The first church structure which can be verified on the site of St Peter's Cathedral in Bremen was a timber church on on a high point overseeing the Weser River built by Saint Willehad, an early missionary to the Frisians. The church was built about 789 in conjunction with the creation of the Diocese of Bremen with Willehad as the first bishop. Willehad died the same year.
Just three years later Saxons attacked and burned Bremen and its tiny timber cathedral. No trace of it remains. The see remained vacant for thirteen years until it was reestablished under Bishop Willerich in 805. St Peter's was built as the cathedral church of local sandstone in several stages by Bishop Willerich.
After the sack of Hamburg by the Danes in 845, Bremen became the seat of the combined Bremen and Hamburg Archdiocese under Archbishop Saint Ansgar who held the see from 848 to his death in 865. He was one of the most prominent missionaries to northern Europe and is credited with the beginnings of the conversion of the Danes and Swedes to Christianity. He was succeeded by Archbishop Rimbert.
It is believed that during Ansgar's time the cathedral had a central nave and two side aisles with a choir at each end of the nave, a typical Carolingian church form. There was a cathedral school and cloister.
Early in the tenure of Archbishop Adalbrand (1035-1043) the church was in the process of being rebuilt and enlarged, but in 1041 most of Bremen including the cathedral was destroyed by a terrible fire. The fire also destroyed much of the cathedral library. Bishop Adalbrand ordered the building rebuilt in 1042, but died before it could be completed.
Most of the rebuilding fell to Archbishop Adalbert (1043-1072). The cathedral was rebuilt as a pillared basilica with rounded Romanesque style arches and a flat timber ceiling. Two stubby, flat-topped towers were added to the west front. A crypt was built under the west part of the nave. The building plan was based on cruciform shape of the cathedral at Benevento in Campania, Italy with which Adalbert was familiar. He also brought craftsmen from Lombardy to make repairs and embellish the cathedral, much to the consternation of local builders and artists. Adalbert ignored the criticism and forced his vision for the cathedral on the local townspeople. On Adalbert's orders parts of the city walls were torn down to provide low-cost stone for the cathedral. Adalbert's short-sightedness resulted in Saxons sacking the city and the cathedral in 1064.
Adalbert also wanted to improve the reputation of the cathedral school and invited Magister Adam of the Magdeburg Cathedral School to come to Bremen and eventually become its director. After 1072 Adam wrote The Deeds of the Bishops of the Hamburg Church, a history of the missionary efforts in northern Germany and Scandinavia in four volumes. Adam of Bremen, as he became known, used the earlier works of others available to him at what was left of the Bremen cathedral library to describe the events and people in the Christianization of north Germany, Frisia, and Scandinavia for which Hamburg had authority to send missionaries. Adam of Bremen continued to revise and update his writing until his death in 1080. His fourth book was mainly written, it is believed, as a guide to the geography and customs of the peoples of Denmark, Norway, and Sweden for future missionaries in the conversion of the pagans of Denmark, Norway, and Sweden. In his work is found the first reference to Vinland.
Under Prince-Archbishop Gebhard II (1219-1258) the church was remodeled to reflect the new Gothic architecture that swept across Europe. Because of the scarcity of building stone, the church was constructed in baked brick as were many other large ecclesiastic and public buildings in northern Europe. The flat basilica ceiling was changed to ribbed vaulting that was the hallmark of Gothic church architecture. The towers and front wall of the west front were blended together and a rose window was added. The towers were raised above the roof of the nave although left with flat tops. St Peter's is one of the largest historic brick structures in Europe.
At Easter 1334 Prince-Archbishop Burchard Grelle claimed to have found the skulls of the Saints Cosmas and Damian. He "personally 'miraculously' retrieved the relics of the holy physicians Cosmas and Damian, which were allegedly immured and forgotten in the quire of the Bremen Cathedral. In celebration of the retrieval Prince-Archbishop and Chapter arranged a feast at Pentecost 1335, when the relics were translated from the wall to a more dignified place." (For the original quotation see the note) Grelle claimed the relics to be those, which Archbishop Adaldag brought with him from Rome in 965. In about 1400 the cathedral master-builder Johann Hemeling commissioned a shrine for the relics, which has been accomplished until after 1420. The shrine from carved oak wood covered with gilt rolled silver is considered an important mediaeval gold work. In 1649 Bremen's Chapter, meanwhile Lutheran, sold the shrine with the alleged relics to Elector Maximilian I of Bavaria. It is now shown in the Jesuit church of St Michael in Munich.
