Peterborough Cathedral, Soke of Peterborough

Feature Sets (3)

Description

The first abbey on the site dated from c.655 and was destroyed by the Danes at the end of the 9c.  It was rebuilt by Aethelwold, Bishop of Winchester, and consecrated in 972.  Aethelwold’s abbey was damaged by a fire in 1116 and, according to the contemporary chronicler Hugh Candidus, completely rebuilt from 1118, the present church being consecrated in 1238 by Bishop Grosseteste of Lincoln. 

The church is therefore a generation later than the first wave of post-Conquest great churches, including the other East Anglian foundations of Ely (begun 1082) and Norwich (1096).  The church consists of an aisled chancel, transepts with eastern aisles for chapels and an aisled nave with a west transept.  It is described from east to west in more detail below.

Chancel and New Building

The aisled chancel originally had apses at the ends of the main vessel and aisles.  The semicircular main apse is still there, now enclosed by the so-called New Building; a square-ended eastern termination five bays wide, entered from the chancel aisles.  When the abbey was suppressed it contained three altars with scenes of the Passion.  The New Building was begun by Abbot Ashton in 1438 and completed by Abbot Kirton (1496-1528), and the transition from the narrow Norman aisle into the bright, fan-vaulted space beyond is one of the delights of a visit to Peterborough.

The four-bay chancel is three storeys high, with a main arcade carried on three piers of different plans, cylindrical, octagonal and dodecagonal, and triple shafted responds at either end, against the crossing pier and the pier of the apse arch.  The gallery above has double openings with decorated and pierced tympana under an enclosing arch, and the clerestorey has a passage with triple openings, a tall central arch flanked by lower ones.  Vault shafts run up the piers to the level of the springing of the central clerestorey arches, where they support a wooden fan-vaulted 15c ceiling.  The chancel aisles are divided by depressed arches into quadripartite rib-vaulted bays.  The transverse arches fall onto the main arcade pier capitals and onto responds against the aisle wall.  One of the 12c aisle windows remains in the north aisle, as do parts of the intersecting arcading decorating the aisle walls.

On the exterior there are turrets with spirelets above the piers of the apse arch.  The aisle walls have 12c buttresses with angle shafts between the bays, and these have been strengthened by the addition of later medieval buttresses at the lower levels.  All the chancel aisle and gallery windows have been replaced, except for one in the north aisle.  The clerestorey windows retain their 12c form, except for those in the turning bays of the apse, which have been replaced with larger segmental headed windows.  All windows are now filled with tracery; panelled in the chancel clerestorey and aisles, and at all levels in the apse, and flowing in the chancel galleries.  The apse is decorated with intersecting blind arcading in a band below the top windows, and there is evidence on the north side of more arcading that originally decorated the aisle walls below the gallery windows.  The aisle walls have chevron stringcourses between the storeys.  The tops of the clerestorey walls of the chancel and apse have been rebuilt; the chancel with a plain nebuly corbel table and a parapet decorated with quatrefoils, and the apse with a similar corbel table and a plain parapet decorated with five 13c busts in trefoils.

Features

Exterior Features

Doorways

1, N transept, NE turret doorway

Situated in the E aisle, at the W end of the N wall, it provides access to the turret staircase. The tympanum is decorated with an all-over fish scale design, surrounded by a border of double-strand cable and outside this a second border of heavy beading.  The lintel is plain with a row of double strand cable on the lower angle above the door opening.  It is supported by a pair of roll corbels, both replacements, each with a six-petalled daisy on the front face.  The jambs are plain and square.

Dimensions
Height of opening 1.88m
Height of tympanum and lintel 0.78m
Thickness of lintel 0.195m
Width of opening 0.90m
Width of tympanum (diameter) 1.25m

2. S transept S doorway

3. Nave N doorway

Round-headed, 4 orders. The doorway is in the sixth bay of the nave.  It appears to be entirely 19c., but is described since it may be a copy of a 12c original.

Dimensions
Height of opening 3.37m
Width of opening 1.50m
1st order

Angle rolls in the jambs with small fictive cushion capitals without neckings carved on the topmost course.  The imposts are quirked hollow chamfered with a flattened roll low on the face.  The arch has a simple angle roll.

