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: https://www.ticketisland.co.uk/ticketi_slpos_product?bi=PeterboroughCathedral&pid=47.

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.

On lemonade and lament

I am not nice at present. The words ‘grumpy’ and ‘old bag’ all fit. Some might want to deny this because I’m a vicar and generally quite cuddly and a bit funny, and sometimes even lovable. But the truth is that there is a peed-off menopausal woman behind this dog-collar, and you might want to take cover! Mind you, I suspect that I am not alone in my grumpiness, so – as I pray for my own forgiveness – I’ll pray for yours too. Lockdown brings out the best and the worst in us, so if the cap (with fitted spit-proof shield made in heroic school DT department) fits, then wear it. If not, then polish your halo, sanitise and carry on!

It’s this virus business, of course. It absorbs everything like some gulping blob in a 1950s sci-fi movie and affects all of us in different ways. I am offended by the fact that everything is being held to ransom by a germ. I try, with conspicuously mixed success, to submit to God, but am annoyed at having to bow the knee to a bug with a number for a name. I’m not sure what else I expect under these infectious circumstances, but I do know that I have recently perfected the art of the Intolerant Humph. You could try it at home and then share it with your friends on Zoom. It is quite gratifying to build your personal playlist of ‘Sounds of the Virus’ – in fact, it is almost as good as watching yourself crying in the mirror when you were little. (Surely I’m not the only one?) It’s interesting how, when you grow up, all the pleasure goes out of watching yourself go blotchy, counting how many tears drip into your ears and observing with fascination what emerges from your nose, although non-waterproof mascara can still offer adult diversion at such times, I imagine.

So what occasions the Intolerant Humph? There’s one for national news coverage, about which I harbour dark suspicions. There is another because we have become a nation of experts and critics, although nobody really knows which science is right or whether our national leaders are callously gambling with our lives and economy or simply trying their best. I would not want to be in charge because nobody’s best is ever going to be good enough in our unforgiving culture. There is another Humph for all the nastiness on the internet, and (Lord, forgive me!) another one for all the saccharine niceness on the internet. I must confess that I reserve some of my most horrible Humphing for that.

A regular internet aphorism is ‘When life gives you lemons, make lemonade’. As advice goes it is not bad, and we are seeing a lot of lemonade being made in the form of kind acts and charitable initiatives. Bring on the lemonade! And yet lemons are perfectly nice things, just a bit sour. For those who are cheerfully making the best of an inconvenience and taking the opportunity to learn new things, spend time with the family or clear the garden, it’s a great saying. For others it isn’t. Fear, loss of livelihood and prospects, separation from family, boredom, abuse and grief are real for countless people, and we already see consequences like depression, anxiety, violence, bad behaviour, broken relationships, hunger and homelessness. Telling the victims of the consequences of this virus to ‘make lemonade’ of the situation is trite and, dare I say, a bit typical of our society which prefers not to face unpalatable facts but covers them with euphemism or blames someone else.

The truth is that real strength is to be found in confronting reality head-on, crying over it and fighting on through in the light of genuine hope. That is the power of faith. I love the Psalms in the Old Testament. They do real emotion, not lemonade. The most powerful are the psalms of lament, which howl and plead and shout at God in anger and fear when life is turned upside down.

The reality today is that life has dealt many of us onions, not lemons, and the right thing to do is to make onionade and cry painful tears in front of the mirror of God’s love. Corporate lament at our losses, repentance for the uncomfortable things we have learned about our society, and hopeful, expectant prayer to God who loves us, who builds beauty out of brokenness and hope out of despair, would be a healthy way forward for Peterborough as we start to work ourselves out of this situation.

To which, of course, some may shout “Amen”, some may simply shrug and others will just go “Humph”.

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.

Tales from Tour Guides: 19

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

Henry Topclyffe – an unlikely (and unwitting) hero

by Paul Middleton

The story of the sacking of Peterborough Cathedral by Parliamentarian soldiers in April 1643 is well known, in large part thanks to the careful gathering of contemporary accounts, preserved in Simon Gunton’sHistory of the Church of Peterborough”.

lecturnAs well as so much destruction to the altars, tombs, screens and stained glass windows in the church, the religious zeal of the soldiers was turned on anything that they considered to be associated with popery. For illiterate soldiers, Latin texts, such as prayer books, were readily assumed to be Papal Bulls or to be relics of Roman Catholic practice and accordingly fit for burning. Only the great bible, placed on the brass eagle lectern (see photo), which can still be seen in the choir, was left, out of reverence for the Scriptures.