Between 1497 and 1511 the basilica style church was further transformed into a German "High Gothic" style church. Several chapels were added and even more ambitious plans were made for the church. The cathedral was used mainly for religious celebrations and special events, but not on a daily basis. Parish church functions were handled by other nearby churches.
When the Protestant Reformation swept through northern Germany, St Peter's church belonged to the cathedral district immunity, an extraterritorial enclave of the neighbouring Prince-Archbishopric of Bremen. The still Catholic Cathedral Chapter closed the church after in 1532 a mob of Bremen's burghers had forcefully interrupted a Catholic mass and prompted a pastor to hold a Lutheran preach. Roman Catholic Church was condemned as a symbol of the abuses of a long Catholic past by most local citizens and the building fell into disuse and then disrepair. In 1547 the chapter, meanwhile prevailingly Lutheran, appointed the Dutch Albert Rizaeus, named Hardenberg, as the first Cathedral preacher of Protestant affiliation. Rizaeus turned out to be a partisan of the rather Zwinglian understanding of the Lord's Supper, which was rejected by the then Lutheran burghers, city council, and chapter. So in 1561 - after tremendous quarrels - Rizaeus was dismissed and banned from the city and the cathedral shut again its doors.
While the majority of Bremen's burghers and city council adopted Calvinism until the 1590s, the chapter, being simultaneously the body of secular government in the neighbouring Prince-Archbishopric, clung to Lutheranism. In 1638 the Prince-Archbishopric's Lutheran Administrator Frederick II reopened St Peter's as a Lutheran place of worship, while meanwhile all other churches in town had become Calvinist. On January 27 the same year, the south tower collapsed causing severe damage to surrounding buildings and killing eight people. In 1642 a Lutheran Latin School opened at St Peter's. Just eighteen years later, a lightning struck the north tower and burned the roof which collapsed into the nave destroying the roof. The north tower was quickly rebuilt as a stubby, flat-roofed structure. The south tower remained in its ruined form.
In 1803 the cathedral district immunity with St Peter's, meanwhile an extraterritorial enclave of Bremen-Verden, which had succeeded the Prince-Archbishopric in 1648, was incorporated into the Free Imperial City of Bremen. Its burgomaster Johann Smidt, a devout member of the Reformed (Calvinist) church, confiscated the considerable estates of the Lutheran congregation, arguing it would be a legal non-thing, null and void. The representatives of the Lutheran congregation, led by the cathedral preacher Johann David Nicolai, started to fight for its right to exist. The fight lasted until the congregation's official recognition in 1830, asserted by a majority of Bremen's Calvinist senators (government members) against the expressed will of Smidt. Smidt abused his governmental power to suppress the Lutheran congregation by way of ordinances, confiscation and public discreditation.
The attitude of the prevailingly Calvinist public towards the Lutheran St Peter's cathedral remained distanced. The citizens saw no reason to waste money by restoring the dilapidated cathedral. In 1873 the Calvinist and Lutheran congregations in Bremen reconciled and founded a united administrative umbrella, the still existing Bremian Evangelical Church, comprising the bulk of Bremen's citizens. By the 1880s the citizens of Bremen decided that the cathedral should be restored to its medieval glory. Money was raised for the restoration of the building and work began in 1888. Reconstruction continued off and on until 1901 when the church reopened. The restoration was done according to the Romanesque Revival style, a then modern interpretation of the ancient style as created by Max Salzmann. The towers were raised to their present height and completed in 1892. The interior of the church was restored in the Gothic style making it difficult to see the changes in style that occurred over time.
