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A hundred years passed by and the ruined abbey wasted to decay.
Medeshamstede was left without church, abbey, monastery or estate, and the Danes reigned supreme.
Then Alfred came, and the fury of the Danish invasion was checked, while all the time the leaven of Christianity had worked unseen; and when King Edgar, in his zeal to be the founder and restorer of monasteries, sent Ethelwold (Bishop of Winchester), to Medeshamstede," where he found nothing but old walls and wild weeds,” the work of restoration was begun, and the Benedictine monastery recommenced its life with new buildings, new inmates, a new name, a new rule, and a large accession of honours and estates.
So prosperous became the abbey under Abbot Adulph and his successor, that when the minster was enclosed in walls the name of Medeshamstede was changed to Peterborough—“A similitudine urbis Burgh vocatus est,” as William of Malmesbury writes. And a wealth of relics (including St. Oswald's imperishable arm), and offerings of pilgrims and bequests of pious zeal, contributed to such a reputation for opulence, that for a time at least (a day which seems a very long way off from our present impoverishment), Peterborough obtained the name of Gildenborough. “ In kis day” (so writes the Saxon chronicler), that is, the day of Leofric, the twelfth Abbot of Peterborough, the nephew of the great Earl Leofric and Countess Godiva, of Coventry fame—“In his day all was good in Peterborough, and he was dear to all people. And he conferred so much of Good upon the minster of Peterborough, in gold and in silver and in vestments and in land, as never any other did before him nor any after him.”
But evil times were near. Edward the Confessor died, Harold seized the crown, and the great revolution known as the Norman Conquest was begun.
The monks defied William of Normandy, and he vowed vengeance, and took his time to execute it.
It was in the Isle of Ely that the Saxons made their last stand, and to Hereward the Wake they turned for hope of liberty. That champion's life is made familiar to us all by the graphic pen of my hero-worshipping uncle, Charles Kingsley. I fear that it would have made no difference in his hero-love, even if he had known as he wrote its story that in a little while his nephew was to be the successor of poor Abbot Brando, and Abbot Thorold, whose fealty and whose perfidy he so delineated in his story of “ Hereward the Wake.” At all events, the abbey was sacked and burned, whatever excuse for it my uncle tries to make for hero-Hereward. And then came darker days, and all the old prosperity seemed to to be purged by a series of adversities.
The monastery, rebuilt, was burned again in 1116, and from that ruin in the next year (1117) the Abbot John de Sais began to build what you have seen to-day. Martin le Bec went on with it, and so far finished the choir with its noble apse (and aisles, each with their lesser apse), that it began to be used for service, and was dedicated with great joy upon St. Peter's day, June 29th, 1140.
And this Martin was a good man. Through all the evil time (i.e., the reign of King Stephen), his abbey was a place of busy toil and happy learning, and sanctuary for the oppressed. He “ provided the monks and priests with all necessaries, and kept up much alms in the house ; and withal he wrought upon the Church, and annexed thereto lands and rents, and enriched it greatly; and he increased the number of monks, and planted a vineyard, and made many works and improved the town; and he was a good monk and a good man, and therefore God and good men loved him.”
He died 1154, on the very day when he should have gone to help to crown the new king, Henry II, at Westminster.
The monks chose William de Waterville, “a good clerk and a good man, and well-beloved of the king and of all good people.”
In his time the two transepts (ambæ cruces) and three stages of the central tower, and probably two bays of the nave, were built ; and while the King and Church were struggling for pre-eminence---a contest which resulted in the assassination of Thomas à Becket-during these years of strife William de Waterville went quietly on with his cathedral work, and only showed the side he took when, at Becket's death, he founded a chapel dedicated to St. Thomas à Becket. The chancel of the chapel is said to be the present museum by the Western Close-gate, formerly the grammar-school.
His successor Benedict (a prior of Canterbury) finished the chapel Waterville had begun, and sanctified it with some relics that he had brought with him from Canterbury, the spot of martyrdom-a fragment of the martyr's surplice, and some of his blood, staining the stones on which he fell.
