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Foundation of the First Abbey

655AD

Information

A monastery was founded on the current Cathedral site on the north bank of the River Nene in Saxon times. At that time the area was called Medeswell, later Medehamstede. This translates as 'the home or farmstead in the water meadows'. The monastery was founded by Peada, son of King Penda of Mercia. It was completed by Peada’s brother Wulfhere. At that time Mercia was a pagan Saxon kingdom, but as part of a marriage contract with neighbouring Christian Northumbria, Christian missionaries were allowed to found a religious house here. The original monastery may have been built of timber, but seems to have been later replaced in stone. These original monks were Celtic Christians.





Vikings Raid the Abbey

870AD

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Peterborough monastery is said to have been attacked and destroyed by Viking invaders in 870. These were most likely to be a group known as the ‘Great Heathen Army’. They were led by ‘Ivar the Boneless’ and also invaded East Anglia in this year. Some scholars have disputed the violence of this event, but other local monasteries were also attacked at the same time. Therefore the Viking attack in Peterborough seems more credible. A relic of this original monastic church is the ‘Hedda Stone’ displayed in the Cathedral today.





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The Abbey is Re-founded

966-970AD

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After it's destruction by vikings in 870 the monastery on the site was re-founded by the authority of King Edgar the Peaceful. Bishop Aethelwold of Winchester worked with Edgar to create a Benedictine Religious house. Aethelwold had a series of dreams and visions encouraging him to set out and re-found the abbey. He initially got lost and ended up in Oundle instead! Further visions put him on the right track and he rebuilt the abbey on its previous site. A township started to spring up to the eastern side of the monastic precincts. The whole area was bounded by a ditched and embanked burgh wall. Within a century, the monastery’s wealth increased dramatically, so it is often nicknamed ‘Guildenburgh’ – the ‘Golden Borough’.





The Arm of St Oswald

1000

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A monk from Peterborough Abbey stole the arm of St Oswald from Bamburgh Castle and took it to his abbot at Peterborough in an effort to gain favour. Oswald was a convert to Christianity and King of Northumbria from 634 to 642. He spent much of his early life in exile, but when he returned to fight for his throne, he raised a cross and prayed for victory. Oswald won the battle and ruled as king of Northumbria until his death. While Oswald was king, he became known for his piety and generosity. During the celebration of an Easter feast, he supposedly gave away all the silver plates along with the food to the poor. The chronicles say his chaplain; Bishop Aidan blessed Oswald, saying “may this arm that has been so generous never perish”. When Oswald died in battle against King Penda of Mercia in 642, his arm was taken to Bamburgh where it remained uncorrupted. The arm remained the primary relic of Peterborough and the chapel of St Oswald still has a watch-tower where the monks safeguarded it day and night. St. Oswald’s arm disappeared from the chapel during the reformation along with its silver casket.    





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Death of St Kyneburgha

680AD

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Saint Kyneburgha or Kyneburga was the daughter of Saxon King Penda of Mercia. She converted to Christianity and founded an abbey for both monks and nuns in Castor in the 7th century, becoming the first Abbess. She died 15th September 680 AD and was originally buried in Castor. She was moved to Peterborough Abbey and later still to Thorney Abbey and is remembered on her feast day on 6th March.





Cnut the Great Visits Nassington

1017

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Around 1017 King Cnut, King of Denmark, England and Norway (also known as King Canute) stayed in Nassington, which was a loyal holding. He arrived with a large retinue, including Aethelric Bishop of Dorchester on Thames. King Cnut’s hall, the remains of which lay beneath the present Prebendal Manor, was discovered in 1986. After Cnut’s death in 1035 the hall continued to be owned by the succeeding kings.





Resources

The Thorney Computus

1102

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Medieval monasteries produced a large quantity of high-quality literature, but they also produced diagrams too. The Thorney Computus contains a world map, a diagram of the relationship between the four elements (earth, water, fire and air) and complex tables used to calculate the dates for Easter and other religious festivals important to the monastic community using a lunar calendar. The detail and complexity is outstanding, which is why it now resides in St John's College, Oxford University. This document is usually attributed to the original work of Byrhtferth of Ramsey Abbey, the Ramsey Computus predating that of Thorney. Dates calculated in the work relate to the 10th and 11th centuries when Byrhtferth was alive, suggesting this was created as an exercise, or as training for practising monks. The Peterborough Computus is almost identical and considered a sibling manuscript, it being later in date.





Orton Hall Farm

50 AD

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Archaeological excavations in the 1970s revealed a large first century farmstead in the vicinity of Orton Hall. The site was first in use from around 50AD and continued to be used well into the Saxon period. The farm house had a yard with a wall around it, and there were large barns and a mill too. Agricultural activities were evident, as well as beer production and milling, suggesting some wealth was attached to the farmstead.





Fletton Church Fascinations

c.800

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St Margaret's Church in Fletton was identified in the Domesday Book of 1086, but some of its features are considerably older. Safely protected inside the church are Anglo-Saxon carvings, presumed to be 8th or 9th Century, consisting of a frieze and two separate figures. The frieze contains images of saints, angels and mythical beasts, set amongst typical Anglo-Saxon woven designs. The images are thought to be of St. Michael and an Evangelist. All of the stonework is a light pink colour suggesting that it was once in a fire. One theory is that they had been moved from Peterborough Abbey during the great fire of 1116. Another feature of the church is a large cross in the churchyard which may have Anglo-Saxon origins. The cross has had several additions and alterations and contains a rather peculiar Latin inscription at its base.
Access
The cross can be easily accessed in the churchyard, but the internal features can only be viewed when the church is open. Photo credit: St Margaret's Church, Old Fletton, Peterborough cc-by-sa/2.0 - © Julian Dowse - geograph.org.uk/p/147475





Abbot Sexwolf, the First Abbot of Medehamstede

655

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The first abbey in Medehamstede, now Peterborough, was built around 655. The abbey was founded by King Peada, who also employed the first abbot. The abbot's name has been spelt in a variety of formats including Saxulf, Sexulf, Saxwulf, Seaxwolf and Sexwolf. There are also many different accounts of how he lived his life. Sexwulf was much celebrated in Medehamstede in the past, although the name has now been all but forgotten. He is said to have been wealthy, well-liked and had many connections amongst the elite of the Saxon community. These connections enabled him to convert many others to Christianity and he was rewarded for his hard work by becoming a bishop. He is also credited with establishing the first community in what is now Thorney. A small anchorage was created on Thorney island by him when he was gifted the land, known then as Ancarig. (1)
Citation
(1)'Houses of Benedictine monks: Abbey of Thorney', in A History of the County of Cambridge and the Isle of Ely: Volume 2, ed. L F Salzman (London, 1948), pp. 210-217. British History Online http://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/cambs/vol2/pp210-217 [accessed 14 June 2018].