowers as I am writing this in February, and the evergreen leaves have stayed glossy all winter. We have planted these alongside a path so that visitors can enjoy the strong fragrance.

Daphne’s are a slow growing, compact shrub, ideal for a smaller garden that require no pruning.

When little else is flowering it is a delight to walk past these deep green leaves covered with delicate flowers.

Evergreen trees and shrubs

Evergreen trees and shrubs are a reliable way to ensure the garden doesn’t look bare in winter. On the West Front of the Cathedral we have groups of large pots with evergreen plants, including

– Phormium

– Olea europaea (Olive trees)

– Laurus nobilis (Bay tree)

– Carex grass

In Spring we add pots of daffodils and tulips to these displays, but the evergreen plants ensure there is something to be enjoyed all year round.

If you’d like to learn more about what it takes to manage a heritage garden why not book onto our gardening workshop on the 2nd May. See website for further details!

The Cathedral Gardeners: Spring Bulbs

by Rob Glover & Rachel Hancock

Early Spring Bulbs

As the colder months are passing, the early spring bulbs are beginning to appear! Although the colourful, louder bulbs of later spring and early summer never fail to put on an amazing show, the smaller, earlier spring bulbs are a wonderful sign that everything is starting to return after the winter months and the delicate, interesting shapes are beautiful.


Last autumn we added 1,000 crocus bulbs to our North Lawn, which already had over 2,000 planted from the previous year. This was inspired by the rotary club’s Purple4Polio campaign to raise awareness of their work to end polio. These are just starting to pop up (although some popping up elsewhere suggests a few squirrels might have been at work) and over the rest of the month will create a beautiful display on the lawn.

Winter Aconite

In the South-East corner we have had a golden carpet of winter aconite (Eranthis sp.). A visitor shared with us an old tale that winter aconites flower where Roman blood was spilt. As archaeological evidence has shown that there may have been a Roman temple or arch on the site prior to the Cathedrals construction, it is an interesting theory.


Amongst the aconites are swathes of snowdrops (Galanthus sp.). There are many different species of snowdrops – the double ones in particular have a gorgeous flower – although as they hang downwards you might need to have a good look to find them.


While fewer in number, the irises around the Cathedral gardens are absolutely stunning. Although they only flower for a short period, the intense colour and interesting patterns makes these a flower people come to the gardens to look for.

Come and have a wander in the grounds next time you’re in town!

NEW! The Cathedral Gardeners: Hedging

by Rob Glover & Rachel Hancock

Here at the Cathedral we are developing our Interment garden, part of this will include the planting of a new hedge. Below we discuss the key points from selection to planting. 


What sort of hedge do you want? 

Hedges can be used in place of a wall or fence to add privacy or to divide areas within the garden. This has the benefits of: 

· Offering food and shelter to wildlife 

· Acting as a buffer for noise 

· Creating a wind barrier – hedges filter the wind instead of blocking it and so reduce wind eddies on the other side, protecting your planting. 

Or you may be looking to plant a low-lying hedge, as we are doing at the Cathedral. These are a great way to define planting areas, separating paths or beds. They can also add structure to a border. They can either compliment a more formal planting scheme, or allow you to have a more naturalistic planting scheme within the structure of the hedge. 

Will your hedge be evergreen or deciduous? 

Choosing an evergreen hedge will give you colour all year round, while a deciduous hedge allows you to enjoy the changing colours of the seasons. 

How fast does the plant grow? 

A fast-growing hedge has the advantage offering more privacy, faster, however it would mean you need to prune and maintain the hedge more frequently to manage it. A slower growing hedge would take longer to develop, but may be more low maintenance. 

Where will you plant hedge? 

Depending on if your location is sunny, shady, windy, as well as if you soil is sandy or clay based, will determine which type of hedge would work best. Websites like RHS have plant profiles so you can check what the ideal growing conditions are. 

Alternatively, there are some hedging plants which will tolerate most conditions. We have chosen 5 that we have at the Cathedral to look at. 


Prunus Lusitanica (Portuguese Laurel) 

This species of laurel is slightly different than a traditional laurel hedge, as the new growth stems have bright red stems. This creates a lovely contrast to the thin dark leaves. This is an evergreen hedge and only grows around 25-30cm a year, so could easily be maintained with a prune in late spring/early summer if you required. 

Berberis Thunbergii (Japanese Barberry) 

This deciduous version of Berberis has yellow-orange flowers in spring and turns a beautiful red-orange in autumn with small red berries (although these aren’t edible!). This is a smaller hedging plant growing to only 1.5m and so would only need pruning to maintain the shape – although be aware that if you prune after flowering you won’t get any autumn berries! 

Taxus Baccata (English Yew) 

This traditional hedging plant is evergreen with narrow green leaves and berries on the female plants. Growing up to 30cm per year, this hedge would benefit from a yearly trim in summer or early autumn, but you can prune it more frequently to maintain the shape. 

