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Peterborough Cathedral 2009.jpg
Peterborough Cathedral
Grid reference: TL185998
Location: 52°34’60"N, 0°15’0"W
Dialling code: 01733
Local Government
Council: Peterborough

Peterborough is a cathedral city in Northamptonshire. The city stands on the banks of the River Nene, which enters the North Sea some 30 miles to the north-east. Peterborough is the heart of the Soke of Peterborough, the north-easternmost part of Northamptonshire.

Peterborough is a New Town and its old town centre has been greatly redeveloped and is surrounded but a great number of twentieth-century residential neighbourhoods, many entirely replacing older villages whose names they have adopted and which have spread south across the River Nene into Huntingdonshire. The town has thus served to take London overspill and is a major working town. It is by the A1(M) and the railway station is an important stop on the East Coast Main Line railway.


Early history

Peterborough lies on the last dry land before the Nene enters the Fens. Bronze Age remains have been found nearby at Flag Fen to the east in Cambridgeshire. Outside the city to the west was the fortified Roman garrison town of Durobrivae at Water Newton in Huntingdonshire, on Ermine Street. A large first-century Roman castra stood too at Longthorpe, designed to house half a legion, or about 3,000 soldiers;[1] it may have been established as early as around AD 44–48.[2] Peterborough lies in what was an important area of ceramic production in the Roman period, providing Nene Valley Ware that was traded as far away as Cornwall and the Antonine Wall.

Middle Ages

The Hedda Stone, Peterborough Cathedral

Peterborough was founded in the seventh century, though there might have been an earlier village. The abbey of Medeshamstede was founded on the site of a well named Medeswæl in 655, when Seaxwulf founded a monastery on land granted to him for that purpose by Peada, King of the Mercians and dedicated it to St Peter. To the abbey was granted a great deal of land and exemption from the bishop's authority, at least if the charter later found in the recoreds was genuine, but in any case such broad jurisdiction was later confirmed. The town's name changed to Burch (“borough”) from the late tenth century after Abbot Kenulf built a defensive wall around the abbey. Later the name took the addition of Peter, the name of the abbey's principal titular saint.

The Peterborough Chronicle, which contains unique information about the history of England after the Norman Conquest, was composed here in the twelfth century by monks of the abbey. This is the only known prose history in English between the conquest and the later fourteenth century.[3]

In 1070 Hereward the Wake occupied Peterborough during his rebellion against the Normans.

The old Abbey was demolished and a new Abbey built between 1118 and 1238. The Abbey was dissolved by Henry VIII and the building turned into a Cathedral for the new Diocese of Peterborough.

Throughout the Middle Ages, the town of Peterborough was under the jurisdiction of the Abbot. The Abbot held four fairs, of which two, St Peter's Fair, granted in 1189 and later held on the second Tuesday and Wednesday in July, and the Brigge Fair, granted in 1439 and later held on the first Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday in October.

Modern period

Peterborough Guidhall
Burghley House (1555–1587), seat of the Marquess of Exeter, hereditary Lord Paramount of Peterborough

When English civil war broke out, Peterborough was divided in allegiance. Parliamentary soldiers entered the town in 1643 to attack Royalist strongholds at Stamford and Crowland in Lincolnshire. The Royalist forces retreated to Burghley House, where they were captured and sent to Cambridge.[4] While the Parliamentary soldiers were in Peterborough, however, they ransacked the cathedral, destroying the Lady Chapel, chapter house, cloister, communion table and choir stalls, as well as mediæval decoration and records.[5]

From the Reformation, Peterborough was under the jurisdiction of the Dean and Chapter of the Cathedral, who had succeeded the abbots as lords of the manor. They appointed a high bailiff, and the constables and other borough officers were elected at their court leet. In 1874 the borough was incorporated under the government of a mayor, six aldermen and eighteen councillors.[6] Among the privileges claimed by the abbot as early as the thirteenth century was that of having a prison for felons taken in the Soke of Peterborough. In 1576 Bishop Edmund Scambler sold the lordship of the hundred of Nassaburgh, which was coextensive with the Soke, to Queen Elizabeth I, who gave it to Lord Burghley, and from that time until the nineteenth century he and his descendants, the Earls and Marquesses of Exeter, had a separate gaol for prisoners arrested in the Soke.

