Site unseen: Peterborough Cathedral

Andrew John Davies
Monday 26 June 1995 23:02

There is something a little daunting about cathedrals. Most people would readily accept that Durham, Wells, Lincoln and their colleagues represent numerous wonders of the Western world and a visit to any of them understandably evokes feelings of awe and majesty. But, if truth be told, I always feel a little intimidated by their sheer magnificence.

Which explains why, much as I admire and respect St Paul's Cathedral, it is Wren's smaller and more intimate City churches which I love. St Benet's, St Mary Abchurch, St James Garlickhythe... these are the gems which even confirmed agnostics like myself would mount the barricades to defend. Sadly, if the Templeman Report recommending the closure of several City churches is accepted then this will indeed be necessary.

Take Peterborough Cathedral. The West front with its three huge 13th- century arches is unique, not just in Britain but anywhere in the world. Inside, the perfection of the fan vaulting causes the observer to catch their breath. But despite such grandeur, it is the human touches which make the building come to life. On the south side, for instance, are the remnants of the cloister with its lavatorium where, 500 years ago, the monks scrupulously washed heir hands before heading off to eat in the refectory.

But my favourite site is the burial spot of Robert Scarlett, an Elizabethan grave-digger and possible prototype for Hamlet's "Alas, poor Yorick". He was laid to rest just inside the cathedral and is commemorated by a wall painting and a portrait which both hang up high inside the West front.

Scarlett was a local celebrity, dying in 1594 at the ripe old age of 98. He boasted of having buried at least two members of each Peterborough family. Two queens of England were also laid to rest here under his supervision, Catherine of Aragon and Mary, Queen of Scots (her body was later moved to Westminster Abbey). His fame was such that William Shakespeare, who had connections with the area, would undoubtedly have known of "Old Scarlett". Hamlet was written in 1601, seven years after the grave-digger's death. In fact the portrait shows a skull lying on the floor just behind him. Scarlett is also depicted holding a spade and wearing some rather natty red loafers. His belt carries a dog whip with which he kept the local canine population in order. The memorial describes him as:

"Second To None For Strength

And Sturdye Limm

A Scarebrace Mighty Voice

With Visage Grim"

Be that as it may, I for one would happily have entrusted my mortal remains to the care of a grizzled old pro like Scarlett.

Old Scarlett's burial spot is just inside the West front of Peterborough Cathedral. The wall painting and portrait hang high on the wall

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