Big Churches in Little Europe: St Peter, St Paul and St Andrew (Peterborough)

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St Peter, St Paul and St Andrew (Peterborough)

In the good old days there were monasteries in England and they ruled their lands and people wisely under civil law which pre-dated the Norman conquest, was more powerful than the King's Writ and indeed traced its origins back to Constantine and the Roman Empire. Parliament cast its benevolent shadow over the remaining peoples and all was well until parliament and the King had a hankering to rule all of the country under its law and, within a year or so, the monasteries were no more.

There was a problem for the government of the day - it left the 25% of the population that had been living under civil (church) law and not parliamentary law in limbo. It might seem an easy fix today but not only was there no local government in the 1540s there was also no civil service either. They needed to invent and then implement local government and a reporting structure back to parliament.

So their answer was to create lots of bishops and cathedrals and have the parishes report through them. Yes, the bishops and parishes priests were still controlled by civil law but the bishops sat in parliament (along with the barons and holders other royal government Letters Patent) and could be part of the great game of inventing the nation state. The parishes themselves were under parliamentary law. Of course the king himself was also governed by civil law and not parliamentary law (as were the barons and parliament itself) and indeed this is still the case. If you have ever wondered why a number of lawyers in the UK are commenting that changing the laws about gay marriage are not straightforward, that might be because marriage is a civil law not a parliamentary law and thus it applies to the king, the English nobility and the bishops and parish priests (but not the parishes themselves except in so much there is a parliamentary Act that backs up the civil law). I hope I have conveyed in some small sense what a great big mess it all was, is and ever shall be.

The bishop and cathedral in Peterborough was one of those created to run the new local government system. At the time nobody thought that parliament in London would ever have the time, interest or resources to invent a schools policy, rules about domestic violence or produce regulations for gas outlet pressure from a standing pipe. The cathedral buildings are, in fact, the old Abbey that was deemed suitable for this new use and was well located between Lincoln, Ely and London.

Most of the monastic buildings are now gone – at the time of its re-purposing it was among the ten richest in England. It was run by an Abbot who also oversaw the other monasteries in the order (which were headed by Priors). The walls more or less remain. If you walk to this church from the railway station the town of Peterborough is fairly down-at-heel. As you pass through the gate house into the Cathedral grounds you are confronted by the sight of the huge 13th Century building with its three massive 50 metre high doorways at the front. It is quite extraordinary.

Having walked across the grassed area to the church, the doors themselves are somewhat smaller (thank goodness) and you gain entry into a building of extraordinary simplicity. The main part of the church has room for a 100m dash with room to warm up but the ceiling, floor and pillars all combine elegantly. The floor is completely flat without a step to interrupt it. When you are at the very back of the building, behind the church within the church, looking from the far back corner to the front again, the long smooth floor stretches out.

Church services here are well done. I don't know much about Sundays but in the evening the choir can hold a tune to a good standard. Personally I find this a restful kind of place. Peterborough is not a major tourist centre and so you can sit quietly pretty much anywhere. After a while you can both tune in and tune out.

One of the last additions to be building is the area right at the back. It was a rule of the monks that they should walk around the back of the church on various occasions. In many monasteries there was an Ambulatory built as part of the original design for the monks to amble through (it also helps people disappear out one side of the church during a service, carrying one set of things, and reappear on the other side, carrying different things, without anybody seeing how it was done). At Peterborough the monks walked through the weather outside for 300 years until an abbot took pity on them and built the most magnificent walking space for them.

Most of this church has a wooden ceiling whose paint has been maintained continuously since it was installed 900 years ago. The new monks' ambleway has a stone ceiling in the new-fangled 15th Century style of fan vaulting. It is a style used eleswhere but rarely on such a low ceiling. It is a lovely space and some of the art exhibitions they hold there are extraordinary too. While much of the rest of the church might be good for peace, the walk space is good for doing.

It is said that you can see Ely Cathedral from the top of the old tower (most of it was taken down centuries ago after a rash of tower collapses around the country in the 14th Century). The Cathedrals are not very close together but nothing separates them but miles and miles of drained fen land. On a warm, clear day it would be a fine thing to add to the experience and go and find out.

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