Cathedrals under siege: ‘The Old Altar-piece, broken down by the Souldiers in the great Rebellion’

This engraving depicts one of the casualties of the renewed spasms of iconoclasm that accompanied the mid seventeenth-century British Wars of Religion. As the formal seats of bishops, in the 1640s cathedrals became particular targets of the ire of those determined to reverse the ‘popish’ policies introduced during the primacy of William Laud and to push through further ecclesiastical reform. The short narrative appended to Prebendary Simon Gunton’s 1686 history of Peterborough cathedral describes the despoiling of the high altar, choir and cloister by the ‘reforming Rabble’ of soldiers, leaving ‘only the bare memory of them behind’. Deeply deploring the ‘Gothish Barbarity’ of the people who had destroyed the elaborate stonework behind the communion table, the author painfully recalled the ‘ruthful Spectacle, a very Chaos of Desolation and Confusion’ that had confronted the eye-witnesses of this ‘strange kind of deformed Reformation’. Among the Parliamentary forces that besieged Peterborough in 1643 was a regiment led by Oliver Cromwell, ‘a name as fatal to Minsters, as it had been to Monasteries’. Although the cathedral was repaired and re-edified after the Restoration, the aim of antiquarians such as Gunton was to ensure that the dreadful atrocities perpetrated during ‘the late Sacrilegious times’ would never be forgotten. AW

Simon Gunton, The history of the church of Peterburgh, ed. Simon Patrick (London: for Richard Chiswell, 1686).

CUL: Adv.b.52.2

Further Reading

Julie Spraggon, Puritan Iconoclasm During the English Civil War (Woodbridge, 2003), ch. 6.

Stanford E. Lehmberg, Cathedrals under Siege: Cathedrals in English Society 1600-1700 (Exeter, 1996), chs 2–3.

Kenneth Fincham and Nicholas Tyacke, Altars Restored: The Changing Face of English Religious Worship, 1547–c.1700 (Oxford, 2007), ch. 7.

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