The rights to the fairs were purchased by the corporation from the Ecclesiastical Commissioners in 1876. The Bridge Fair, as it is now known, granted to the abbey by King Henry VI of England|Henry VI, survives.[7] Prayers for the opening of the fair were once said at the morning service in the cathedral, followed by a civic proclamation and a sausage lunch at the Town Hall which still takes place. The Mayor traditionally leads a procession from the Town Hall to the fair where the proclamation is read, asking all persons to "behave soberly and civilly, and to pay their just dues and demands according to the laws of the realm and the rights of the City of Peterborough."[8]

Nineteenth and twentieth centuries

Railway lines began operating locally during the 1840s, but it was the 1850 opening of the Great Northern Railway's main line from London to York that transformed Peterborough from a market town to an industrial centre. Lord Exeter had opposed the railway's passing through Stamford, so Peterborough, situated between two main terminals at London and Doncaster, increasingly developed as a regional hub.[9]

Coupled with vast local clay deposits, the railway enabled large-scale brick-making and distribution to take place. The area was the United Kingdom's leading producer of bricks for much of the twentieth century. Brick-making had been a small seasonal craft since the early nineteenth century, but during the 1890s successful experiments at Fletton using the harder clays from a lower level had resulted in a much more efficient process.[10] The dominance of London Brick in the market during this period gave rise to some of the country's most well-known landmarks, all built using the ubiquitous Fletton.[11] Other industries followed.

New developments at Hampton Hargate

Peterborough was designated a New Town in 1967 and Peterborough Development Corporation was formed in partnership with the city and county councils to house London's overspill population in new townships around the existing urban area.[12] There were to be four townships, one each at Bretton, Orton, Paston/Werrington and Castor. The last of these was never built, but a fourth, called Hampton, is now taking shape south of the city. It was decided that the city should have a major indoor shopping centre at its heart. Planning permission was received in late summer 1976 and Queensgate, containing over 90 stores and including parking for 2,300 cars, was opened by Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands in 1982. 34 miles of urban roads were planned and a network of high-speed roads, known as parkways, was built.[13] Peterborough's population grew by 45.4% between 1971 and 1991.

Places of interest

Longthorpe Tower

The Cathedral Church of Saint Peter, Saint Paul and Saint Andrew, whose statues look down from the three high gables of the West Front, was originally founded as a monastery in 655 and re-built in its present form between 1118 and 1238. It has been the seat of the Bishop of Peterborough since the Diocese was created in 1541. Peterborough Cathedral is known for its imposing early English Gothic West Front which, with its three enormous arches, is without architectural precedent and with no direct successor. The Cathedral has the distinction of having had two queens buried beneath its paving, Katherine of Aragon and Mary, Queen of Scots. The remains of Queen Mary were later removed to Westminster Abbey by her son King James I and VI when he became King of England.[14]

The general layout of Peterborough is attributed to Martin de Vecti who, as abbot from 1133 to 1155, rebuilt the settlement on dry limestone to the west of the monastery, rather than the often-flooded marshlands to the east. Abbot Martin was responsible for laying out the market place and the wharf beside the river.

The Guildhall was built shortly after the restoration of King Charles II. It is a magnificent seventeenth century building, supported by columns, to provide an open ground floor for the butter and poultry markets which used to be held there. The Market Place was renamed Cathedral Square and the adjacent Gates Memorial Fountain moved to Bishop's Road Gardens in 1963, when the (then weekly) market was transferred to the site of the old cattle market.[15]

Peterscourt on City Road was designed by Sir George Gilbert Scott in 1864, housing St Peter's Teacher Training College for men until 1938. The building is mainly listed for the eighteenth century doorway, brought from the London Guildhall following war damage.[16]

The city's park is a large Victorian park with formal gardens, children's play areas, an aviary, bowling green, tennis courts, pitch and putt course and tea rooms. The Park has been awarded the Green Flag Award, the national standard for parks and green spaces, by the Civic Trust.[17]

The Lido is a striking building with elements of art deco design, was opened in 1936 and is one of the few survivors of its type still in use.[18]

Museum (free) Peterborough Museum and Art Gallery, built in 1816, housed the city's first infirmary from 1857 to 1928. The museum has a collection of some 227,000 objects, including local archaeology and social history, from the products of the Roman pottery industry to Britain's oldest known murder victim; a collection of marine fossil remains from the Jurassic period of international importance; the manuscripts of John Clare, the Northamptonshire Peasant Poet as he was commonly known in his own time;[19] and the Norman Cross collection of items made by French prisoners of war. These prisoners were kept at Norman Cross in Huntingdonshire, south of Peterborough from 1797 to 1814, in what is believed to be the world's first purpose built prisoner of war camp. The art collection contains an impressive variety of paintings, prints and drawings dating from the 1600s to the present day. Peterborough Museum also holds regular temporary exhibitions, weekend events and guided tours.