2nd order

En-delit nook-shafts on roll-hollow bases, unevenly worn.  East and west capitals are identical; a form of trefoil fluted capital with triangular shields with an arc removed at the lower apex, and angle volutes with inscribed spirals on the faces.  The east necking is plain and square, the west triple reeded.  The impost is as the 1st order.  The arch is carved with frontal chevron, a single roll with a quirked groove outside it.

3rd order

Jambs as 2nd order, differing only in the capitals.  The east is trefoil fluted as in the 2nd order but without the angle volutes and with triangular wedges in the flutes on the bell.  The necking is triple reeded.  The west capital is triple scalloped, but the outer scallops on each face have triangular shields and wedge-shaped cones.  The abacus is tall and decorated with inscribed lozenges and the necking is triple reeded.  The arch is carved with lateral centrifugal chevron of quirked roll profile on the face, forming a cogwheel edge with a double-quirked chevron roll lateral to the soffit.

4th order

Jambs as 2nd order, differing only in the capitals.  The east is triple scalloped, the shields triangular and the cones wedge-shaped, carved in two rows.  The tall abacus is carved with a row of inscribed cusping, and the necking is beaded.  The west capital is a cushion with angle tucks carved with a row of beading and a tall abacus with a row of inscribed zigzag.  The necking is grooved.  The arch is carved with single-roll point-to-point chevron, the points meeting over a sharp arriss.  The label has a hollow chamfer and an angle roll outside it.

4. Nave bay 2, S doorway

The E entrance from the nave aisle to the cloister. Round headed, 4 orders.  The doorway is heavily restored and scrubbed overall, and parts are replaced, as described below, but it is substantially 12thc work.

Dimensions
Height of opening (ignoring modern step) 3.27m
Height of opening (ignoring modern step) 3.27m
Width of opening 1.83m
Width of opening 1.83m
1st order

Coursed half-shafts on worn chamfer/hollow bases.  They carry plain cushion capitals with roll neckings and plain chamfered imposts.  The arch face is carved with a beaded zigzag enclosing 12 complete triangular fields with partial fields at either end.  Each field is carved in relief with a lily, the designs varying slightly from flower to flower.  The outer border is a row of zigzag, and the inner an angle roll carved with cable.

1st order

Coursed half-shafts on worn chamfer/hollow bases.  They carry plain cushion capitals with roll neckings and plain chamfered imposts.  The arch face is carved with a beaded zigzag enclosing 12 complete triangular fields with partial fields at either end.  Each field is carved in relief with a lily, the designs varying slightly from flower to flower.  The outer border is a row of zigzag, and the inner an angle roll carved with cable.

2nd - 4th orders

The orders are similar with en-delit nook-shafts on worn chamfer/hollow bases carrying plain cushion capitals with roll neckings and plain chamfered imposts.  The 2nd order capitals and imposts are original, the 3rd and 4th order capitals and imposts replacements.  All the nook-shafts appear to be original, though scrubbed.  The arches of orders 2 and 3 have angle rolls and face hollows.  That of order 4 is carved with lateral centrifugal chevron with a quirked angle roll and a second quirked roll on the face, interlocking and forming a cogwheel edge with a double-quirked roll lateral to the soffit. Of these arches, only the 2nd order is reliably original.  The label is chamfered inside and out with a row of billet on each chamfer. It has returns at either end, terminating at the ends of the bay.  Most of it is replaced, but enough original work remains to accept it.

2nd - 4th orders

The orders are similar with en-delit nook-shafts on worn chamfer/hollow bases carrying plain cushion capitals with roll neckings and plain chamfered imposts.  The 2nd order capitals and imposts are original, the 3rd and 4th order capitals and imposts replacements.  All the nook-shafts appear to be original, though scrubbed.  The arches of orders 2 and 3 have angle rolls and face hollows.  That of order 4 is carved with lateral centrifugal chevron with a quirked angle roll and a second quirked roll on the face, interlocking and forming a cogwheel edge with a double-quirked roll lateral to the soffit. Of these arches, only the 2nd order is reliably original.  The label is chamfered inside and out with a row of billet on each chamfer. It has returns at either end, terminating at the ends of the bay.  Most of it is replaced, but enough original work remains to accept it.