The nave was completed to the third pillar from the west by Abbot Benedict between 1177 and 1194.
The two next abbots built the west transepts, 11931210, where you see the beautiful transition work from the pure Norman to the Early English, yet striving to keep in harmony with the magnificent Norman nave it was to close. The next four abbots lived in the days our beautiful west front was being built.
It was in October 4th, 1237, during the abbacy of Walter of Bury, that the great Bishop of Lincoln, Robert Grostête, assisted by William de Bruere, Bishop of Exeter, dedicated the completed church.
And here we stay-facing a moment that unique feature of the most perfect specimens of Gothic art, our beautiful west front.
And I am glad enough to have you here to look at it, not merely because the sight of it again must be itself an elevation and an inspiration to every eye that rests on it, but because its present state is both a vindication of the wisdom of the plan pursued amidst a storm of bitter criticism eighteen months ago, as well as an appeal to all of you to help along a work so wisely and judiciously begun.
I have no wish to fan the flame of bygone strife. The controversy of January, 1897, was a bitter one; but here, in July, 1898 you can inspect the reset northern gable and the upper part of the arch of the west end, and
you can judge for yourselves about a so-far finished place. Two thousand and six facing stones that formed the
portion of the west front were taken down; of these, 170 only were found to be so decayed that they had to be replaced by new stones; the remaining 1,836 stones have been put back again into their original positions.
And the effect produced is that we have got the same façade, only made straight, and sound, and strong—while we must admit that the process of this reparation justified the action of the late architect (whose lamented death all will deplore) in ordering the resetting of this portion of the front. The walling behind the front was found to be in so bad a state that no method of strengthening the wall from the back would have been possible; the mortar of the facing stones had crumbled away, and in many cases the stones were only held together by weight; the crack (I think we might call it fissure, or crevice) that ran behind the solid front was greater in its extent and its significance than could have been supposed by those who criticised the adopted plan. No clamps or grouting could have given stability to such a structure; in a word, if, as the vulgar proverb says, “ seeing is believing,” your presence here to-day will give a wider force than anything can do to induce the public to believe that the architect and his assessors, the Dean and Chapter and their executive committee, had right upon their side, and faced a bitter strife of tongues with a determination and foresight that the end has so far amply justified: that, in a word, they did their duty as brave Englishmen, believing that the safety of the building committed to their charge for the first object of the service of Almighty God could only be secured by the adoption of the plan pursued; and that by means of this we have preserved one of our most perfect specimens of Gothic art to hand it down to generations yet to come, where they may worship as we worship now, where they may bring their best of art, and style, and symmetry for the embellishment of what past ages built; when what we are and do to-day has become history, and other eyes and minds shall gain their inspirations from our purposes.
We yield to none in pride and admiration of our grand Gothic façade, which gives its chief celebrity to Peterborough.
Wells and Salisbury in England, Amiens, Nôtre Dame de Paris, Chartres and Rheims in France, are Peterborough cotemporaries ; and in comparing the three west fronts of these three English cathedrals, while Salisbury cannot compete with either of the other two, and while for exquisite detail Wells may excel, yet the superiority of grandeur and design belongs to ours.
Even that beautiful anomaly, the parvise, that excites Ruskin's wrath, but which braces and buttresses the central arch, cannot spoil the beauty of design.
It is and always must remain, what Ruskin in the Stones of Venice, says of it :
“The noble example of the west front of Peterborough, which, in spite of the destructive absurdity of its central arch being the narrowest, would still—if the paltry porter's lodge, or gatehouse, or whatever it is, were knocked out of the middle of it- be the noblest west front in England.”
And this it is—and this it will be when we have funds to perfect it and strike the scaffolding:
Meanwhile it is my privilege once more to greet and welcome you, and to express the hope that this year's Congress may be even more successful than any of its predecessors; and that by your visit here much good may result to archæology, and some to Peterborough.