English Heritage Longthorpe Tower is a fourteenth century three-storey tower and fortified manor house in the care of English Heritage, found about two miles west of the city centre. It contains the finest and most complete set of domestic paintings of the period in northern Europe.[20] Nearby Thorpe Hall is one of the few mansions built in the Commonwealth period. A maternity hospital from 1943 to 1970, it was acquired by the Sue Ryder Foundation in 1986 and is currently in use as a hospice.[21]

Museum (not free) Flag Fen, the Bronze Age archaeological site, was discovered in 1982 when a team led by Dr Francis Pryor carried out a survey of dykes]] in the area. It comprises a large number of poles arranged in five long rows, connecting Whittlesey with Peterborough across the wet fenland. The museum exhibits many of the artefacts found, including what is believed to be the oldest wheel in Britain. An exposed section of the Roman road known as the Fen Causeway also crosses the site.[22]

Heritage railwayThe Nene Valley Railway, a seven and a half mile heritage railway, was one of the last passenger lines to fall under the Beeching Axe. In 1974 the former development corporation bought the line, running from the city centre to Yarwell Junction just west of Wansford by way of Orton Mere and the 500 acre Ferry Meadows country park, and leased it to the Peterborough Railway Society.[23] Railworld is a railway museum located beside Peterborough Nene Valley railway station.

Country ParkThe Nene Park opened in 1978. It covers a site three and a half miles long, from slightly west of Castor to the centre of Peterborough. The park has three lakes, one of which houses a watersports centre. Ferry Meadows, one of the major destinations and attractions signposted on the Green Wheel, occupies a large portion of Nene Park. Orton Mere provides access to the east of the park.[24]

Forestry CommissionSouthey Wood, once included in the Royal Forest of Rockingham, is a mixed woodland maintained by the Forestry Commission between the villages of Upton and Ufford.[25]



  1. They came, they saw Top 30 Roman sites (6), Channel 4 Television (retrieved 20 July 2008).
  2. PastScape Monument No. 364099 National Monuments Record, English Heritage (retrieved 20 July 2008).
  3. Bennett, Jack Arthur Walter Middle English Literature (ed. and completed by Douglas Gray), Oxford University Press, 1986.
  4. Davies, Elizabeth et al. Peterborough: A Story of City and Country, People and Places (pp.18–19) Peterborough City Council and Pitkin Unichrome, 2001.
  5. King, Richard J. Handbook to the Cathedrals of England (p.77) John Murray, London, 1862
  6. The Municipal Corporations Act 1835 (5 & 6 Wm. IV c.76), Charter of Incorporation dated 17 March 1874.
  7. "At the bridge of Peterborough by the River Nene, as well in the county of Huntingdon as in the county of Northampton, on all sides of the bridge."
  8. Tebbs (p.125).
  9. Brooks, John A Flavour of the Welland (p.12) The Welland Partnership and Jarrold Publishing, Norwich, 2004.
  10. Davies (pp.23–24).
  11. London Brick: 130 Years of History 1877–2007 Hanson Building Products, 2007.
  12. Under the New Towns Act 1965 (1965 cap.59) cf. The Peterborough Development Corporation (Transfer of Property and Dissolution) Order 1988 (SI 1988/1410); the designation was made on 21 July 1967.
  13. Hancock, Tom Greater Peterborough Master Plan Peterborough Development Corporation, 1971.
  14. Sweeting, Walter Debenham The Cathedral Church of Peterborough: A Description of its Fabric and a Brief History of the Episcopal See (pp.3–35) G. Bell & Sons, London, 1898 (facsimile of the 1926 reprint of the 2nd ed. of Bell's Cathedrals from Project Gutenberg.
  15. Skinner, Julia (with particular reference to the work of Robert Cook) Did You Know? Peterborough: A Miscellany (pp.33, 25 & 16) The Francis Frith Collection, Salisbury, 2006.
  16. Heritage Explorer: Images for Learning National Monuments Record, English Heritage (retrieved 4 July 2010).
  17. Green Flag Award Winners (p.13) The Civic Trust, 21 July 2006. Peterborough Civic Society is registered with the Civic Trust.
  18. Brandon and Knight (pp.111–112).
  19. Grainger, Margaret A Descriptive Catalogue of the John Clare Collection Peterborough Museum and Art Gallery, 1973.
  20. Salter, Mike The Castles of East Anglia (p.21) Folly Publications, Malvern, 2001.
  21. Brandon and Knight (p.17).
  22. Pryor, Francis Flag Fen: Life and Death of a Prehistoric Landscape Tempus Publishing, Stroud, 2005.
  23. Rhodes, John The Nene Valley Railway, Turntable Publications, Sheffield, 1976.
  24. Changing Places: Case Studies of the Urban Renaissance The Urban and Economic Development Group (retrieved 2 May 2007).
  25. Woodland Wildlife Walk: Southey Wood Cambridgeshire County Council, 2004.


