The origins of the cathedral church of St Peter at Peterborough lie in the foundation in 655 A.D. of a monastery at Medehamstead (“the home in the meadows”), a location on the north bank of the River Nene in the marshlands between that river and the River Welland. The monastery was founded by Peada, son of King Penda of Mercia, and completed by Peada’s son Wulfhere. In 870 the foundation was the victim of a devastating attack by Danes who had already sacked neighbouring monasteries, all the monks being murdered and the buildings destroyed. The monastery on the site was, however, to be refounded in 966-70 by the authority of King Edgar and Bishop Aethelwold of Winchester as a Benedictine house, and from this date it was known as Gildenburgh, later Peterborough. Further travails included a second assault by a Danish army, this time in collaboration with Hereward the Wake in 1070, and a devastating fire in 1116 which once more almost destroyed the building. The abbot at the time, John de Seez, laid the foundation of a new building which effectively marks the origin of the present structure, the work being furthered by Martin de Bec (1133-55), William Waterville (1155-79) and Benedict (1179-94), responsible for the construction of the nave. When George Ayliffe Poole came to write the diocesan history of Peterborough in 1881, he could hardly contain his frustration at what he regarded as the relatively poor documentation available to cover much of the medieval history of the abbey, writing of the abbots between 1321 and the dissolution of the monasteries ‘It may be that the occupants of the chair during that space found incapable historians or none at all: at all events the recorded incidents of their rule are not worth relating’ [Poole, 88]. He made an exception, however, for the completion of the ‘new building’ at the east end of the abbey church under Abbot Robert Kirton (1496-1528), the last major addition to the fabric before the Reformation. A final but significant landmark on the eve of the dissolution was the interment within the abbey in January 1536 of Katherine of Aragon, Henry VIII’s first and divorced wife; tradition later had it that the king claimed that the presence of her body was one factor influencing the selection of the abbey, dissolved on 29 November 1539, as the cathedral for the new diocese of Peterborough established by letters patent in 1541.
The foundation charter of the cathedral, formally established on 4 September 1541, constituted a chapter of a dean (appointed by the crown) and six canons. At first all six prebends (identified solely by number) were also in the crown’s gift, but Queen Mary transferred this patronage to the bishop during her short reign, and thus it remained to the end of the period covered by the Database. In addition the charter established six minor canons, a deacon, sub-deacon, eight singing men, and eight choristers, two schoolmasters serving 20 scholars and six almsmen.
In 1541 the prebends were each valued at £20 (£7 unless resident) and the deanery at £100; taking account of fines and renewals in the 1720s canons could expect an annual income of between £49 and £281 [Horn, 1996, 112]. These incomes, together with the small amount of patronage vested in the dean and chapter, meant that the cathedral was not among the most attractive postings on offer to high flying clergy in the Church of England.
The 1640s as elsewhere were a traumatic time for the cathedral body and had serious consequences for the cathedral itself. The property of the cathedral establishment (which according to Poole now had eight minor canons [Poole, 171]) was sequestered; and in 1643, when parliamentary forces entered the town much of the cathedral furniture was destroyed , including books from the library (the thirteenth-century Chronicle of Robert of Swapham was saved only when it was purchased from a soldier by the minor canon Humphrey Austin); the monument constructed for his own use by Sir Humphrey Orme was demolished along with the tomb of Katherine of Aragon. Among the chapter clergy, however, all but two survived to be restored in 1660: the dean, John Cosin, who had fled to the continent, the 1st canon, Simon Gunton (author of The History of the Church of Peterborough), William Zouche (3rd canon), William Towers (4th canon), and William Halls (5th canon).
Before the nineteenth century there were only sporadic repairs to the building, and it was only at the very end of period covered by the database that a major restoration was undertaken under the leadership of James Henry Monk as dean. Much of this work would later be undone, while in 1880s the central tower itself had to be rebuilt.
As described to the Ecclesiastical Commissioners in 1831–2, the clerical establishment of the cathedral beyond the dean and six canons included only four minor canons. The average gross yearly income of the dean and chapter was £6,357 (£5,118 net) at this date. ‘Surplus’ chapter income (averaged at £3,918) was divided among the chapter, with that from renewal of fines, seal fees, court fines and few small other items split into eight parts, the dean taking two; in addition the dean received a fixed annual stipend of £160, and each of the canons £36 shares (thus yielding the dean a total of £1,139 in contrast to the £525 received by each canon). The precentor received a stipend of £17 13s. in recognition of his work as sacrist and librarian, and had a house assigned. Each minor canon received a stipend of £52 per annum (but no house in the close). The canons and minor canons had no separate individual estates. No prebend was annexed to the archdeaconry; the six prebends, as indicated, were in the gift of the bishop.
Shortly after the end of the period covered by the Database an order-in-council of 1837 reduced the number of prebends in the cathedral to four, one of which from 1838 was annexed to the archdeaconry of Northampton.
In 1831 as recorded by the Ecclesiastical Commissioners the dean and chapter of Peterborough had only 7 livings in their gift, of which only three were in the diocese of Peterborough: Glinton with Peakirk, Maxey, and Northborough. Of the four outside the diocese three were in the diocese of Lincoln: Alwalton (Hunts), Bringhurst with Great Easton (Leics) and Fiskerton (Lincs); the sole exception was North Collingham in Nottinghamshire and the diocese of York.