Buxus Sempervirens (Common Box) 

This traditional hedging plant has been a regular feature in formal gardens at historic houses and stately homes, with small dark leaves and yellow flowers, however is becoming less popular for new hedges as it susceptible to many problems. Although there are measures you can take to minimise the risk of box blight and box caterpillar, the prevailing advice is to look at alternative options. 

Euonymus Japonicus (Japanese Spindle Tree) 

The hedge we have decided to go for is Eunoymus japonicus ‘Green Spindle’, this has an entirely green leaf, but you could also use a yellow or white variegated version. ‘Microphylla’ is a smaller cultivar if you are looking for a more compact hedge – although you could trim any size to keep it smaller, we find that the smaller leaf varieties look better when pruned. 


· Unwrap your hedging as soon as it arrives and put it in a bucket of water. 

· If you are not going to be able to plant them within a week or so of them arriving, we’d suggest heeling them in – this is basically planting them temporarily. 

– Dig a trench as deep as the roots of your plants, with one side at a 45-degree angle. 

– In their bundles lay the plants on the sloping side. 

– Cover the roots in soil and firm around the plants. 

– Water them in (although be careful if a freeze is predicted). 

– If the ground is frozen, this could be done in a large pot or compost bag. 

· Check the spacing requirements for your plants, some are best planted in a single line and some as two staggered rows. We use a string line to ensure the hedge is kept straight. 

· It is often a good time to incorporate some well-rotted manure before planting to give the plants a good strong start. 

· Dig a trench along your string line, place in the hedging plants and then backfill. Firm in the soil but be careful not to over compact the young roots. 

· Evergreen hedging doesn’t need pruning immediately, while deciduous plants benefit from a light prune to encourage bushy growth. Remove any dead, damaged or diseased branches, as well as any crossing stems as this can rub and create an entry wound for pathogens. 

· Water in your hedge as soon as possible after planting. If a prolonged period of drought is experienced within the first 12-15 weeks of planting ensure plants are kept watered.

Happy Hedging!

Tales from Tour Guides: 26

It’s the last Friday of June 2020, lockdown is easing, and we have reached the end of our Tales from Tour Guides series. We’d like to say a huge ‘thank you’ to both our writers and our readers. We hope you will have the opportunity to visit the Cathedral in person before too long.

Tales from Tour Guides: the stories that fascinate, perplex and inspire the Tour Guides of Peterborough Cathedral, written during lockdown.

An Introduction to the Stained Glass of Peterborough Cathedral

By Geoffrey Gent and Ann Reynolds

Let’s begin with some clarification. We all use and accept the term stained glass, but in reality it is painted glass that provides art work and atmosphere in Peterborough Cathedral and elsewhere. The colouring is based on the addition of metallic salts – cobalt for blue, copper for an intense red and silver nitrate for yellow. The art work is then over painted, either as a wash to create an appearance of texture, or as line drawings for facial features, hair and the detail of flowers and leaves. In Western Europe, the technique evolved from the seventh century when coloured glass was imported to England from France for the building of St Peter’s monastery at Monkwearmouth in Sunderland.


Medieval glass fragments in the Apse Chapel

When the great Norman cathedrals and abbey churches were constructed in the two centuries following the conquest, they featured huge windows of coloured glass through which the sunlight would stream to create a sense of beauty, awe and wonder. Combined with the vast size of the building and the music of the monks singing and the organ playing, this must have given worshippers a taste of what it might feel like to be in heaven.

The windows were often used to tell bible stories in visual images. Peterborough Cathedral historian, Simon Gunton, tells us that those which ran round all four sides of the cloister contained the whole bible story in sequence (Gunton p336).  He also tells us why, today, almost none of that remains.  The new beliefs that grew in the Reformation led to a desire for a simpler faith, without imagery. In England this led to the break from Rome and the Dissolution of the Monasteries in the 16th century.  It intensified under Oliver Cromwell in the 17th century. At Peterborough, Gunton tells us how Cromwell encouraged his soldiers to break every window and image they could.  That is why today, the glass in many of the windows is plain and the stained glass we do see was installed in the later 19th century.

Only three windows contain the original medieval glass. Stand in the crossing under the central tower, facing the high altar, and look at the three central windows of the Apse.  They contain all the fragments retrieved by Victorian archaeologists when they excavated in the precincts.

26 medieval glass

Medieval glass fragments

It is difficult to study the art work when the windows are in the upper reaches of the cathedral, but the Tower Tours are a great help, starting for many people with the Victorian re-instatement of medieval glass fragments in the windows of the Apse.

Facial details here are exceptional together with other art work making this one of the most photographed parts of the cathedral. Then there is the roundel with an elaborate capital “M” in a side window perhaps from the demolished Lady Chapel. The side windows of the Apse show how Victorian additions complement surviving medieval glass.

