A History of the Parish Church of St Peter de Merton with St Cuthbert, Bedford
The combination of a Saxon tower together with other Saxon work, a Norman doorway and extensive restoration and enlargement during the nineteenth century makes St Peter's a very interesting church to look around.
For well over one thousand years Christians have worshipped on this site, although their earliest building would probably have been of wood rather than stone. The present church contains some of the oldest architectural remains in Bedford, the most ancient being the two great stones (monoliths) in the interior west wall of the tower and two carved stones which can be seen in the belfry.
The tower, built of rubble and cement, has survived storm, fires and restoration since Saxon times. In addition to the "long and short" work - the trademark of the Saxon mason - the arch over the organ console and the small doorway above the arch in the east wall of the belfry offer good examples of Saxon architecture.
Remains discovered beyond the east wall of the church suggest that, at one period in its long history, St Peter's had a Norman apse. However the best example of Norman work is the exterior doorway arch in the south porch. This arch belonged originally to another Bedford church, St Peter de Dunstable which was closed in 1545. The porch which now protects it was added in 1902 and the statue of St Peter placed in the porch the following year.
From the 13th and 14th centuries come the font, the priest's door and windows in the chancel. The fenestella, containing credence and piscina, in the south wall of the sanctuary is largely a reproduction of the original which was one of several interesting features that came to light when plaster was removed from the chancel in the nineteenth century.
The 19th century witnessed not only extensive restoration work in St Peter's, but also considerable enlargement. The nave was extended to its present size, the vestry and the aisles and west porch added.
Work on the building has continued during the 20th century with the paintings in the east wall, the decoration of the tower ceiling, the addition of the chapter house and the placing of the Burma Star window.
Before concluding this brief history, a few words about the dedication of the church. The "de Merton", which follows the name of the apostle St Peter, has traditionally been traced to Merton Priory in Surrey. The Austin Canons who founded the priory in the eleventh century held the advowson of this church, and were patrons, until the dissolution of the monasteries when the patronage appears to have been vested in the Crown.
The dedication of the parish to a second saint, Cuthbert of Lindisfarne, came about when the neighbouring parish of St Cuthbert was amalgamated with St Peter's in 1974. The former parish church of St Cuthbert, which stands at the south end of St Cuthbert's Street, is now used for worship by the Polish Roman Catholic community. Although the present building is only 150 years old, there were probably three earlier buildings with a history stretching back as far as the eighth century.