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’s “History of the Church of Peterborough”.
As 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.