The real revival of stained glass, however, came with the glazing of many windows during the Victorian era.  As a reaction to industrialisation, there grew a desire to return to the values of a past age, with an emphasis on craft skills and the representation of nature and biblical themes. A leader in this movement was William Morris, whose influence was felt at Peterborough when his Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings ensured the central tower was restored in its existing form rather than redesigned.  The craft workshop Morris founded together with fellow artists of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood created many famous stained glass windows, of which we have a beautiful example in the south transept.  Other stained glass window workshops, well known nationally, created windows at Peterborough, including: Clayton & Bell; Heaton, Butler & Bayne; Burlison & Grylls; Alexander Gibbs.

26 north transept window

Window made by the William Morris Workshop

The most mellow, pleasing colours and the instantly recognisable Pre-Raphaelite style can be seen in the window made by William Morris’s workshop, in the south wall of the south transept. It’s the window on the far left of the set.

This is for many people the most striking art work in the cathedral, the memorial to Sir Chapman Marshall, a native of Peterborough who rose to be an Alderman of the City of London and Lord Mayor in 1839.He was modestly described as a “grocer” and died in 1862.

The window shows the testing of Abraham in the left panel and Joseph having been divested of his multi coloured coat being lifted by his step brothers from the pit in the right panel. The outside of the window is protected by a metal grill; an indication of its importance, for it is original art work by Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Rossetti is linked with his paintings of Jane Morris, wife of William Morris, who personified the ideal of Pre Raphaelite beauty. The Rossetti art, with its colour and drama, is in complete contrast with the adjacent widows. Other well known artists’ work is in this window: William Morris himself designed the four saints in the tracery above, and Philip Webb designed the four shields at the base.

26 south transept window group

The windows on the south wall of the south transept


King David and King Solomon in a window in the north transept

Now if you turn 180° to face the north transept, you will see a complete wall of colour. All three levels have stained glass in three windows, many dedicated to the memory of a loved one or a respected national or local figure. Note especially one dedicated to the Prince Consort (Prince Albert, husband of Queen Victoria). This window features King David and King Solomon.  Three windows are dedicated to members of the Gates family. John Gates was secretary to the Bishop and his son Henry Pearson Gates was the first mayor of Peterborough. The City Museum in Priestgate was his home. Again, close inspection is only possible from the Tower Tour walkway.

Returning to the south transept, other Tales from Tour Guides articles have described the stories relating to the three chapels – to St Oswald, St Benedict and Saints Kyneburga, Kyneswitha and Tibba. The St Oswald’s Chapel window, designed by Burlison & Grylls shows other saints who carried out acts of mercy, including St Crispin, patron saint of shoemakers, reflecting a key Northamptonshire industry.  The window in St Benedict’s Chapel is the newest, installed in 1958 as a memorial to Bishop Spencer Leeson and featuring a number of stories relating to the history of the abbey and cathedral.

Windows in the New Building

Windows in the New Building

Move further east, into the New Building behind the high altar, on the south wall, the window is dedicated to Canon Alderson, Chaplain to Queen Victoria and King Edward VII. It shows the four churches where he held office, including Peterborough Cathedral.  To the left of this, the window at the south end of the east wall tells one complete story – the Passion and Resurrection of Jesus in twelve panels. This was designed by Clayton & Bell as a memorial to Dean Butler by his widow.

26 west window

The great west window

Then there is the great west window above the main entrance, by Burlison & Grylls. Each of the ten panels is on the same theme – a summary of the history of the abbey and cathedral, including images of St George, patron saint of England; St Alban, the first English Christian martyr; King Paeda, the first Christian King of Mercia who founded the abbey; St Ethelwold, who re-founded the second abbey, and the Cathedral’s three patron saints: Peter, Paul and Andrew. This window was dedicated in 1903 to local people who fell in the Boer War – their names are listed on brass wall plaques below it.

If you are able to make a donation towards the cost of maintaining this beautiful and historic cathedral, it would help us a great deal. You can do so via the Cathedral’s Virgin Money Giving page. Thank you.

Tales from Tour Guides: 25

Tales from Tour Guides: the stories that fascinate, perplex and inspire the Tour Guides of Peterborough Cathedral, written during lockdown.

10,000 Piece Cathedral Jigsaw, Anybody?

The story of Peterborough Cathedral’s central tower

by Kate Brown

25 . 1885 sketchI suspect that some of us have turned to jigsaw puzzles to pass the time recently. In Victorian times, the cathedral’s central tower became a 3-D life-sized puzzle, taking years to complete. Luckily the builders managed to find the right place for all the pieces!

The construction of the cathedral started from the east end, in 1118. Abbot William of Waterville (1155 – 1175) was responsible for building, ‘both arms of the church and three storeys of the great tower’, according to the chronicle written by one of the monks, Hugh Candidus.

In 1322 the central tower of Ely Cathedral had collapsed, so when there were doubts about the stability of Peterborough’s tower a few years afterwards, remedial action was swiftly taken. Two of the original storeys were removed and a lantern was built, using the lightest construction possible.

