People might associate Peterborough Cathedral with being a place of worship, a beautiful and historic building or a venue for events.
However, one of its most important functions is as a place of learning – appropriate this month as pupils and students return to schools, colleges and university.
This tradition goes back over a thousand years. One of the important traditions of religious houses like the then Peterborough Abbey was the creation of a library. Initially these would have been just religious texts, but increasingly the monks became the guardians of all sorts of knowledge. The library at Peterborough had over 400 books – a huge number for the time – on theology, philosophy, history, science, medicine, politics, law and the works of classical authors from Greece and Rome.
Many of these were written or copied here by monks working within the cloisters. Sadly, nearly the entire medieval library at Peterborough was burnt by Oliver Cromwell’s troops in 1643. Some books produced here do survive elsewhere, including psalters, prayer books and bestiaries (books of beasts – medieval natural history guides). These show the incredible artistry of the monks here.
In the Middle Ages the monks provided education to local boys or the junior sons of noble families, a sort of early grammar school as far back as the 1330s. Many of these boys went on to take Holy Orders; others went on to become lawyers or civil servants.
Henry VIII dissolved the abbey in 1539 and then in 1541 made the former monastic church a Cathedral. He also gave orders for the creation of a grammar school to “train up in piety and provide with sound learning not only the 20 boys of our (choir), but others in attendance there for the purpose of learning grammar”. This was the foundation of the King’s School, which was located in the Precincts until 1885, using the former Becket Chapel (today the Cathedral’s Tea Room) as a schoolroom. The King’s School still has a close and valued relationship with the Cathedral.
Part of this ongoing relationship is the education of the Cathedral’s choristers. Today’s choir is based principally around 50 boys and girls, who are an inclusive and diverse group of children from all different backgrounds and are selected on their musical potential. This gives them the opportunity to sing as part of a team and develop life skills that stay with them for the rest of their days. Through singing services, giving concerts and undertaking tours, the children receive world-class social and cultural opportunities.
As well as the choral education programme, the Cathedral has a busy education department, working with local and diocesan schools. Our education team currently deals with some 5,000 schoolchildren a year who come to enjoy and learn from a vibrant programme of tours and themed days relating the topics of faith, history, science and much more.
More details on school visits to the Cathedral, and upcoming auditions for Year 2 pupils to audition for the Cathedral choir can be found at: www.peterborough-cathedral.org.uk