Tales from Tour Guides: the stories that fascinate, perplex and inspire the Tour Guides of Peterborough Cathedral.
by Ann Reynolds
My contribution to Tales from Tour Guides is to tell the stories of some of the influential women who have been associated with the Cathedral down the centuries. I thought we should start with St Kyneburgha.
St Kyneburgha helped to establish an abbey on this spot beside the River Nene in AD 653. You can see her statue on the Cathedral’s West Front. She is one of only three women represented there (the other two are Queen Matilda and Queen Elizabeth II). Her statue shows her holding a church – the Church of St Kyneburga at Castor, where today you can see a carved statue showing her as a young Saxon princess. So who was she, what is so special about her, and what has she to do with the Cathedral and Castor?
Kyneburgha was a princess in the kingdom of Mercia in the middle of the seventh century. This was a time when what is now England was divided into several kingdoms, some still worshipping Anglo-Saxon gods. In about 653, the kings of Christian Northumbria and pagan Mercia made peace, and marriages were agreed between the children of the two kings. The Mercian princes Paeda and Wulfere (who each later ruled as kings), Ethelred and Merwal, and princesses Kyneburgha and Kyneswitha, converted to Christianity. To mark the conversion and friendship between the two kingdoms, they agreed to build an abbey or monastery, dedicated to St Peter, St Paul and St Andrew. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle quotes all their names as participating in the “hallowing of the monastery” by the Archbishop of Canterbury.
Kyneburgha became so dedicated to her Christian faith that she gave up the wealth of her royal life and later, after her husband died, founded a religious community for women at the former Roman settlement of Castor, about five miles west of Peterborough. Her sister Kyneswitha joined her there, as did many other women. Kyneburgha is an example of an educated woman of noble birth, similar to St Hilda who founded a monastery at Whitby. They were learned, respected and influential in those early days of the Christian Church.
Kyneburgha died on 15 September 680 and was buried at Castor, where she soon became revered as a saint. In 963, when Peterborough Abbey was re-founded after destruction by the Viking raids, the bodies of Kyneburgha, Kyneswitha and Tibba (another saintly woman associated with Ryhall) were moved here for safe keeping. The monks of Peterborough esteemed Kyneburgha highly and celebrated her every year on 6th March, a date that they wrote in the calendars of the Psalters they created here..
The relics of the three saints were lost at the Reformation but her statue still stands on the West Front, in the lowest row of figures, counting from the left, the third along.
You can also see the place in the south transept where her body lay for centuries – the Chapel of St Kyneburga, St Kyneswitha and St Tibba.
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.