Looking up into the central towerThe Norman arches on the east and west sides were replaced with Gothic, pointed ones and, on the north and south sides, Gothic arches were incorporated in addition to the Norman arches, as a belt and braces solution. The height of the tower, and the painted wooden ceiling which dates from 1360 – 1380 showing God the Father and the instruments of Christ’s passion, are what we see today.

Central tower from the outsideIt is not surprising that medieval cathedrals were prone to collapse. The great Norman pillars were actually built as a shell, and filled with rubble, which over time settled, leaving the upper portions unstable. There was also little in the way of foundations – just gravel in Peterborough’s case. The next evidence of a problem is in the accounts of 1593, when £47 4s 9d was paid for ‘iron bands and timber for the South East pier’. The pillar was still strapped up in the illustrations of the early 1880s.

25 3. London Illustrated News cathedral1883

Sir George Gilbert Scott was appointed as architect in 1858. In the 1860s the north side of the presbytery was strengthened with buttressing, tie rods and underpinning. The tower was also affected, and fragments of masonry would regularly fall from a great height. Scott reported on the dangerous condition. The chapter’s response was to get a second opinion in 1871 – which was the same! A fracture in the eastern wall was up to 8 feet long and about 2.5 inches wide. After Scott’s death in 1878, John Loughborough Pearson was appointed as architect. His thorough examination of the tower in June 1882 confirmed the state had worsened, and still nothing was done. On Christmas Eve, further cracks appeared, Pearson was telegraphed in London and his response was along the lines of ‘I told you so’. The tower had to be made safe, so dismantling began. The scene was captured on the front of the Illustrated London News edition of 27th January 1883 (above).

25 . marking of stone for rebuildPearson presented two plans for the reconstruction. One was to prop up the arches while rebuilding the supporting piers; the other was to take the whole tower down to rebuild it – which was estimated to cost £5,000 less – and this was chosen. An appeal was launched to raise £55,000, which would also cover work needed on the West front, and restoring the quire. In April 1883 two steam powered cranes were installed by local builders Thompsons, as contractors, the dismantling was completed by September. All the stones were marked, so that they could be refitted in due course. Roman numerals and N, S, E or W can still be seen on stones that form the walkway round the central tower (see photo). During the works, the foundations of the previous, Saxon church were found under the South Transept.

Pearson came up with a plan to rebuild the tower with three storeys, surmounted by a 350ft (106.5m) spire. The Restoration Committee were in favour, the Chapter (apart from the Dean) and the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings were against. There was stalemate until the Archbishop of Canterbury recommended in 1885 that the tower should be rebuilt as it was before. A shortage of funds in 1887 led to a delay, but most of the crossing and many of the new fittings were in place for the service of Thanksgiving on 14th October 1890. The cost had been £32,000.

As the history of the Cathedral goes, this episode is quite recent  (it is in the lifetime of my grandfather) but if I hadn’t told you about it, you would probably think that the tower and all those stones had not moved since they were put there nearly 900 years ago.

If you are able to make a donation towards the cost of maintaining this beautiful and historic cathedral, it would help us a great deal. You can do so via the Cathedral’s Virgin Money Giving page. Thank you.

Tales from Tour Guides: 24

Tales from Tour Guides: the stories that fascinate, perplex and inspire the Tour Guides of Peterborough Cathedral, written during lockdown.

The Hedda Stone

by Lesley Hull

The Hedda Stone is an object of great veneration and a tangible link to the first monastery in Peterborough.  However, the more I read about it the more confused I become. That is part of it’s fascination for me.  The date of 870 that has been carved on it is a misnomer as it has been archaeologically tested to be Roman and the Romans left Britain circa 400 AD. The only two known facts about it are that it is Barnack stone and is a solid block.

24 The Hedda Stone

Rosemary Cramp has written a very informative chapter about the Hedda Stone entitled Anglo-Saxon sculpture of Peterborough and its Region in the book, ‘Peterborough and The Soke, Art, Architecture and Archaeology’, edited by Ron Baxter, Jackie Hall and Claudia Marx. She says, and I quote:

It is difficult to imagine what such a large block of stone as the Hedda monument would have been used for in the Roman period, although it could have been an unused quarry block. However she also states:It is an interesting fact nevertheless that it is in Mercia, on present evidence, that we find the earliest, and most widespread evidence for Anglo-Saxon shrines, albeit in a different form, and that there is also the only textual evidence for the re-employment of Roman sarcophagi, as happened so often on the Continent.

So could it be a re-used Roman sarcophagus? It is a widely held belief that it was used as a grave marker for the mass grave of Abbot Hedda and the monks who were slaughtered by the Vikings when they destroyed the Abbey in 870 – hence its name and probably also the date that someone has carved on the end.

Its original position is unknown but it is recorded as being in the cemetery in the late 14th and early 15th centuries and also the 18th century, and it is obviously well weathered.  By the late 18th century, however, it was inside the abbey.