5. Cloister, W range bay 1 (S bay), S doorway

The W wall of the cloister contains five 12c openings, four of them blocked, which are here described from S to N.  The wall is articulated by later pointed arches into eleven bays, but some of the 12c openings violate the bay divisions.

The 1st doorway, towards the S of bay 1, is plain, continuous, round-headed and blocked.

6. Cloister, W range bay 1 (S bay), N doorway.

At the N end of bay 1, single visible order, round-headed and blocked.  The jambs are plain and square, supporting quirked chamfered imposts with no capitals.  The arch is plain with a label carved with two rows of heavy syncopated billet.

7. Cloister, W range bays 3-4

Crossing the division between bays 3 and 4, a blocked late 12c or 13c doorway, round headed and with one order visible.  The S jamb has the remains of an engaged nook-shaft.  The imposts are cut back and their profiles are not discernable, and the arch retains sections of an angle roll with a fillet overhanging a deep face hollow.  Any label has been shaved away.  The doorway is not measurable.

8. Cloister, W range bays 9-10

Crossing the division between bays 9 and 10, a round-headed blocked doorway.  The arch is unmoulded and carried on imposts, apparently chamfered but shaved back; these supported by late-12c multiple fluted capitals, similar to those copied on the N nave doorway.  These were presumably carried on nook-shafts originally.  The doorway is not measurable.

9. Cloister W range, N arch.

2 orders to E, plain to W. The arch is the exit from the west range of the cloister, situated in the northernmost bay of the range (bay 11).

Interior Features

Arcades

Chancel

Chancel N arcade

4 bays, round headed; the end bays, 1 and 4, are narrower than the central bays and have horseshoe arches, while bays 2 and 3 have round arches. All arches are of 2 orders; the 1st with a soffit roll between two angle rolls, and the 2nd with angle rolls and face hollows, and a chamfered label with a row of billet in the chamfer, on the main vessel side only. All 3 piers are different in plan, but all are carried on plain chamfered bases with double-step plinths, the lower step chamfered. Piers and capitals are described below and numbered from the crossing eastwards, but all capitals are variants of the cushion capital with plain roll neckings and hollow chamfered imposts with a thin reed at the bottom of the face.

(1) W respond

Respond of two orders per face corresponding to the arch orders. The 1st order capital is a cushion with the lower edge of the main face cusped and a curved cylindrical cone on the centre of the bell. 2nd order capitals are plain cushions without angle tucks.

(2) Pier 1

Pier 1 is octagonal, but unusually built with angles rather than faces in the cardinal directions.  Plain cushion capitals correspond to the arch orders to E and W.

(3) Pier 2

Pier 2 is cylindrical with plain cushion capitals as pier 1.

(4) Pier 3

Pier 3 is dodecagonal with plain cushion capitals as pier 1.

(5) E respond

The E respond is similar to the W respond, but the 1st order capital is a double scallop with a triangular wedge between the cones, and the 2nd order capital has angle tucks

Wall passages/Gallery arcades

Gallery

Chancel N gallery

Round headed, 4 bays corresponding to the arcade below.  The piers at this level are alternately compound and cylindrical, so tha each bay is flanked by one pier of each type.  Arches are of three orders, the 1st a twin opening with arches having a soffit roll and angle rolls, and a central cylindrical shaft carrying a capital and a tympanum decorated in a variety of ways, described below; the 2nd with an angle roll and face hollow, and the 3rd with 2 rows of frontal chevron on the face. Each bay has a hollow chamfered label.

Bay 1 (W bay)

A

Interior Decoration

Miscellaneous

Capital reset in Holy Spirit Chapel

The Holy Sprit Chapel is at the W end og the nave on the S side, and this capital has been reset high in the S wall at the W end. Of the 3 visible faces it is carved on the N and E only; the W being uncarved and the S concealed within the wall. On the N face is a human-headed dragon shown in R profile but facing forward.  Its head has cat's ears but is otherwise human with large bulging teardrop-shaped eyes and a moustache. The body is smooth with one wing shown, having three long flight feathers and a worn foot under the bottom of the wing. The tail tapers and is completed on the E face of the capital in a complex interlacing knot. The necking was plain but is now mostly lost.

