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Foundation of the First Abbey

655AD

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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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Knights and a Castle

1071

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William I imposed the living of sixty knights onto Peterborough Abbey and its monastic estates in 1071. He ordered the construction of a motte and bailey castle on the north side of the monastic precincts. This  was a Norman Castle of timber and earth. The motte remains today in the Deanery Gardens as Tout (Tower) Hill, whilst many of the manors in the area given to the knights now bear their names in the villages – Helpston, Longueville, Waterville and so on.





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The Great Fire of Peterborough

1116

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Most of the town was destroyed in the Great fire of Peterborough, including the castle. It is claimed the church tower burnt for nine days. It possibly started from from an unattended fire in the Abbey's bakery. The Anglo- Saxon Chronicle says “all the minster of Peterborough burned, and all the buildings except the chapter-house and the dormitory; and besides, the most part of the town also all burned. All this happened on a Friday; that was 4 August…”  





A Monk Drowned in the Fens

1104

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The Annals of the Abbey of Thorney recorded important events for the monks of Thorney Abbey. In 1104 they stated a monk named Master Walter, and five servants, were shipwrecked and drowned in the mere called Saltana. Mere is an old name for a lake. The lake, now drained, was probably south of Whittlesey. The annals do not state how the monk drowned, but monastic clothing is not particularly well-suited to swimming.





Chronicle Writers (and a Wild Hunt)

1127

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Much of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle was written at Peterborough Abbey in this period. It is one of the key sources for medieval history. Today it is preserved in the Peterborough D and E Manuscripts. Another chronicle was written here by a monk called Hugh Candidus, which tells the story of the abbey. One tale he told was of a corrupt abbot, Henry d'Angély, who was a rather godless and worldly man. He planned to loot Peterborough of its wealth. As a result a dread portent followed in the form of a spectral 'wild hunt' sent to terrorise the area. 'In the very year in which he came to the abbey, marvellous portents were seen and heard at night during the whole of lent, throughout the woodland and plains, from the monastery as far as Stamford. For there appeared, as it were, hunters with horns and hounds, all being jet black, their horses and hounds as well, and some rode as it were on goats and had great eyes and there were twenty or thirty together. Many men of faithful report both saw them and heard the horns...'    





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More Holy Relics for Peterborough’s Abbey

1174

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Construction of the Becket Chapel and adjacent hospital began in 1174. They were built to house many of the monastery’s holy relics, not least the relics of the newly canonised St Thomas Becket. Becket had visited the abbey with King Henry II in 1154, but was later murdered in Canterbury Cathedral. Abbot Benedict acquired some of Becket’s relics for Peterborough Abbey which were to encourage pilgrims. These included the flagstone his head laid on as he died; a bottle of Becket’s blood (said to never congeal); and furthermore Becket’s bloodied undergown he was wearing as he was murdered. The latter was ceremonially washed on feast days; the washing water was then collected and sold to pilgrims as a cure-all. The Becket Chapel survives today as the Cathedral’s tea-room.





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Abbey Church Spectacular Wooden Ceiling

1238

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The new abbey church was consecrated in 1238 and the structure of the building has remained essentially as it was on completion. Most significantly the original wooden ceiling still survives in the nave. It is the only ceiling of its type in the whole country. Furthermore, it is one of only four wooden ceilings of this period surviving in the whole of Europe. It was completed between 1230 and 1250 by skilled painters working by hand, which is not easy at that height. The ceiling has been over-painted twice, but retains its original style and pattern.





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