What are the holes for? It has been suggested that the upper rows may have been candle holders, or they were used to assist in moving the stone. But had this been the case they should have been symmetrical on each side. Perhaps they were for fixing a railing around it to protect it? However there is an alternative view that if it is a re-used Roman stone the holes could have been for fixing it to a block above, which would make some sense as the Hedda figures appear to be looking down.  The deeper holes could have been for the faithful to take dust from the shrine.  Jonathon Foyle in his book ‘Peterborough Cathedral a Glimpse of Heaven says that Dr Janina Ramirez supports this view.

MJR_1144Are the carvings from the Anglo-Saxon era? Rosemary Cramp states, ‘The formula seems to be that of the 5th – 7th century sarcophagi of Gaul’. She also says, ‘Any assessment of a date based on the figural sculpture is more problematic. The solemn rather static figures are remarkably classical’.  Does this mean that the carvings are from the Roman era? As to the figures themselves, because they are so well weathered some are difficult to discern, but on one side we have Jesus with a cross in his halo, Mary with the lilies and Peter with his keys.  One the other side John the Baptist is depicted with what to me looks rather like a punk hairstyle!

I have recently discovered that there is a plaster cast replica of The Hedda Stone in the V&A in London dating to 1850 – 1900. It has been suggested that it might have been made for the Great Exhibition in 1851 but this is not verified. As this replica has not been weathered the carvings should be much easier see.

24 Hedda Stone cast © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The Hedda Stone in the Cast Court at the V&A. Photo © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

If you are able to make a donation towards the cost of maintaining this beautiful and historic cathedral, it would help us a great deal. You can do so via the Cathedral’s Virgin Money Giving page. Thank you.

Tales from Tour Guides: 23

Tales from Tour Guides: the stories that fascinate, perplex and inspire the Tour Guides of Peterborough Cathedral, written during lockdown.

The West Front, Pope Innocent III and King John

By Norman Tregaskis

23 norman architectureThe Normans began building Peterborough Abbey Church in 1118 and, progressing westwards, reached the inner west wall in the 1190s (for simplicity, let’s say 1198, taking 80 years in round figures).

Completed in 1238 (without the porch), the West Front took another 40 years – half the time taken to build the main body of the church.

Why so unbelievably long?

According to Jonathan Foyle*, the West Front had risen to just above the three arches by about 1208 (10 years), yet the gables, gable rooves and the tower tops took 30 years more. What happened? Coincidentally, in March 1208 during a row with King John, Pope Innocent III placed an Interdict upon England, forbidding church services countrywide. This act, and King John’s response, had profound effects upon the population and the Church, and stopped construction. Perhaps understanding the Interdict, its consequences and the main actors will help to explain the West Front hiatus.

23 512px-Innozenz3

Pope Innocent III, from a fresco at Sacro Speco. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Pope Innocent III was enthroned in 1198, and in his maiden speech, set out his stall by describing himself thus:

See therefore what kind of servant he is who commands the whole family. He is the Vicar of Jesus Christ, the successor of Peter … he is the mediator between God and man, less than God, greater than man”.

Previously, all Popes had been called ‘the Vicar of Peter’ but, by appointing himself Vicar of Christ, Innocent declared his authority as supreme over the rulers of the Christian world.

John was the youngest of King Henry II’s four sons. His instinctive lust for power was thwarted by being lowest on the succession ladder and lacking prospective inheritance. This left him resentful and volatile. Chroniclers described him as having “distasteful even dangerous personality traits, such as pettiness, spitefulness and cruelty”; another said “he had the mental abilities of a great king but the inclinations of a petty tyrant”. However, family rebellion and the deaths of King Henry II and two of his sons advanced Richard to King and John to Heir Apparent. On Richard I’s death in 1199, John was finally King.

23 568px-British_-_King_John_-_Google_Art_Project

King John. Dulwich Picture Gallery. Source: Wikimedia Commons

By 1202 John had lost his inherited empire in northern France, and consequently held no love for anything French. Therefore in 1206, when Innocent III consecrated a Parisian theology lecturer, Stephen Langton, as Archbishop of Canterbury, John would have none of it. Precedent set the Archbishop as the King’s chosen ecclesiastical representative to the Pope, whereas Innocent saw the Archbishop as his man, his channel of authority over the King. Innocent pushed. John was immovable. Therefore, Innocent invoked the Interdict in 1208 and excommunicated John – who remained intransigent.

Under the Interdict, bishops could not permit church services except for baptisms and penance of the dying. Excluded were celebrations of mass, and all marriage and burial services. The Interdict therefore deprived the people of spiritual consolation, and was intended to make the population hostile to the King. It was a political weapon, and for John it was a declaration of war.

Caught between disobeying either the King or the Pope, many monks and clergy fled the country, but could not escape John’s reach. He confiscated the property of ‘deserters’, and with characteristic cruel humour, had the illicit wives and paramours of supposedly celibate churchmen arrested and expensively ransomed. Indeed, most of John’s measures were economic because he needed money for his struggle to recover lost French lands. Therefore from 1208, John’s main thrust was seizure of abbey and church revenues. Peterborough Abbey was now without income and poor, and West Front construction stopped.