Dimensions
Height of capital 0.20m
Max. projection of capital from wall 0.18m
Width of capital at top 0.22m

Comments/Opinions

The chronology of the building accepted by most scholars is that of Sir Charles Peers (VCH Northants II (1906)) calculated on the basis of the Chronicle of Hugh Candidus, outlined above.   This may be summed up as follows:

Phase 1: 1118-55. Eastern arm, start of work in transepts, crossing tower, nave S aisle to stringcourse under windows of bay 7, nave N aisle bay 1 to same level, possibly twin towers intended for W façade.

Phase 2: 1155-75. N & S transepts completed to top of triforium, lower parts of next two N bays and all S bays of nave to W towers, where work continued, nave aisles continued.

Phase 3: 1177-93. Ten bays of nave completed to top of gallery.  Bays 2-9 clerestoreys completed, towers in bay 8 begun.

Phase 4: 1195-1200. Last bay of nave clerestorey finished by c.1200.  West front begun.

 

Reilly (1997) challenged the accepted chronology, proposing a start-date in the first decade of the 12c.  She argued that Peers and his followers placed too much reliance on the testimony of Hugh Candidus, who was concerned to provide a coherent history of the abbey and its abbots, rather than an accurate architectural history.  Hugh thus exaggerated the extent of the damage caused by the fire.  She further argued that it would be surprising if Peterborough, alone among the major abbeys, had to wait until 1116 and a convenient fire to have its Anglo-Saxon church replaced.  The appointment of Ernulf, an experienced builder, in 1107 was for her a sign of new building.  She supports this argument with evidence of fire damage discovered in the SW tower, but this is only convincing if we can be sure that there was no other fire after 1116.  It also assumes that the west end of the nave was standing at that date, which demands a simultaneous start at both ends of the church.  Her methodology in supplying an alternative timeframe was to establish a relative chronology from the internal evidence of the building, and to turn it into a more-or-less absolute one by comparison with work elsewhere, notably at Ely, Norwich, Durham and Anselm’s Canterbury.  She suggested that Ernulf began the church around 1107, and that the apse and transept terminal walls are comparable with work at Norwich of c.1096-1119, and the chancel and transept east walls are similar to work at Durham and Anselm’s choir at Canterbury of c.1090 to 1110.  The nave she compared with nearby Ely and Norwich work of c.1100-45.

 

The present author is not persuaded by Reilly’s arguments.  Hugh’s account certainly offers a coherent building history that we might suspect is a little too neat, but this in itself is no reason for him to date the start of the work ten years later than it actually happened.  By and large, as Reilly points out, the earliest work at Peterborough includes nothing that could not date from 1110 rather than 1120, and in consequence, it has been seen as a conservative building.  The very slightness of the changes in design that were implemented in the course of its construction tends to support this view.  In terms of its style, however, there are at least two considerations in favour of the traditionally accepted start date.  The first relates to the two early 12c doorways in the west wall of the cloister.  As Sweeting pointed out in 1898, these appear older than any part of the cathedral and must belong to Ernulf’s cloister of 1107-14 rather than William of Waterville’s (1155-75).  If these are Ernulf’s work, then the earliest work of the cathedral cannot be; they are too different in style.  The second concerns the chevron stringcourses of the chancel and east transept walls, inside and out.  On the outside, the lower, below the aisle windows, is carved with a double row of lateral chevron on roll / hollow profile, while the upper, above the aisle windows, consists of two rows of interlocking chevron; one lateral, the other frontal.  Inside there is a frontal chevron stringcourse of quirked roll profile between the arcade and gallery storeys.  These early parts of the church thus include a wide variety of chevron decoration, which sits uncomfortably with Reilly’s early date, in spite of her comparisons with work in the nave at Durham.

Bibliography

Location

Site Location
Peterborough Cathedral
National Grid Reference
TL 194 987 
Boundaries
pre-1974 traditional (England and Wales): Soke of Peterborough
now: Peterborough
Diocese
now: Peterborough
medieval: Lincoln (Dorchester to 1085)
Dedication
now:
medieval:
Type of building/monument
Cathedral, formerly Benedictine monastery  
Report authors
Ron Baxter 
Visit Date
20 October 2004 to 14 January 2005, 04 April 2014