A Brief Architectural History of Peterborough Cathedral

The histories of individual parts of the cathedral will be considered in greater detail in the subsequent geometrical analyses.

      There are numerous published accounts of the cathedral’s architectural history available, but Professor Lisa A. Reilly’s recent Architectural History of Peterborough Cathedral (1997) is the first authorative study to be based on a close and thorough examination of the fabric, as well as of the documents, by a professional architectural historian. Her analysis of the cathedral’s architectural history differs in a number of important respects from those of earlier publications. The following account draws substantially on Reilly’s study and is in accord with her assessments.

       For nearly half of its nine-hundred-year history the present cathedral existed as the abbey church of an ancient Benedictine monastery.  In the Middle Ages the monastery was known as the Abbey of St. Peter at Burch, and in about 1340, before the Black Death, it housed sixty monks and was one of the six wealthiest monasteries in England.

       The building of it began in all probability in 1107, when it was needed to replace a much smaller Anglo-Saxon building of which nothing today remains visible above ground.  The present building was built around the earlier building. The material is Barnack stone, floated to the site by river from a local quarry, while the later thirteenth  century façade is enhanced by a multitude of colonettes fashioned from the local Ancaster ‘marble.’

      Except for the western transept and façade and the eastern ambulatory retrochoir, the building is almost entirely a late Anglo-Norman structure, built between 1107 and 1170.   The plan was set out almost certainly by Abbot Ernulph who, as Prior and de facto Abbot at Canterbury had just completed the great choir and crypt at Canterbury cathedral, the originality and grandeur of which aroused world-wide admiration after it had been decorated and furnished by his successor Conrad at Canterbury.  In little more than ten years he had completed the work there, which included two new transepts, two ‘lofty towers’, the largest crypt in Christendom and twenty new chapels on three levels.  In response to his architectural achievement at Canterbury where he had almost certainly been both architect and administrator, he was appointed Abbot of Peterborough, where St Peter’s Abbey was badly in need of a much larger church and improved monastic accommodation. He arrived there in 1107 and began building, but in 1114 he was made Bishop of Rochester and sent there, much against his will and that of the monks of Peterborough, to build another new cathedral.  Ernulph is known to have built a new refectory, dormitory, necessarium and chapter house at Peterborough and it is difficult not to believe that in seven years he had not made considerable headway with the construction of the church, at least the massive task of digging out the foundations and building the footings, but in 1116 a massive fire destroyed most of the monastery, including its abbey church. Only Ernulph’s claustral buildings survived.  It is unclear if it was the Saxon monastery church that was destroyed, being still in use while the new church was under construction, or if it was the new church that burnt, which could only have happened if it had been roofed, or partly roofed, for stone alone does not burn, although it can be damaged by fire. The  Chronicle of Hugh Candidus (Mellows, 1997) states that in 1118 the new Abbot, John de Sais, laid the foundation of a new church,  but Reilly states that “there is nothing in the fabric of the building that demands a post-1116 date for the start of construction or an east to west building pattern” (Reilly 1997: 53).  She also suggests that the west end was erected simultaneously with the choir (Reilly 1997: 41).  On the other hand, the clerestory of the nave was probably not built until about fifty years later and was put up proceeding bay by bay from east to west.  The difference in colour of the stone used then in comparison with that of the lower walls can be seen from the cloister (Fig. 165)[1]  As a consequence of being constructed consecutively, the bays of the nave clerestory do not line up exactly with those of the nave.

       The monastic half of the building seems to have been completed and in use well before the completion of the nave, which may have been provided with a temporary roof.

      The west end of the church was originally intended to be similar to earlier Norman churches, - rather plain, with massive towers on the north and south corners.  These towers were begun, but at an unknown date, perhaps around 1160, their construction was halted and the nave extended by two extra bays.  

       The appointment of Benedict of Canterbury to the Abbacy of Peterborough in 1177 brought another change of plan, and a change of style, for Benedict had been Prior of the monastery at Canterbury Cathedral where at that moment the new choir and St. Thomas’s chapel were being built in the new French pointed arch style.   He would have played the leading role in the choice of its architect, William of Sens and would have been well acquainted with his work at Sens.

       At Peterborough Benedict ordered the completion of a façade that included not only towers but bays extending north and south to create what is now termed the western transept, furnished with three entrances.  The new work, which now forms a kind of entrance hall, was built in the new ‘Early English Gothic’ style.

