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The History of Peterborough

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The history of Peterborough reaches back to the Bronze Age. Archeological finds such as Flag Fen , a wooden structure dated to the Bronze Age, suggest settlement in the area 1,000 years before the birth of Christ. The ground was much lower in those times, with many of the early settlements being effective islands surrounded by the
frequently flooding marshlands that are now The Fens .

When the Romans came to England they built a road that ran due North out of Londinium ( London ) called Ermine Street. This road crossed the River Nene at Water Newton, near present day Peterborough. The Romans established a fort here called Durobrivae, possibly at a place previously fortified by the Celts to defend the river crossing. Another Roman fort was built at Longthorpe, a village now physically absorbed into the city of Peterborough. Longthorpe has a number of ancient buildings that have survived to this day including Longthorpe Tower , a 14th century tower and fortified manor house. Longthorpe Tower is now a scheduled ancient monument, open to the public. It still houses one of the nation’s foremost collections of English art
from the 14th century. Ceramics were an important part of the area’s economy during the Roman era. Nene Valley Ware has been found all over the province.

A settlement known then as Medeshamstede was chosen in AD 655 for a monastery when King Peada of Mercia granted Saxwulf land for the ecclesiastical venture. By the 12th century the abbey there was thriving and the historical works the ‘Peterborough Chronicle’ was written there by monks in the 12th century. The works are special for many reasons, but they are also the only known works of prose written in English, rather than Latin, from the Norman Conquest to the 14th
century. The name change from Medeshamstede stems from the fortification of the settlement in the 10th century in an attempt to defend it from the marauding Vikings. Abbot Kenulf is thought to have constructed the fortifications. They were too late to save the original abbey church, thought to have been destroyed by Vikings around AD 870. The church was dedicated to St Peter, hence Peter ‘burgh’. A revival of the abbey’s fortunes in the 10th century saw extensive rebuilding of the ruined church, forming what is today Peterborough Cathedral .

Peterborough was witness to some of the titanic struggles that went on between the invading Normans and local hero Hereward the Wake , some of which resulted in more damage to the abbey and the rebuilt church. Once again repairs were effected, only for the church to suffer extensive damage in an accidental fire in 1116. Abbot John de Sais set about remodelling the church once again, this time in Norman style. Work began in 1118 and by 1193 substantial sections were complete. A unique painted wooden ceiling was completed between 1230 and 1250 and survives to this day. The ceiling has been over-painted twice in the original style, once in 1745 and again in 1834. The Norman style was abandoned in 1237, affecting the completion of the Western Transept and the Great West Front Portico. The completed cathedral was consecrated by Robert Grosseteste, Bishop of Lincoln, in 1238. A further major addition was a complete new section added to the east of the structure in the 16th century.

One of Henry VIII ’s wives was buried at the cathedral, a fact that may have helped it survive the Reformation intact. Catherine of Aragon was laid to rest there in the 1536. Peterborough suffered during the Civil War and the cathedral was vandalised and severely damaged by Parliamentary troops. Restoration progressed slowly over the next three hundred years. It wasn’t until extensive works were started in 1883 that the cathedral was to finally return to its former glory. A small fire in 2001 caused significant damage, mainly due to oily residue given off by burning plastic chairs. The organ was ruined by both the fire, and water used to extinguish the flames, and it took a full scale rebuild lasting years to return it to service.

Peterborough stumbled along as a largely agricultural market town until the coming of the railways in the 18th century. The Great Northern Railway changed the city’s fortunes completely when it opened in 1850. Peterborough suddenly found itself connected directly to London and York and all points in between. It rapidly transformed itself into a relatively small but very busy industrial city. The area has vast clay deposits, long revered for their brick making qualities. The bricks were now given a quick and efficient way to market, helping to service the huge demand from the thriving building and construction industry of 19th century Britain.

Peterborough continued to grow with London Brick and Perkins Engines providing plenty of employment. In 1967 it was designated as a ‘New Town’, opening the doors to large scale urban development to house London’s population overspill. The population grew 45% between 1971 and 1991 and is currently in the region of 164,000.

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