Peterborough Cathedral

With both Romanesque and Gothic design, the Peterborough Cathedral has a long architectural history.

The Cathedral Church of Saint Peter, Saint Paul, and Saint Andrew, 1118–1237 (15th century retrochoir), Peterborough, England. Speakers: Dr. Ron Baxter, Fabric Advisory Committee, Peterborough Cathedral and Dr. Steven Zucker

[0:00] [music]

Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:06] We’re in Peterborough Cathedral. We wanted to start with a stone. It’s not part of the architecture, but it does link us back to the time just after the first version of this church was constructed.

Dr. Ron Baxter: [0:19] The first church on this site was a Benedictine monastery, and it was founded about 650 by the son of a famous king of Mercia.

Dr. Zucker: [0:30] This was a time before England was unified. It was a series of independent kingdoms.

Dr. Baxter: [0:35] Absolutely. You have Mercia in the east and center, Wessex over in the west, Northumbria in the north. Kent was a separate kingdom. The church itself, we know practically nothing about it, but we do have a mysterious object from that period called the Header Stone, and it’s got figures under arcading showing Christ, the Virgin Mary, and at least a couple of apostles.

[1:03] That belonged to that church. In 870, Vikings, Norsemen, Danes, burnt it to the ground, and nothing was left. The site remained empty until the end of the 10th century.

Dr. Zucker: [1:21] It was in the 900s that we begin to see large buildings across Europe.

Dr. Baxter: [1:26] In England, what you’ve got is a great reform movement, headed by the Bishop of Winchester, Æthelwold. It was Æthelwold who re-founded this monastery. In 1116, there was a fire, and the whole of Æthelwold’s church was destroyed.

[1:47] A start was made on this new building, and it was built from the east to the west, which is the usual thing to do, because this was the monks’ choir, and the crucial thing is to get the monks back in the church, so that they can carry on the vital work of the Opus Dei, of saying prayers and saving souls.

Dr. Zucker: [2:11] We’re standing in an apse which is towering, we see these enormous piers that are lightened visually by these beautiful bundled colonnettes.

Dr. Baxter: [2:20] 1116 is a late date. Just about every cathedral and great abbey in England was rebuilt when the Normans conquered England. If you look at the foundation dates of them, by and large, they’re in the 1080s or 1090s.

[2:40] There are two other major churches in this part of the country, Ely and Norwich, and what this was doing was copying their design. What you have are three stories which aren’t that different in height. You’ve got a low-ish arcade, a high gallery stage, and a high clerestory stage with a passage at the top.

Dr. Zucker: [3:07] Given that regularity, there’s still extraordinary invention in some of the details. I’m looking at the alternation of piers. They alternate between faceted and rounded surfaces.

Dr. Baxter: [3:21] That’s true in the eastern arm. There was always a tendency to make this eastern arm slightly more elaborate.

Dr. Zucker: [3:29] We’ve walked westward to the crossing, that is, the area where the nave, the main hallway, intersects with the transept.

Dr. Baxter: [3:37] You’ve got a tower over here. So you need these big, heavy piers at the angles. The building hasn’t just got to be structurally stable when it’s complete. It’s got to be structurally stable all the time you’re building it, so you can’t build the transept without building into the nave, that pier, and probably the first bay to support it.

Dr. Zucker: [4:00] One can only imagine the enormous weight, not only of the vaulting and of the arches themselves, but of the tower.

Dr. Baxter: [4:07] The vaulting’s interesting because, while you’ve got vaults in the aisles, you haven’t got a vault in the nave itself. What you’ve got is a famous and highly decorated wooden roof, which dates from the 13th century.

Dr. Zucker: [4:23] But by the 13th century, ribbed stone vaulting was well understood. And so this was a specific decision to install instead a wooden roof.

Dr. Baxter: [4:32] It’s a unique survival. As you walk down the nave, you’ll see, at arcade level, still mostly cushion capitals. But you get a little bit of variation and some kind of games being played with scallops. For instance, most scallops have semicircular shields. Here, you’ve got the occasional one with zigzag shields.

Dr. Zucker: [4:57] We’ve walked down to the easternmost part of the church, past the high altar, past the choir. We’re in a large, open, rectangular space, which is magnificent but a completely different style. This is no longer Romanesque. This is Gothic, and not just Gothic, but a late stage of the Gothic.

Dr. Baxter: [5:16] This wasn’t built until the 15th century. The builder was Abbot Robert Kirkton. When he built it, he left his mark. You see up there, robin on top of a tun, robin for Robert, and a kirk or church next to it.

[5:37] We also know what this retrochoir — it’s called a retrochoir because it’s behind the choir, as it also acts as an ambulatory, which allows you to walk around the building without entering the monks’ choir.

[5:52] The fan vaults are by the most famous mason of the period, John Wastell, who also did the vaulted roof of King’s College Chapel in Cambridge. It’s seriously good stuff and a beautiful space.

Dr. Zucker: [6:09] Those fan vaults are part of this late stage of English Gothic, which is known as the Perpendicular Style. There is such a clarity and rigor to the tracery that define these fan vaults.

Dr. Baxter: [6:22] It’s the same kind of aesthetic as what you see on the walls and the windows. Everything’s divided into panels. On the fan vault, the panels, of course, because it’s a conical shape, have to splay out. If you want to understand it structurally, that’s perhaps not so easy.

[6:42] If you look at a cone and take the central rib, you can follow it straight across to its counterpart on the other side. It forms an arch. One thing we ought to say, how did it become a cathedral? When Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries, when he took over from the pope as the head of the Church of England, he decided that monks were by no means a good thing either.

[7:12] And so monasteries, which were essentially a Catholic power base, enormous landowners, they had to go too. In most places, the transition was fairly smooth. The monks were given a pension. They surrendered their monastery. The king then had to decide what to do with the church. In some cases, churches became cathedrals. In 1541, that is precisely what happened to this.

Dr. Zucker: [7:42] The cathedral that we’re standing in, rooted in its seventh-century monastery, developing through the Romanesque and through the Gothic, is really a testament to the evolution of architectural style over time.

[7:55] [music]

A Peterborough Cathedral timeline

Explore the Corpus of Romanesque Sculpture in Britain and Ireland

Ron Baxter, Jackie Hall, and Claudia Marx, editors, Peterborough and the Soke: Art, Architecture and Archaeology (London: Routledge, 2019).

Lisa A. Reilly, An Architectural History of Peterborough Cathedral (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997).

Smarthistory images for teaching and learning:

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Cite this page as: Dr. Ron Baxter and Dr. Steven Zucker, "Peterborough Cathedral," in Smarthistory, July 13, 2023, accessed May 23, 2024,