Peterborough’s first monastery

The first monastic settlement in Peterborough was originally known as ‘Medeshamstede, a name derived from the meadows which lie on each side of the River Nen – ‘the home in the meadows.’ Described as ‘a great stretch of swampy land’ it was a perfect place for the community there to ‘wage a relentless war with adverse nature in gradually redeeming the marshes by assiduous drainage and cultivation.’

Saxulf, a monk of noble birth and in favour with Penda, king of Mercia, and with Penda’s Christian son and successor Peada, erected a church with accompanying buildings for a mission station. It was built of Barnack rag from the quarry not too far away. Hugh Candidus, the early chronicler of Peterborough, tells us that some of the stones laid in the foundation were so huge that ‘eight yoke of oxen could scarcely draw one of them. The Venerable Bede, as well as the Saxon Chronicle under the years 655-6, are emphatic that Saxulf was the builder of the monastery.

Saxulf presided over the monastery for twenty years; in 675 he was consecrated bishop of Mercia. Cuthbald, a monk of Medeshamstede, succeeded Saxulf as abbot. He is described as being so singularly pious and prudent that the monks of monastic cells that had already sprung from Medeshamstede, such as Thorney, Lincolnshire, and Brixworth, Northamptonshire, desired that he would appoint their superiors. The date of Cuthbald’s death and of his successor Egbald’s appointment is not known but it was before 716 because, in that year, Egbald was one of the witnesses to a royal charter granted to Crowland.

Of the three next abbots, Pusa, Beonna, and Ceolver, nothing is known except the order of their succession. The actual date of Hedda’s succession to Ceolver is also uncertain but there is one certain fact about him – he was abbot in 870 when the Danes attacked and destroyed the monastic community of Medeshamstede

After sacking and firing the abbey of Crowland, the Danes had marched on Medeshamstede. Abbot Hedda and his monks died; the altars and monuments demolished; the library and charters destroyed, and the church and buildings fired – a fire that is said to have lasted for fifteen days.

The whole of Fenland Monasticism was now destroyed and the Danish rule began.

It was 100 or so years later that Christian Monasticism returned to the Fenlands. We’ll be telling the next step very soon!

PS: The ‘Hedda Stone’ was, much later, recovered and can be seen in the Cathedral to this day.


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