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Peterborough Abbey, Benedictine monastery in Northamptonshire, England, known at first as Medeshamstede, was founded about 654 by Peada, King of the Mercians, who appointed as first abbot, Saxulf. Peada's church and monastery were completely destroyed by the Danes in 870. The circumstantial account of this event, given in Abbot John's chronicle, is fictitious, but the fact of the abbey's destruction is certain. In 970, in the monastic revival associated with the name of St. Dunstan, the monastery was rebuilt through the efforts of Ethelwold, Bishop of Winchester, with the aid of King Edgar. Part of the foundations were laid bare in 1887, when the central tower of the present cathedral was rebuilt, and its dimensions seem to have been about half those of the present building. The abbey suffered both from fire and pillage in the unsettled period preceding the Norman conquest, and in 1116 during the abbacy of Dom John of Sais a great conflagration destroyed the monastic buildings with the little town that had grown up around them. The work of rebuilding, begun by Abbot John, ceased at his death, in 1125. Martin de Bec, successor of Abbot Henry of Anjou, pushed the work forward, and the presbytery of the new church was finished and entered upon by the monks about 1140. The work of building went on steadily until 1237, when the completed church was consecrated by Robert Grostete, Bishop of Lincoln. When the monastery was surrendered to King Henry VIII in 1541 the church was spared from destruction, because it contained the remains of his first wife. It then became the cathedral of the new Diocese of Peterborough, and the last abbot, John Chambers, was rewarded for his compliance to the royal demands by being made the first bishop. Though the great church was begun during the Norman period, a considerable portion belongs to the thirteenth century. This is true in particular of the glorious west front, which Fergusson and Freeman agree in calling the grandest and most original in Europe. It consists of three huge arches, supported on triangular columns and enriched with a number of delicate shafts, which open into a long narthex or portico, extending the whole width of the building. The interior has a nave of eleven bays (228 ft.), with transepts and presbytery terminating in a circular apse. The original ambulatory, round the east end, was replaced in the late fifteenth century by a square-ended chapel, of great delicacy, in the Perpendicular style. The total interior length is 426 ft., interior height 78 ft., length of transepts 185 ft. Much controversy has been aroused over the rebuilding of the central tower and the restoration of the west front, but both these works were inevitable and have been carried out with the greatest regard for the designs of the original architects.
Dugdale, Monasticon Anglicanum, I (London, 1817), 344–404; Gunton, History of the Church of Peterborough (London, 1686); Tanner, Notitia Monastica (London, 1744), 371–373; Historiæ cœnobii Burgensis scriptorii varii, ed. Sparke in Hist. Angl. Scriptores, iii. (London, 1723), 1–256; Elias of Trikingham, Annales, ed. Pegge (London, 1789); Chronicon Angliæ Petriburgensi, 1074–1181, ed. Stapleton (London, 1849); Browne-Willis, Survey of English Cathedrals, III (London, 1730), 475; Britton, History and Antiquities of Peterborough Cathedral (London, 1836); Sweeting, The Cathedral Church of Peterborough (London, 1898).
G. Roger Hudleston