The Interdict accounts for only six years of stoppage to 1214, but its consequences also caused great delay:

  1. Medieval stone masons tended to be itinerant, and it would have taken time to re-engage the numbers who had moved on in 1208. 
  2. After restoration of estate revenues, the achievement of usable cash flow probably took at least two harvests. 
  3. Spanning those early harvests, the trickling revenue was surely too little for an immediate large-scale restart on the West Front, but enough, perhaps, for the new abbot, Robert of Lindsey, to begin his passion to gradually enlarge and glaze 30 church and 14 cloister windows. Thereby, he diverted resources from the West Front, adding significant delay probably years. 
  4. Five abbots spanned the 40 years of West Front construction, doubtless each having his say about design changes, and counter changes some requiring the dismantling of earlier stonework. Without the Interdict there might have been fewer abbots and fewer redesigns meaning years saved.

Although the delays consequent upon the Interdict can be reasonably supposed, the total amount of delay can only be conjectured, perhaps 14 years? That would leave a feasible 16 years to complete the West Front. If so, the arithmetic to explain 40 years taken to build the West Front could be:

10 years to the top of the arches + 14 years delay +  16 years of work to complete
= 40 years.

This sum seems reasonable even if, by their vanity and obstinacy (dare I say pride and prejudice?), the King and the Pope were not.


The completed West Front of Peterborough Cathedral

* Jonathan Foyle’s architectural history, Peterborough Cathedral: A Glimpse of Heaven, is available here:

If you are able to make a donation towards the cost of maintaining this beautiful and historic cathedral, it would help us a great deal. You can do so via the Cathedral’s Virgin Money Giving page. Thank you.

Tales from Tour Guides: 22

Tales from Tour Guides: the stories that fascinate, perplex and inspire the Tour Guides of Peterborough Cathedral, written during lockdown.

Dean Peter Peckard:
“Father of the Abolitionist Movement”

by Paul Middleton

As you visit Peterborough Cathedral and wonder at the beauty of the fan vaulting in the New Building behind the high altar, pause a moment and cast your eyes to the floor, where a number of tomb slabs declare the names and careers of those buried beneath your feet.  Amongst them is a large grey-black slab on which the name of Peter Peckard is inscribed.

Peter Peckard - Copy

Peckard’s life spanned much of the 18th century.  Before he became Dean of our Cathedral, he served as a military chaplain in Germany and had a distinguished academic career, first as a fellow of Corpus Christi College in Oxford and then as Master of Magdalene College, Cambridge, a post to which he was appointed in 1781.

When Peter Peckard arrived in Cambridge, he already had a reputation for forthright views on a range of topics, some of which had brought him into a degree of conflict with the church authorities of the day.  One of his distinctive characteristics was that he would neither align himself with the catholic wing of the church, nor with the rising evangelical wing.  Indeed, throughout his career, he showed an unusual tolerance for a breadth of views when it came to personal conscience, whilst maintaining firm and vigorously expressed views on social responsibility. He was uncompromising in his commitment to the rule of representative government, and condemned the rule of the mob in all its guises, which he believed could only lead to anarchy.  One of his most telling essays portrayed the dangers to society of what he termed “the voice of a seduced multitude,” a phrase which perhaps has some resonance with events in the world today.

However, it was an event in 1781 that caused his lasting outrage and led to him writing a series of influential sermons and pamphlets, generating in turn the coming together of people like William Wilberforce and Thomas Clarkson, men whose names of course became for ever associated with the successful campaign to abolish slavery.

The event concerned a slave ship, which had got into difficulties approaching its Caribbean destination, loaded with a “cargo” of slaves.  The captain, fearful that water supplies would rapidly run dry, took the decision, being insured against any financial loss, to throw overboard approximately 130 slaves.  Despite widespread horror when the news broke in England, moves to prosecute the captain for this atrocity failed, since at the time slaves were equated with livestock.

Peckard became Vice Chancellor of Cambridge University three years later and, in that role, he had the duty of setting a prize essay title for students to attempt.  Still writing about the issue of human rights, he chose as his topic,

Is it lawful to enslave human beings against their will?”

In due course, a young student, Thomas Clarkson, was declared the winner of the competition, exciting in him a passion to work to overthrow the evil of slavery in England.


Am I not a man emblem used during the campaign to abolish slavery. The image is from a book from 1788. Source: Wikipedia Commons

Peckard continued to write on the issue, focusing increasingly on the evils of the slave trade and it was he who published the essay, addressed directly to the government of the day, which was to provide the slogan for the abolitionist movement – “Am I not a man and a brother?”

Peter Peckard continued his social and political writings after his appointment as Dean of Peterborough Cathedral in 1792, right up until his death in 1797.

