Cities often develop in areas distant from their current centres. Original settlement locations were mainly chosen for their access to resources and their distance from other settlements.

Through much of its early history, the land in and around present day Peterborough, was prone to major flooding and at some stages regressed into a marine environment. Despite this, settlements developed around Peterborough from Pre-historic times. The diverse landscape of wetlands, woodlands and floodplain meadows created a rich variety of habitats for the flora and fauna on which hunter-gatherer peoples depended. The same resources enabled early settlers to construct homes, graze stock and farm. Evidence of a Bronze Age settlement can be observed at Flag Fen to the east of the present centre. The area is also filled with the remains of important Roman settlements and forts as its position is of great strategic significance.

Peterbrough Map Speed 1610The City as we know it today, wass founded around three to four miles east of the Roman Garrison town named Durobrieve. In Anglo Saxon times a monastery was built where the cathedral now stands and a settlement developed around it called Medeshamstede (meadow homestead). Although near the Fens, Medeshamstede was situated on relatively dry land at an intersection of limestone and clay where the River Nene is navigable and can be crossed.

The monastery was founded by the intriguingly named Sexwulf c.654 (meaning dagger wolf or Saxon wolf) and became an important feature of the kingdom of Mercia. The monastery was destroyed, before later being rebuilt and called Peterborough Abbey and then rebuilt once again as Peterborough Cathedral.

Hugh Candidus, a 12th-century monk of Peterborough who wrote a history of the abbey, described its location as:

‘a fair spot, and a goodly, because on the one side it is rich in fenland, and in goodly waters, and on the other it has [an] abundance of ploughlands and woodlands, with many fertile meads and pastures.’

The local tribes lived closely to the still watery land and were known as ‘Gyrwas’ (A deep bog is known as a Gyr in the Saxon tongue).

Saxon abbeyAnglo Saxon communities also flourished in small village areas now known as Fletton, Stan-ground, Gunthorpe, Woodston, Alwalton and other villages. This model of equi-distant satellite settlements around a central site, mirrors the way in which cities are planned today.

The Rev. W.D. Sweeting suggested however that ‘There is no evidence that any houses were built at all before the foundation of the monastery. There was probably not a single habitation on the spot before the rising walls of the religious house made dwelling-places for the workmen a necessity. As time went on the requirements of the inmates brought together a population, which for centuries had no interests unconnected with the abbey’.

It is supposed that Medeshamstede was destroyed by Vikings in 870AD, however there is evidence that some of its history and artifacts survived. The settlement was refounded c.970 by Bishop Æthelwold of Winchester. The monastery was soon enclosed within a huge stone wall and acquired the new name of Burg meaning fortified place. The addition of the name Peter was added to acknowledge the monastery’s principal saint and to differentiate it from other settlements.

In the Middle Ages Peterborough remained a small and unimportant town where life revolved around the Abbey and the control of the Abbot. Like all of England, the Church had total control over the people. Peasants were often forced to work for free on Church land, devoutly believed in God and that heaven and hell existed.

Until the time of enclosures some of the peasants of Peterborough would have had the right to work their own piece of land or on common land, but had to pay tax (tithes) to the church for the privilege. Tax could be in the form of money or in goods produced. Often peasants paid in seeds, which were kept in large Tithe Barns. The wealth of the church far exceeded that of the royalty of the time and enabled them to rule completely and own much of the land. Dissenters could be physically punished or even executed by the Church.

The relationship to the land for peasants and the rich in medieval times was much deeper and more complex than we can understand today. The majority of the population lived in the countryside and lived closely by the seasons. The land during this period, was not all wild meadows however, and the countryside around Peterborough would have already shown signs of management. Both the Normans and the Romans had both attempted to drain the Fens and favored large open fields for farming. The wetlands of the Fens and the ancient meadows with their diverse wildlife, still thrived in areas outside of landowners’ control.

The lives and livelihood of the peasants were at the mercy of the weather and the church. Their free-time revolved around religious saints and feast days and leisure activities would also have been in relation to the land strolling through meadows or hawking and hunting. It would not be long, however before the life of the working classes would be changed forever with the coming of the enclosure acts. These acts would instigate the beginning of privatisation, the depopulation of the countryside and a general dissconection from Nature.


Image from the Psalter (‘The Luttrell Psalter’)
Created:  c.1320-40 copyright British Library
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