During the Medieval period, the area was dominated by Peterborough Abbey, which owned most of the land locally, ran the markets, collected taxes and was even in charge of law and order. The abbot was so powerful that he was only answerable to the King, the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Pope.
The abbey was founded in 655, with a new church started in 1118 after a great fire. This church was completed about the time the Thorpe family built a manor and tower house at Longthorpe. The medieval town plan of Peterborough was laid out by Abbot Martin de Bec around 1150. The streets surrounded a bustling market area, today Cathedral Square.
The abbey was a place of pilgrimage, housing many relics including the arm of St Oswald and the bloodied robes of St Thomas Becket. Given the wealth and importance of the abbey, royal visitors were common.
Peterborough had its hard times. In 1348 there was an outbreak of disease historians call the ‘Black Death’ which killed a third of the townsfolk. In 1381 there was a major riot in the town during the Peasants Revolt, ending with a bloodbath on the main square and about 400 dead. The town was also sacked by a Lancastrian army in February 1461, during the Wars of the Roses.
Nonetheless, much of medieval Peterborough can still be seen. The monastic church survives today as Peterborough Cathedral and the monastic ruins can be seen in the precincts. The city centre layout and street names have changed little since that time. The 14th century tower at Longthorpe contains the finest medieval wall paintings in a domestic setting in Western Europe.