A tribute to the life and achievements of Peckard was published in 1799, highlighting his concern for issues of freedom, citizenship and toleration.  In summary, the tribute declared

“If peace on earth, goodwill towards men may claim the blessed distinction of the Christian name, behold a Christian here.”

Here in Peterborough, we can be proud of our link with and grateful for the memory of “the father of the abolitionist movement.”

On 11th May 2018 Dr Rowan Williams, Master of Magdalene College Cambridge and former Archbishop of Canterbury, gave a talk on the work of Peter Peckard and its relevance to today’s society. You can listen to an audio recording of his talk on Soundcloud here:

If you are able to make a donation towards the cost of maintaining this beautiful and historic cathedral, it would help us a great deal. You can do so via the Cathedral’s Virgin Money Giving page. Thank you.




Tales from Tour Guides: 21

Tales from Tour Guides: the stories that fascinate, perplex and inspire the Tour Guides of Peterborough Cathedral, written during lockdown.

Dean John Cosin

by Paul Middleton

20 John Cosin 2Walking around the Cathedral, tucked away, quite high on the walls of the North Presbytery just as you enter the wonderful fan-vaulted space which is the New Building, you may spot a marble monument with a Latin inscription.  This stone commemorates Frances Cosin, the much loved wife of one of our former Deans, John Cosin, whose service in Peterborough takes us back to the 1600s and to one of the most turbulent periods of England’s, and Peterborough’s, history.

John Cosin first came to public notice in the 1620s as a brilliant and articulate member of the anti-Calvinist Durham House group in London.  Cosin was a strong supporter of the high church traditions of the Church of England, championed by the then Archbishop of Canterbury, William Laud.  For as long as Laud retained the backing of King Charles I, Cosin enjoyed preferment in a number of ways, including being made Master of Peterhouse College, Cambridge in 1635.

As political temperatures in the stand-off between King and Parliament rose during the 1630s, Cosin proceeded to adorn the chapel at Peterhouse, doing the same with the University church, Great St Mary, when he became University Vice Chancellor – actions which attracted much criticism from those who saw these developments as dangerously “popish”. 

Nevertheless, he continued to rise and in 1640, John Cosin was granted the post of Dean of our cathedral, whilst still retaining his academic posts in Cambridge.  Nothing is known about any changes that he might have initiated in the Cathedral when he came to Peterborough.  However, it would have been out of character for nothing to have been undertaken in order to reflect the Laudian movement in embellishment and liturgical practice, in which a strong emphasis on “the beauty of holiness” saw the increasingly rich ornamentation and decoration of church buildings.

With the return of the Long Parliament in 1640, the Puritan, anti-Catholic view of political affairs gained the ascendancy and in 1641, John Cosin was stripped of his church posts in Peterborough and Durham.  Personal tragedy was to come soon after, with the death of his wife, Frances, in childbirth, the following year.

Undeterred by the injunctions against him, Cosin remained loyal to the King’s party, and began to gather money and silver plate at Peterhouse with the intention of sending this on to support the King’s cause.  His plans were discovered and Oliver Cromwell himself, stationed in Cambridge at the time, successfully intercepted the treasure wagons, instead sending the wealth to boost Parliamentary coffers.

As Civil War broke out between King and Parliament, John Cosin was deprived of the Mastership of Peterhouse and he followed Queen Henrietta Maria into exile in France, becoming chaplain to the Anglican members of the Queen’s court in Paris, where he was to remain until the restoration of King Charles II in 1660.

20 John Cosin 1In recognition of his loyalty to the crown, Cosin was restored to his Mastership and former church benefices at the Restoration and was also made Bishop of Durham, where he had formerly been a canon of the cathedral.  He remained an important intellectual force close to government, becoming involved in the compilation of the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, which contains several of his collect prayers.

A brilliant and sincere churchman, it was John Cosin’s misfortune to become embroiled in the controversies which engulfed England in Civil War in the mid 17th century, troubles which touched our own cathedral with the destruction of much that was beautiful and whose marks can still be seen today, both inside and outside the building.

Remember to ask your guide about this when you are able to visit!

If you are able to make a donation towards the cost of maintaining this beautiful and historic cathedral, it would help us a great deal. You can do so via the Cathedral’s Virgin Money Giving page. Thank you.

Tales from Tour Guides: 20

Tales from Tour Guides: the stories that fascinate, perplex and inspire the Tour Guides of Peterborough Cathedral, written during lockdown.

The Bells of Peterborough Cathedral

The belfry is in the north west tower

The North West Tower

by Christopher Groome

English cathedrals are mostly known in bell ringing circles for the quality of their bells and the quality of the ringers who ring them. Peterborough missed out for several centuries because of bad decisions and only joined the list of cathedrals with good ringing as recently as 1986. The records show various attempts being made to give Peterborough a ring of bells worthy of the Cathedral and why, for various reasons, they failed.

The Abbey kept poor records of its bells before the dissolution of the monasteries, but there are records from the thirteenth century referring to the ‘great bells’ being rung for the death of various notables. By inference, there were four such bells, presumably housed in the north west tower.  

