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: 3

Our wonderful volunteer Cathedral Tour Guides are, like all of us, in isolation due to the outbreak of COVID-19. They are not ones to rest on their laurels and have enthusiastically taken up the challenge of writing a series of short blog posts to highlight their personal favourite stories from the Cathedral’s history.

So here they are, published on Wednesdays (about places) and Fridays (about people).

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

The Cathedral’s secret lions

by Kate Brown

What is your favourite part of Peterborough Cathedral? I am very fond of a part that many people may not be familiar with, and that’s the windows formed of medieval stained-glass fragments behind the high altar.

3 masons mark1These may be seen from a distance by anyone standing in the eastern half of the Nave, but to appreciate them in detail, you have to take a tower and upper levels tour. On ascending to the triforium (the first floor) and heading round the apse, there are two points of interest: the array of mason’s marks on the stonework and the windows. Stonemasons were illiterate, but each family or workshop had their own mark to ensure that they were paid for each piece produced, and also for quality control. In this area, unlike most of the ground floor, they are not hidden, as few people would see them. The same marks appear at both ends of the Cathedral, showing they were handed down through several generations of workmen, as the building took 120 years to complete.

3 feather windowPeterborough Cathedral’s medieval stained glass seems largely to have survived the dissolution of the monastery (1539–40) only to fall foul of Oliver Cromwell’s Puritan soldiers in April 1643. The Parliamentarians were actually on their way to besiege Royalist forces at Crowland, but they could not resist the chance to ‘cleanse’ the building of papist features and idolatrous decoration, to say nothing of acquiring loot to aid their campaign. We are once again indebted to Simon Gunton’s history for a description of the desecration. The soldiers pulled down the stone screen behind the altar, and the pair of organs. They ransacked the choir stalls, encouraged by finding cash, and made a bonfire of books and documents. Statues and carvings (including tombs) were smashed and broken up. Brass candlesticks and memorials were broken up and taken away to be melted down. The stained glass windows in the church and cloisters were smashed.

The building was patched up during the 1650s – some of the money being raised by the sale of stone from the Lady Chapel and the cloisters. In 1742 it was described as “ill kept” – some of the windows had been bricked up and others were still broken. Dean Charles Tarrant collected some of the fragments of broken glass and had them made into the two central east windows in the 1780s. The windows either side of these were then added. The central windows are entirely medieval glass, but the side ones are padded out with later glass to complete them. This is where it is necessary to get a closer view to see just how the designs have been made up. The number of heads do not always match the bodies. Many of the pieces have details painted on them, as originally they were part of an elaborately decorated garment, or in the case of feathers, wings! There are some golden ‘M’s probably from the Lady Chapel (representing Mary).

3 lions

And so to my lions. In the southern side window, they form the coat of arms of the King of England, quartered with some decidedly disarrayed French fleur de lys as assumed by Henry IV in 1406. Henry IV’s daughters, Blanche and Philippa were born at Peterborough in 1392 and 1394 so there is a strong connection with royalty at this time. Old descriptions tell us that both the Lady Chapel and the cloister windows had images of the kings of England, so the lions could have come from either. What is clear is that the medieval craftsmen have given them individual expressions, which has brought these creatures to life. And that’s why I like them so much. These characters are a direct connection to the minds and creativity of the workers who made them, possibly 600 years ago. I also like the fact that they are patiently watching and guarding everything that goes on in the Cathedral – century by century.

If you would like to meet the lions, when tower tours resume, I or my guiding colleagues will be happy to show them, and the rest of this fascinating building to you. Look out for dates on the ‘Take a tour’ page of the Cathedral website. We hope to see you as soon as possible.

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.