       Once more however, before the south tower had been completed, an even grander enterprise interrupted the work.  Inspired perhaps by other highly impressive facades, richly adorned with biblical statuary, the previously intended façade was extended into a great portico of three grand portals leading to three entrances.  The design is so original as to lead one to wonder if it may not have been to some degree the brainchild of the Bishop of Lincoln, the great Robert Grosseteste, the intellectual genius of the early thirteenth century, mathematician, geometer and scientist, who performed the consecration of the cathedral in 1235, when he and his entourage would have entered the central portal with great ceremony and circumstance, accompanied by fine music from the choristers in the passage above the portal.  It appears to have escaped the attention of most observers that, as a ceremonial entrance, the central portal is more highly decorated than the side portals, specifically on the mouldings between the colonettes.  It also needs to be understood that although the central entrance is now the public entrance, this arrangement must be a relatively recent innovation.  The general rule in English cathedrals is that the central west door is never opened except for great ceremonial occasions, often at the  religious Great Feasts  when processions of prelates and sometimes of royalty and other distinguished guests enter preceded by the crozier and choir.  The public entrance is most often through a porch from the south.  At Peterborough throughout most of its history, the public would have entered through the wide side portals and doors of the west facade, and very probably, in my opinion, one door was originally for men and the other for women.   The Perpendicular porch was created at a time of close political relationship between church and state, when visitations of royalty were occasions of particularly great show and ceremony.

        Probably at the same time as the building of the portico, the nave was given its famous painted ceiling.  It appears that at one stage it was hoped to vault the nave in stone, but it was wisely decided not to do so, for such a vault would have required the support of flying buttresses.

       On either side of the portico a staircase tower, or turret, surmounted by pinnacles and a spire, takes the thrust of the great arches of the north and south portals.

       The next project was the building of a large and richly decorated Lady Chapel standing alongside the choir on the north, and consecrated in 1290 (Fig. 42).  It was pulled down in 1661 to raise money for the repair of the main building and nothing now remains to be seen.  Also destroyed was a small chapel joining the Lady Chapel to the north choir aisle.

      Between 1290 and 1345 virtually all the small Norman windows of the nave at arcade level and at gallery level were replaced by large windows in the Decorated style.  In order to enlarge the gallery windows the walls of the gallery were increased in height by at least five, possibly six, feet, and consequently the original steeply sloping roofs over the aisles were replaced by the almost flat roofs, virtually invisible from the ground, that exist today (Fig. 165).

 . Also enlarged in the same way were the windows of the apse of the sanctuary.   The  round-headed Norman windows in the transepts and the nave clerestory were not enlarged but all were filled in with Decorated tracery, as they remain today.. 

       Around 1315, according to Pevsner, the Norman central tower was taken down and replaced by a lighter and lower tower surmounted by a wooden octagon (Fig. 59a).  It is of interest that in this operation the east and west sides of the tower, between nave and choir, were taken down to capital level, upon which the Norman arches were replaced with pointed arches, while the north and south sides were taken down only to the tops of the round Norman arches which remain today leading to the transepts.    

      Towards the end of the fourteenth century c.1380, the fine Perpendicular style ceremonial porch, with its Trinity Chapel above, was inserted into the central portal, much to the dismay of some twentieth century commentators.  At about the same time, the present wooden coffered ceiling was constructed to adorn the presbytery.     

      The apse also has a wooden painted ceiling, but its history is uncertain.  Reilly deals with it as follows: “It seems likely that a stone vault originally covered the apse and was replaced, possibly in the fourteenth century and certainly before the Civil War, by a flat wooden ceiling of which the present covering is a copy”.

      The building of the cathedral as we see it today ended c.1500, with the addition of a retrochoir surrounding the Anglo-Norman apse.  It was designed almost certainly by John Wastell and is adorned with his handsome fan vaulting.  The new development required the demolishing of the small side chapels flanking the sanctuary and the conversion of the ground-level windows of the apse into door openings between apse and retrochoir.  The New Building, as it is termed, is only a single story high, so that externally the apse of the early twelfth century soars majestically above it.

       In 1539, less than forty years after the completion of the retrochoir, the Dissolution of the Monasteries took place, and two years later the Abbey of St. Peter at Burch became Peterborough Cathedral, and all construction came to an end.

       A century later, in 1643, Cromwell’s troops entered the cathedral, destroying the stained glass, the choir stalls, the altars and the religious statuary.  Seven years later, in order to raise funds to repair the main body of the cathedral, the Lady Chapel and the cloisters were demolished and the masonry sold. 