  • Brandon, David and Knight, John Peterborough Past: The City and The Soke Phillimore & Co., Chichester, 2001 (ISBN 1-86077-184-X).
  • Chisholm, Hugh (ed.) Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed., 28 vols.) Cambridge University Press, 1911 (text in the public domain).
  • Clark, Cecily (ed.) The Peterborough Chronicle 1070–1154 Oxford University Press, 1958 (ISBN 0-19-811136-3).
  • Davies, Elizabeth et al. Peterborough: A Story of City and Country, People and Places Peterborough City Council and Pitkin Unichrome, 2001 (ISBN 1-84165-050-1).
  • Garmonsway, George Norman (trans.) The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle J. M. Dent & Sons, London, 1972 & 1975 (ISBN 0-460-87038-6).
  • Grainger, Margaret A Descriptive Catalogue of the John Clare Collection Peterborough Museum and Art Gallery, 1973 (ISBN 0-904108-00-7).
  • Ingram, James Henry (trans.) The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle J. M. Dent & Sons, London, 1823 (1847 Everyman's Library ed. with additional readings from the translation of John Allen Giles).
  • King, Richard John Handbook to the Cathedrals of England John Murray, London, 1862.
  • Mellows, William Thomas (ed.) The Chronicle of Hugh Candidus a Monk of Peterborough, Oxford University Press, 1949 (scholarly ed. in Latin).
  • Mellows, William Thomas (ed.) The Peterborough Chronicle of Hugh Candidus (trans.) Peterborough Natural History, Scientific and Archæological Society, 1941 (popular ed. in English).
  • Newton, David Men of Mark: Makers of East Midland Allied Press Emap, Peterborough, 1977 (ISBN 0-9505954-0-3).
  • Parthey, Gustav and Pinder, Moritz (eds.) Itinerarivm Antonini Avgvsti et Hierosolymitanum: ex libris manu scriptis Friederich Nicolaus, Berlin, 1848.
  • Pryor, Francis Flag Fen: Life and Death of a Prehistoric Landscape Tempus Publishing, Stroud, 2005 (ISBN 0-7524-2900-0).
  • Rhodes, John The Nene Valley Railway Turntable Publications, Sheffield, 1976 (ISBN 0-902844-60-1).
  • Salter, Mike The Castles of East Anglia Folly Publications, Malvern, 2001 (ISBN 1-871731-45-3).
  • Skinner, Julia (with particular reference to the work of Robert Cook) Did You Know? Peterborough: A Miscellany The Francis Frith Collection, Salisbury, 2006 (ISBN 1-84589-263-1).
  • Sweeting, Walter Debenham The Cathedral Church of Peterborough: A Description of its Fabric and a Brief History of the Episcopal See G. Bell & Sons, London, 1898 (1926 reprint of the 2nd ed. of Bell's Cathedrals).
  • Tebbs, Herbert F. Peterborough: A History The Oleander Press, Cambridge, 1979 (ISBN 0-900891-30-0).
  • Turner, Roger Capability Brown and the Eighteenth Century English Landscape Phillimore & Co., Chichester, 1999 (ISBN 1-86077-114-9).
  • Youngs, Frederic A. Guide to the Local Administrative Units of England (2 vols.) The Offices of the Royal Historical Society, University College London, 1991 (ISBN 0-86193-127-0).

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