In 1709 there was a flurry of activity to bring Peterborough Cathedral into the age of change ringing, with the casting of a new ring of 10 bells from the metal of the four ‘great bells.’  Rings of bells are classified by the weight of the heaviest bell, which is known as the tenor.  The tenor at Peterborough weighed 30 cwt. The weight was suitable for the Cathedral but there were two problems which dogged ringing right up to the present day.

The first problem was the choice of founder.  The founder given the job was Henry Penn.  He was a local man who had his foundry by the river.  The job was much the biggest he had ever done.  Small rings of, for example, six bells in a village he could turn out without a problem.  A 30cwt ring of 10 was quite a different matter.  There are no records of the discussions leading to the decision to appoint Henry Penn, but I guess that several people argued for using the local man.  The consequence was a ring of bells which was out of tune and difficult to ring.  They should have employed a national foundry which had a track record for casting and hanging bells of cathedral weight.

The second problem was the reputation of the west front, that it would collapse if the bells were rung.  For the whole life of the ring, the glib answer to any move to ring the bells more frequently was: To protect the west front the answer is ‘No’.  This was the position until 1980.  Who would raise money for improvements if the answer is always ‘No’?

The next milestone was in 1831 when the ninth bell cracked.  It was a measure of the importance attached to the bells that the Dean and Chapter of the time traded in the front five bells to pay for the recasting of the ninth.  Then there were five!

The bells limped on for most of the Victorian period.  When the energy which led to the rebuilding of the central tower was paralleled by many other works, the bells again came into view.  The leading figure was Henry Pearson Gates who was the Mayor of Peterborough in 1891.  He paid for a new 10 bell frame by Taylor of Loughborough, at that time the best bell founders in the land.  He challenged other leading citizens to pay for the five missing bells.  He had no takers.  It was hardly surprising given the still prevailing view that the west front would collapse if the bells were rung.  So the Cathedral entered the twentieth century with the heaviest ring of five bells in the world, bells of indifferent quality, and an excellent 10 bell frame.

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Some of the current bells. Photo: Geoffrey Gent

For bell ringers, to have a cathedral without ringing bells was almost a badge of shame.  The Diocesan Guild of Church Bell Ringers therefore decided in 1980 to make the Cathedral its Diamond Jubilee project for delivery in 1984.  Canon Ernest Orland, who was my predecessor as President, and I visited Dick Wingfield-Digby, then Dean, and Canon Thomas Christie, Canon Treasurer, to seek their support.  They were unable to help us financially but would share the cost of employing Professor Jacques Heyman of Cambridge University, the leading structural engineer of the time for mediaeval masonry buildings.  If he decided the North West tower was safe to carry a ring of bells, the Cathedral would back it, if not financially.  Professor Heyman gave the tower a clean bill of health. His report particularly commended the bell frame of 1891.

The next step was to draw up and cost a scheme preparatory to getting detailed approval and launching an appeal. The starting point was the 10-bell frame, but the bells of 1709 could not be tuned to provide a ring of quality.  The good news was that a second-hand ring of 10 bells from the redundant Church of St John the Divine, Leicester, was available for purchase.  These Taylor bells were contemporary with the Peterborough frame, of excellent quality, and had been installed when Leicester was in the Peterborough Diocese.  The tenor weight was 21 cwt so it would fit into the 9th pit, leaving the 10th pit for three new trebles to form a ring of 13 bells as befits a cathedral.

Our proposal for dealing with the old bells was to sell the recast 4th to Withycombe Raleigh in Devon to become the tenor of a ring of 10 bells. It was the best of the old bells.  We proposed to retune the 5th and retain it as a bourdon bell because it had historical significance as the biggest bell cast in Peterborough.  It is the bell which sounds before services and strikes the hours and half hours for the clock.  The other three bells we proposed to sell for scrap.  The budget for the scheme was £100,000.

At this point we came up against the conservation lobby which wanted to retain all the old five bells as the basis for the new ring.  This would have perpetuated the string of bad decisions made starting in 1709.  It would have cost more and produced a bad outcome.  With the backing of the Dean and Chapter the Diocesan Guild appealed to the Cathedrals Advisory Commission for its scheme to be approved and I went to London for the meeting.  The Commission backed our scheme subject to trying to sell the three old bells in the USA, which we did successfully with the help of Peterborough Development Corporation.

Peterborough Cathedral’s ‘new’ bells were slightly late for the Guild’s Diamond Jubilee, being blessed by Bishop Bill Westwood in November 1986, whereas the actual Jubilee year was 1984.  In the context of three centuries messing around and no substantial progress, two years late is a modest delay.  I think Henry Pearson Gates would be pleased with what we did, albeit nearly a century after he issued his challenge.

20 bells3

If you are able to make a donation towards the cost of maintaining this beautiful and historic cathedral, it would help us a great deal. You can do so via the Cathedral’s Virgin Money Giving page. Thank you.