       The only major building developments to take place since that date concern the reconstruction of the central tower.  Shortly before 1800 the wooden octagon was removed and four corner turrets added, but in 1883 some distortion of the arcading adjacent to the tower became obvious, and the tower was taken down, all the stones being numbered.  The tower was rebuilt with the old stones, but upon new foundations and footings, in appearance exactly as before, although greatly strengthened.  The four turrets, however, were not replaced.

     An important aspect of the structure of the cathedral, not found in Reilly, lies in the fact that the pavement is completely level from end to end, except for the central area of the presbytery, which was stepped up to different levels.  This may have occurred when the present marble floor and ciborium designed by J.L.Pearson were installed between 1886 and 1894, although steps up to the sanctuary seem to be shown in Cattermole’s drawing of  c.1800 (Fig. 188).  In the monastic period there would always have been steps up to the high altar and to the abbots throne behind it, as at Norwich.

     It is of importance in regard to the present study to appreciate that the present floor is not only level throughout the building but remains at its original level.  The floor level of the c.1380 Perpendicular porch is identical with the pavement level of the whole c.1230 facade, and this level continues into the nave from the porch without alteration

      At the west end of the building the pavement stands about 19 inches above ground level (Figs. 54, 209), but as the ground externally rises slightly towards the east and north, the pavement level at the east end lies about four inches below the outside ground level on the south side (Fig. 222), and perhaps a foot below in the north transept (Fig. 188)..

     The interior of Peterborough cathedral has generally been much admired, but the western aspect has been the subject of a good deal of adverse criticism from architectural historians.  There has also been some misunderstanding of its design history.  Conant’s Architecture in Britain: The Middle Ages has this to say: 

    There has been much speculation as to the intention of this design, occasioned by the offence given to a classically trained sense of architectural propriety by the fact that the centre arch is narrower than the two side arches.  The design, by reason of its incompleteness, lacking the south transept tower which was not carried up high enough to tell in the external view, and by reason of the late fourteenth century porch which was inserted in the middle arch and grievously interrupts its lines, is very difficult to judge.

However, this begs the question of whether or not the design, as distinct from the final appearance, included the north and south transept towers, for these are part of an earlier design development. When the present façade was designed was it ever intended that the south tower would be completed, or was it intended that the north tower would be brought down to the level of the south tower?  Or was the problem never considered?

Conant continues:

‘It seems...that the line of the central arch was to be continued and broadened up into the space the space between the towers  with their spires’.


One feels the need for some further explanation of exactly what is envisaged here. The paragraph then proceeds to consider the main proportions of the façade:

     ‘The problem is complicated by the question of the use of 2:3 and 3:4 ratios in determining the spacing of features of the composition.  There is reason to believe that these, and similar simple arithmetical ratios, were applied throughout the design, and it is curious to note that these are the special ratios, descending through the Timaeus of Plato from Pythagoras and resting on the basis of the musical intervals.  These ratios were extremely familiar to educated men in the age of the Peterborough west building through the Boethius de Musica, a work in the possession of almost every great ecclesiastical establishment.”


     The widely accepted hypothesis concerning the ‘musical’ ratios in the Peterborough façade originated in a suggestion in a footnote to an article by Webb (1952), but, as will be shown in the course of this study, the hypothesis that the proportions of the facade are simple arithmetical ratios is in fact mistaken, and derives from an error in the admittedly difficult task, occasioned by the existence of the fourteenth century porch, of measuring the thirteenth century work.  It will also be found, in subsequent pages, that the porch does not interrupt the lines of the portals as offensively as might at first appear.

To summarise: Peterborough cathedral, originally an abbey church, presents six clearly differentiated constructional projects occurring at six different periods.  They are:

1.       The Anglo-Norman church, c.1110 –1170

2.       The Early English western transepts,  c.1180 – 90

3.       The Great western portal facade, c.1230

4.       The replacement of the nave windows and the tower, c.1315

5.       The Perpendicular Porch, c.1380.

6.       The square fan-vaulted Retrochoir of the eastern end, c.1490 -1500

The only substantial architectural work since then has been the ciborium and the marble mosaic pavement in the choir and sanctuary by Pearson c.1926.


[1] The raising of the outer nave walls by five or six feet c.1400 appears to have be accomplished largely by the re-use of original masonry .