One of the soldiers, our hero Henry Topclyffe, serving under Captain Henry Cromwell, Oliver’s son, was a member of the party engaged in destroying the images which they found painted on the woodwork of the choir stalls. It seems that, in anticipation of some trouble, the clergy of the cathedral had hidden various documents behind the woodwork, hoping to preserve them from the soldiers. However, when 20 gold coins were discovered along with a great parchment, the soldiers’ enthusiasm for the task was no doubt heightened and in the course of the further breaking down of the fittings, a volume we know as the Swaffham Cartulary was retrieved and fell into the hands of Henry.

This collection of manuscripts, including a copy of a 12th century chronicle compiled by an abbey monk, Hugh Candidus, is a priceless source for much that is known  about the early Saxon and medieval history of the abbey and its estates.

No doubt set on committing the volume to the bonfire on which all the prayer books and other manuscripts were being thrown, Henry was approached by the cathedral precentor, Humphrey Austin, who, with great presence of mind, managed to persuade Henry that the volume he held was in fact an old Latin bible and therefore should be respected.

Henry recorded his agreement that the volume deserved to survive by having the following wording written down in the book:

“I pray let this scripture book alone for he hath paid me for it; therefore I would desire you to let it alone, by me Henry Topclyffe, souldyer under Capt. Cromwell, Coll. Cromwell’s sonn; therefore I pray let it alone.

                                                                                    By me Henry Topclyffe”

Gunton records that Henry was paid ten shillings, a significant sum.

In this way, much of the early history of the Abbey was preserved and Henry earns his place among the heroes of the cathedral, though perhaps Humphrey Austin deserves the greater credit!

The Swaffham Cartulary survives to this day and is kept securely in the Cambridge University Library collections.  A more recent stained glass window, located in the South Transept, depicts the moment that Henry passed over the volume to a relieved Humphrey Austin (see below).  The ten shillings seems already to be safely tucked away in Henry’s pockets!  Have a look for the window when you 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: 18

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

The Cathedral in the Civil War

by Geoffrey Gent

Civil Wars are the most divisive and destructive conflicts and that between Charles 1st and Parliament was no exception.

orme memorial

The Orme family memorial, defaced during the Civil War.

Records show that Parliamentary troops entered Peterborough in 1643 to besiege Crowland, which was then held for the King, with the assurance that the cathedral would be respected. Two days later a regiment of foot under Colonel Cromwell forced entry to the building and indulged in wanton destruction of carved stonework, books, stained glass and other artefacts.

The eagle lectern from the medieval abbey was spared, and a fortuitous intervention by a minor canon enabled the retrieval of the 13th century chronicle by Robert of Swapham (Swaffham). It is now in the care of the University of Cambridge library. More of this in our next Tales from Tour Guides.

What was going on then, for Cromwell’s troops were usually models of restraint and discipline?

Part of the answer is that the Puritans wanted a very simple form of building and contents as the spoken word was central to their faith. This is demonstrated in the chapel built at nearby Guyhirn in this period, where only a pulpit and pews were thought necessary. Hardly a justification for the great losses inflicted, but it did allow the great re-establishment of stained glass and wood carving of the highest quality during the Victorian period. Then also, fragments of surviving medieval stained glass were retrieved and relocated in the lower windows of the Apse. This shows art work of great skill and is always a highlight of Tower Tours (see the window fragments shown below).



Footnote: In 2016, Access Cambridge Archaeology with Cambridge Archaeological Unit undertook a community archaeology excavation in the north west area of the Precincts (supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund).  They found refuse deposits from the time that Cromwell’s troops were quartered in the Precincts. Alongside the ceramic pots, clay pipes and animal bones from prepared food that you would expect from an encampment, there was also a large quantity of painted window glass with fragments of lead within them. See our blog from the 2016 archaeology dig.

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.