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Chapter
This webpage reproduces a chapter of
Handbook to the Cathedrals of England

by Richard John King

published by John Murray, Albemarle Street,
Peterborough, 1862

Text and engravings are in the public domain.


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Chapter

p97 Peterborough Cathedral

Part II. History of the See,
with Short Notices of the principal Bishops.

The great Benedictine monastery of Peterborough, which became one of the wealthiest and most important in England, was founded, according to the Saxon Chronicle, in the year 655, by King Oswi of Northumbria, and Peada, son of Penda, King of Mercia. Penda, one of the last and fiercest of the Saxon pagan chieftains, was defeated and killed in November of the same year in a great battle with Oswi, on the river Aire in Yorkshire. Oswi succeeded to the power of the Mercian king, but gave the province of the Southern Mercians to Peada, son of Penda, who about three years before had embraced Christianity, and had married Alhflede, daughter of Oswi. Peada was murdered during the Easter festival of the following year (656); but between that time and the previous November, Diuma, one of four Christian priests carried back into Mercia by Peada after his own conversion, had been consecrated Bishop of the Middle Anglians and Mercians by Finan, Bishop of Lindisfarne; and the two princes, Oswi and Peada, had, in the words of the chronicler, "come together, and said they would rear a minster to the glory of Christ, and the honour of St. Peter." This was Peterborough, the first monastic establishment, and (with the exception perhaps of Lichfield, the seat of the Mercian bishopric) the first resting-place of Christianity in central England.

p98 The site chosen for the new monastery was at a place called Medeshamstede, the 'meadow homestead,' in North Gyrwa-land (gyr, A.-S. 'a fen'), one of the many districts tributary to the main kingdom of Mercia, and which must have been specially dependent on the province of the Southern Mercians assigned by Oswi to Peada. The foundations were laid on a rising ground above the river Nen, overlooking a wide extent of fen-country on one side, and a rich district of woods and meadows on the other. The work was commenced in the presence of Peada and Oswi, who, in the words of the Saxon Chronicle, "began the ground wall and wrought thereon." It was then entrusted to a monk named Saxulf. Three years afterwards, the Mercians threw off the rule of Oswi, reasserted their independence, and set up Wulfere, brother of Peada, and a younger son of Penda, as their king. Wulfere was a Christian, and greatly favoured the rising monastery of Medeshamstede; which on its completion was "hallowed in the names of St. Peter, St. Paul, and St. Andrew" by Deusdedit, Archbishop of Canterbury, Ithamar, Bishop of Rochester, and many other bishops, in the presence of Wulfere and his brother Ethelred. Saxulf became the first abbot, and continued to preside over the monastery he had built ("Abbas et constructor" he is called by Bede) until in 674 he was consecrated to the see of Mercia by Archbishop Theodore. At the request of Wulfere and of his successor Ethelred, great privileges were conferred on the abbey by the Popes Vitalian and Agatho. Its abbot took precedence of all others north of the Thames; and "if any Briton had a desire to visit Rome, and could not by reason of its distance," he might repair to St. Peter's in this monastery, there offer up his vows, and receive absolution and the apostolical benediction.

Medeshamstede was flourishing, and if the story told in the chronicle of the Pseudo-Ingulph is to be believed, contained a brotherhood of eighty monks, when it was attacked p99and destroyed by the Danes under Hubba, in the year 870, as has already been related (Pt. I § XIX). It remained in ruins until about 966, when Athelwold, Bishop of Winchester, as distinguished a 'constructor' or architect under King Edgar, as his successor, William of Wykeham, was under Edward III, caused it to be rebuilt, together with many other religious houses which had been destroyed by the Northmen. It was henceforth — probably from being surrounded with a wall of defence — called Burgh, "a similitudine urbis," says William of Malmesbury. The name of 'Gildenburgh' was sometimes given to it, from a part of the minster-roofs having been gilt by Abbot Leofric; but it finally took and kept that by which it is at present known, Peterburgh, from the dedication of its great church to St. Peter.