The West Front of the cathedral reflects the Romanesque origins of the building, however the modern front including the west window was part of the 1880s reconstruction of the cathedral. The lower sections were restored to show the sandstone origins of the building, but the rest of the cathedral is built in the characteristic Hanseatic Brick style of north Germany. It is believed that the west facade once had a two story "porch" with an upper and lower gallery. Twos interesting traditions with a connection to the cathedral is that when a man reaches the age of 30 and is not married, he must sweep the cathedral steps until a young lady gives him a kiss and then he is released from his duty. Women who reach their thirtieth birthday unmarried go to polish the cathedral doorknobs in the company of friends and family until they are released by the kiss of a young man.
The church was struck by a fire bomb during an Allied air raid in 1943 and damaged repeatedly until 1945 when a high explosive bomb caused the collapse of the roof vaulting. The structure was so severely damaged that it was feared that the building would totally collapse. However the ruins were stabilized and the church was reconstructed by 1950. From 1972 to 1981 the church was once again restored to the High Gothic form of the 1901 restoration.
The remaining beautifully hand-carved choir stalls from 1365 may still be found in one of the chapels.
The stone baptismal font dates back to 1229 and has been moved to all parts of the cathedral over the years and now rests near the entrance.
The pulpit installed in 1638 was a gift to the people of Bremen from Queen Christina of Sweden, whose troops - in the course of the Thirty Years' War - had already captured the Prince-Archbishopric of Bremen, and aimed at gaining the city too. The pulpit has survived the many catastrophes that plagued St Peter's history and remains in its original location.
Two crypts reveal the lower portions of the original walls and columns of the original cathedral. The crypt of the cathedral contains the bodies of almost ninety graves of bishops, archbishops, and others notables.
St Peter's was the original resting place of St Emma of Lesum, a wealthy benefactress of the church, who lived in outside the city in the early 11th century. When her tomb was opened, her body had crumbled to dust except for her right hand; the one that gave aid to the poor. The relic was moved to the church at Werden.
An unusual "Bleikeller" or lead basement is located beneath the nave which even before the Reformation had a reputation as an excellent place to preserve the bodies of the dead in amazing form. Eight mummies in glass-topped coffins can be seen there. The displays lists among those on display: two Swedish officers from the Thirty Years' War, an English countess, a murdered student, and a local pauper. The crypt has become the cathedral's most visited attraction for more than 300 years. The cathedral museum was constructed in one of the side chapels in the 1970s cathedral restoration.
St Peter's has several fine examples of artistic epitaphs for individuals that have survived the many restorations of the cathedral. The three finest are for Chapter Senior Segebade II von der Hude (ca. 1500-1578), Dr. Gerhard Brandis (1518), and Cathedral Provost Sigebade Clüver (1547).
The cathedral has twin 99 meter towers referred to as the north tower and the south tower. The towers were constructed flanking the main entrance portal on the west front of the church between 1215 and 1253. In 1346 the towers were strengthened and given pyramidal tops of uneven heights. When the towers were restored and raised in the 1890s they were given Rhenish "helmets" which still cap the towers today. It is possible to climb the south tower for a view of the city. The north tower remains closed. The crossing tower is a reminder of the original style of the west front towers with a pyramidal cap.
During the Middle Ages the towers had eight bells. Today the towers house the cathedral's four bells. The north tower has three bells. The oldest surviving bell is the "Maria Gloriosa cast in 1433 by the famous bell maker Ghert Klinghe. The other bells were removed and melted down for the war effort in World War II. In 1951 two bells, "Hansa" and "Felicitas", were donated to the cathedral by former residents living abroad. In 1962 a prominent Bremen family donated a fourth bell, the "Brema" which hangs in the south tower. The Brema weighs 7000 kg.
Bremen has a long-standing tradition of fine organ music since 1526. From 1698 to 1843 the famous organ built by Arp Schnitger, one of the Baroque period's best known organ makers was the main organ. Its replacements, the Schulze organ and then the Wilhelm Sauer organ which is one of the largest in northwest Germany. The cathedral today has five organs in different parts of the cathedral and continues the long tradition of great organs and organists.
- Willehad of Bremen
- Emma of Lesum
- Unni (archbishop)