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.

2 thoughts on “Tales from Tour Guides: 26

  1. Thank you so much for the fascinating series of articles about our Cathedral. All very interesting and I hope to have a chance to visit to see all the features. A wonderful idea during lockdown.
    Best wishes

    Hilary Aslett


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