Numerous relics, including the incorruptible arm of St. Oswald of Northumbria, some earth from the battlefield on which he fell, and the body of St. Florentin, brought from Normandy, were acquired for his convent by Abbot Elsi, who died in 1055. Leofric, a relative of the Confessor — by whose favour he held five monasteries at once — Burton, Coventry, Crowland, Thorney, and Peterborough — joined the army of Harold at the time of the Norman invasion, but was not present in the great battle. He returned to Peterborough, where he died in 1066. His successor, Brand, was the abbot who knighted the Saxon hero Hereward. Peterborough, like Ely and the other monasteries of the fen country, had been a stronghold of Saxon feeling, and had at first supported the claims of Edgar Atheling. Accordingly, on the death of Brand in 1069, a Norman named Thorold was appointed abbot by the King. Hereward, however, who had joined the Danes under Sweyn in the Isle of Ely, attacked Peterborough and plundered its church, some of the relics in which were carried off to Denmark. On another occasion, the Abbot was made prisoner by Hereward, and compelled to pay thirty marks for his ransom. On his death in 1100, the p100monks, who had paid three hundred marks to the King for the privilege, elected Godric, a brother of Brand, to the abbacy. He was soon deposed, however. The abbey remained in the King's hands for four years; and from this time Churchmen of Norman birth alone were permitted to hold the high dignity of Abbot of Peterborough. Those of especial note were Ernulf, Prior of Christ Church, Canterbury, who became Bishop of Rochester; John of Seez, who commenced the choir of the existing cathedral, after a fire in 1116, which consumed the greater part of the monastery; Martin of Bec, who completed the choir and transept-aisles, and who governed the monastery with great prudence during the troubled times of Stephen; William de Waterville, and Benedict, who completed the nave (the latter was Coeur-de‑Lion's Keeper of the Great Seal); Robert de Sutton, who first joined the side of the Barons, and then that of Henry III, and was compelled to pay heavy fines in consequence; Richard Ashton, and Robert Kirton, who built the eastern transept, or New Building; and John Chambers, the last abbot and first bishop. The monastery had steadily increased in wealth and importance; and at the time of the dissolution it was one of the richest, though scarcely the best-conducted in England. Many of the English monarchs had visited it on their way to or from the north. Edward III, his queen, and court kept the Easter festival at Peterborough in 1327, on which occasion the abbot, Adam de Botheby, expended nearly £500. Cardinal Wolsey kept the same feast at Peterborough in great state in 1528; but although the abbey expended enormous sums in entertaining its royal and noble visitors, the local rhyme characterizing the great monasteries of the fens indicates that it was scarcely so liberal to those of lower degree:—

"Ramsay the bounteous of gold and of fee,

Crowland as courteous as courteous may be,

Spalding the rich and Peterborough the proud,

p101 Sawtrey by the way

That poor abbaye

Gave more alms in one day

Than all they."

John Chambers, the last abbot, who, in the words of Gunton, the historian of Peterborough, "loved to sleep in a whole skin, and desired to die in his nest," resigned the abbey to Henry VIII on the first of March, 1540. He was then granted an annual pension of £260; but in the following year, letters patent were issued for converting the monastic church into the cathedral of a new diocese, which was to extend over the counties of Northampton and Rutland, hitherto comprised in the great diocese of Lincoln. The church is said to have been spared as a monument to Catherine of Arragon. Henry VIII, it is asserted, replied to a suggestion, "How well it would become his greatness to erect a fair monument for her," "Yes; I will leave her one of the goodliest in the kingdom," — meaning this church.

A.D. 1541‑1556. John Chambers retained the abbot's residence as his palace; and the new diocese was endowed with a third part of the property of the abbey, amounting to the yearly value of £733, (equal to about £14,660 of our money); the other two parts being assigned to the King, and to the newly-established chapter, consisting of a dean and six canons. Bishop Chambers erected for himself in the cathedral a monument with an effigy, which was destroyed in 1643.

A.D. 1557, deposed 1559. David Poole was deprived for denying the supremacy of Queen Mary; "being esteemed a grave person and very quiet subject," says Antony Wood. He was committed to custody, but soon liberated, and died on one of the farms belonging to the see. He was buried in the cathedral.

A.D. 1560, translated to Norwich 1584. Edmund Scambler had been chaplain to Archbishop Parker. During his long p102episcopate at Peterborough, he alienated much of the land belonging to the see; "As if," says Gunton, "King Henry had not taken away enough, and the Bishop himself would take away more." The greater part of the alienated estates passed into the hands of Cecil, who surrounded his mansion-house at Burleigh with the spoils of the see of Peterborough. At the commencement of the Reformation, and during the reigns of Edward VI and Mary, the alienation of Church property had gone so far, "that in the beginning of Elizabeth's reign, statutes were made disabling ecclesiastical proprietors from granting away their lands except on leases for three lives, or twenty-one years. But an unfortunate reservation was made in favour of the crown. The Queen, therefore, and her courtiers, who obtained grants from her, continued to prey upon their succulent victim."1 Cecil, however, was not more "mercenary and rapacious" than the rest of Elizabeth's courtiers, with the exception of Walsingham, "who spent his own estate in her service, and left not sufficient to pay his debts." (See Ely, Part II, Bishop Cox.) The Bishop of Peterborough was not less active in the work of alienation after his translation to Norwich; and Lord Keeper Puckering petitioned the Queen to confer the see of Ely on Scambler, when eighty-eight years old, in order that he might give him a lease of part of the lands. This second translation never took place; and by an act in the first year of James I, conveyances of bishops' lands to the crown are made void: "a concession," says Hallam, "much to the King's honour."

A.D. 1585‑1600. Richard Howland, Master of St. John's College, Cambridge. During his episcopate, Mary Queen of Scots was buried at Peterborough. The sermon on this occasion, however, (from Ps. xxxix. 5, 6, 7), which "made a great noise among factious people," was preached by William Wickham, Bishop of Lincoln.

A.D. 1601‑1630. Thomas Dove, a chaplain of Queen Elizabeth's, who was wont to call him "the Dove with silver wings," from his excellent preaching and reverend aspect. He kept great hospitality during his long episcopate.

A.D. 1630, translated to Bath and Wells 1632. William Piers.

A.D. 1633, translated to Hereford 1634. Augustine Lindsell, Dean of Lichfield. Bishop Lindsell, whose learning was considerable, was the editor of "Theophylact on St. Paul's Epistles," fol. 1636.

A.D. 1634‑1638. Francis Dee, Dean of Chichester.

A.D. 1639‑1649. John Towers, who had been Dean of Peterborough. The "great commission for draining the fens" was opened at Peterborough soon after this bishop's accession. The commissioners sat for some days in the great hall of the palace; and their decisions were henceforth known as "Peterborough law." The troubles of the civil war fell heavily on Bishop Towers, whose cathedral suffered more than any other in England from the fanatic soldiery (Part I § XV). He was himself for some time in attendance on the King, and died in obscurity, Jan. 10, 1648/9, "twenty days before his great master King Charles."

A.D. 1660, translated to Lincoln 1663. Benjamin Laney had been Master of Pembroke Hall, Cambridge, and Dean of Rochester. He had attended Charles II during his exile. Dr. Cosin, consecrated to the see of Durham at the same time as Bishop Laney to that of Peterborough, had been Dean of Peterborough before the troubles, and returned to his former charge on the Restoration. The cathedral of Peterborough, which remained in a ruinous condition for many years after the desecration, had been partly restored, and was used by the inhabitants as a parish church. Dean Cosin "renewed the ancient usage," and "settled the church and choir in a proper order."

A.D. 1663‑1679. Joseph Henshaw, Dean of Chichester, p104author of Horae Succesivae,º a book of some reputation in its day. He was buried near his wife in the church of East Lavant, Sussex.

A.D. 1679, translated to Norwich 1685. William Lloyd, translated to Peterborough from Llandaff. Bishop Lloyd, who died in 1710, was the longest lived of the Nonjuring bishops. He was deprived 1690. (See Norwich.)

A.D. 1685, deprived 1690. Thomas White, also a Nonjuror. He was one of the seven bishops sent to the Tower.

A.D. 1691‑1718. Richard Cumberland. "He had no pretension to quick and brilliant talents," writes his great grandson, Richard Cumberland, author of "The Observer." "His mind was fitted for elaborate and profound researches, as his works more fully testify." Bishop Cumberland was the author of a refutation of the 'free principles' of Hobbes, entitled De Legibus Naturae Disputatio Philosophica, a book which, between the years 1672 (when it first appeared) and 1750, was several times reprinted, in Latin and in English, both at home and on the Continent. Besides some lesser works, Bishop Cumberland also wrote Origines Gentium Antiquissimae, or, "Attempts for Discovering the Times of the First Planting of Nations." London, 1724. His monument remains in the New Building, with an inscription already noticed (Part I § XX).

A.D. 1718‑1728. White Kennett had been eleven years Dean of Peterborough, and is perhaps the most distinguished prelate who has ever filled the see. Bishop Kennett was born at Dover in 1660, was educated at Westminster and Oxford, and became successively Vicar of Ambrosden, in Oxfordshire, Rector of Shottesbroke, Berkshire, and Dean and Bishop of Peterborough. Bishop Kennett is best remembered, however, for his literary labours. Besides many smaller works in which he replied to the arguments of Atterbury respecting the history and rights of the Convocation, Bishop Kennett wrote "Parochial Antiquities: p105a History of Ambrosden, Bicester, and the Neighbourhood," 4to., 1695: this book was republished by Dr. Bandinel (Oxford, 1818), and is still of considerable interest and value; — and "A Complete History of England," 3 vols. folio, 1706. The third volume alone is Kennett's, and contains the history from Charles I to William III. Bishop Kennett's monument remains in the New Building (Part I § XX).

The chapter library at Peterborough was greatly enriched by the care of Bishop Kennett, and of his registrar, the Rev. Joseph Sparke, editor of a collection of chronicles which has now become rare, entitled Historiae Anglicanae Scriptores Varii. London, folio, 1723. The volume contains many of the chronicles connected with the abbey of Peterborough.

A.D. 1729‑1747. Robert Clavering was translated to Peterborough from Llandaff.

A.D. 1747, translated to Salisbury 1757. John Thomas, tutor to George III.

A.D. 1757, translated to London 1764. Richard Terrick.

A.D. 1764‑1769. Robert Lamb.

A.D. 1769‑1794. John Hinchcliffe, Master of Trinity College, Cambridge; which position he retained after he became Bishop of Peterborough, until in 1789 he was appointed to the Deanery of Durham, which he held with his bishopric until his death.

A.D. 1794‑1813. Spencer Madan, translated from Bristol.

A.D. 1813‑1819. John Parsons, Master of Balliol College, Oxford; retained the Mastership until his death. He died at Oxford, and was buried in the chapel of Balliol College.

A.D. 1819‑1839. Herbert Marsh, translated from Llandaff; had been Lady Margaret's Professor of Divinity at Cambridge, and author of several learned works.

A.D. 1839. George Davis.

For later bishops up to our own time, see Peter Owen's site.

The Author's Note:

1 Hallam, Const. Hist., ch. iv.


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