Ely Cathedral in Cambridgeshire is a magnificent medieval cathedral with a number of unique characteristics. Most of the present building was completed by 1189 in the Romanesque style, with some additions made in the 13th and 14th centuries.
Ely (pronounced "eely") was an island for most of its history, until the marshy Fens surrounding it were drained in the 18th century. The great cathedral of Ely, which still appears to float high above the flat surrounding landscape, has long been known as "the Ship of the Fens."
History of Ely Cathedral
Visitors to Ely Cathedral might wonder how such a small town in the countryside came to have such a large and magnificent work of architecture. The answer is St. Etherelda, who founded an abbey in Ely in 673 AD. Her monastery flourished throughout the Middle Ages and her shrine attracted many pilgrims.
Etherelda was born at Exning near Newmarket in about 630 AD. As the daughter of the king of the East Angles, she was a princess and married two successive princes. First she wed Tonbert in 652, who gave her the Isle of Ely as a dowry. After his death, Etherelda married Prince Egfrid of Northumbria, who later became king of Northumbria.
Despite her marriages, Etherelda said she retained her virginity, which was highly prized in those days. In 672, Egfrid released her to become a nun at the monastery of Coldingham near Berwick, where his aunt was abbess. But he almost immediately regretted his decision and made plans to reclaim her and consummate the marriage.
Hearing of this, the saintly Etherelda fled south and took refuge on the Isle of Ely. She founded a double monastery there for monks and nuns in 673, becoming its first abbess. She was ordained by St. Wilfred, the Archbishop of York and her long-time adviser and friend.
Etherelda died on June 23, 679, of a throat tumor caused by the bubonic plague, and was buried in the monastery grounds. Her tomb quickly became a place of devotion, and on October 17, 695, her body was brought into the abbey church. According to Bede, the Northumbrian church historian, her body was found to be remarkably well preserved, with the tumor healed.
All that survives from this early Saxon period is "Ovin's stone," the base of an 8th-century cross that can be seen inside the cathedral. The site of Etherelda's shrine, which was destroyed in the Reformation, is marked by a modern stone slab in the choir.
Etherelda's monastery in Ely flourished until 869, when marauding Danes burned and pillaged much of East Anglia. Many of the monks and nuns were killed; the remainder fled for their lives. The monastery was destroyed and left a ruin.
The late 10th century saw a great revival in monastic life in England. In 970, the ruined Saxon abbey was reconsecrated as a Benedictine monastery for men by the Bishop of Winchester. The abbey church was rebuilt and the remains of St. Etherelda's sister were swiped from a monastery in East Dereham in order to increase pilgrims and revenue.
Danish invasions continued during this period, but Ely escaped further damage. King Canute, the Danish-born king of England, visited Ely's monastery frequently and remarked on its fine music.
During the Norman Conquest of the 11th century, the Isle of Ely put up a brave fight under Hereward the Wake but eventually surrendered in 1070, after the invaders built an improvised road on bundles of sticks. The Normans took over both the island and the monastery, and began to build the great church that still stands today.
The task began in 1083 under Abbot Simeon, an aged relative of William the Conqueror. Limestone from Barnack near Stamford was brought to the Isle of Ely by water. The east end was completed first, in 1106, followed shortly thereafter by the transepts. The builders continued to work their way west until the church was finished in 1189.
It was during this period of construction that the monastic church at Ely became a cathedral. In 1109, the Diocese of Ely was created by carving out a portion of the Diocese of Lincoln, and the monastery's abbot (Hervey le Breton) became the first bishop.
The monastery's cathedral status would be an asset at the Dissolution of the Monasteries, saving it from destruction. More immediately, it meant that income from the diocese was available to make additions and improvements to the great church. In 1215, Bishop Eustace added the Galilee porch, which is a fine example of the new Early English Gothic style.
Eustace's successor, Bishop Hugh Northwold, tore down the Norman east end and replaced it with a presbytery made of Barnack stone and Purbeck marble. This significant renovation project, which served to relieve the congestion of pilgrims around St. Etherelda's shrine, was completed in 1252.
Another major addition was the Lady Chapel in 1349, prompted by the increasingly popularity of the cult of the Virgin Mary at that time. Many Lady Chapels were added to cathedrals in this period, but the one at Ely is unique in being separate from the main building and being exceptionally wide.
Not all changes to the cathedral were voluntary. In 1322, the central tower collapsed, bring down three bays of the Norman choir and parts of the nave and transepts with it. Bishop Hotham paid for the choir to be rebuilt, and then worked with the abbey's prior and the sacrist to devise the magnificantly unique octagon in place of the fallen tower.
Apparently inspired by the octagon, the Norman west tower was expanded by the addition of an octagonal belfry with four turrets in 1392. Its great weight soon caused the tower to sink significantly, and has proved a challenge to architects ever since.
It was also around this period (the date is not known), that the northwest transept fell down, giving the cathedral's west front a lopsided appearance. It has never been rebuilt.
The last significant additions to the cathedral were two chantry chapels at the east end: one for Bishop Alcock in the late 1400s and the other for Bishop West in 1534.
The Dissolution of the Monasteries under King Henry VIII came along in 1539, which was the end of the monastery at Ely. Most of the monks left, but some remained to form the Dean and Chapter of the cathedral. As mentioned above, the fact that the abbey church was also a cathedral helped to save it from destruction.
But that did not save it from Henry VIII's "reformers," who smashed all statues they they considered idolatrous, particularly those of the Virgin Mary in the Lady Chapel. The walls of the nave, formerly plastered and painted with brilliantly colored murals of saints and biblical scenes, were scraped off. And the ancient shrine of St. Etherelda was dismantled and destroyed.
Ely still fared better than most monastic centers - only about 15 percent of the monastic buildings were destroyed, whereas in other cities the destruction was total. In 1541, Henry refounded the cathedral and the school.
The cathedral suffered again under Oliver Cromwell, who stormed in with his soldiers during a service and imprisoned Bishop Wren on the grounds that he had continued with "unedifying and offensive" monastic chanting and his sermons were too short. The cathedral was closed for 11 years, but because Cromwell was a "local boy" (he moved to Ely in 1636, six years before the Civil War), it was again spared the level of destruction seen elsewhere.
In the centuries that followed, the chief enemy of Ely Cathedral was neglect. The building received very little attention in the way of conservation and repairs throughout the 1600s and 1700s. In 1720, Daniel Defoe watched it sway alarmingly in the wind and wrote, "whenever it does fall, all that 'tis likely will be thought strange in it, will be that it did not fall a hundred years sooner."
Some assistance arrived in 1757-71, when architect James Essex saved the octagon from falling and conducted massive repairs of the east wall, which had shifted nearly 1 foot. He also moved the choir stalls from the octagon area to the presbytery and erected a screen between the nave and choir.
But the long period of neglect finally ended decisively with the Victorian era, and the arrival of the energetic Dean George Peacock in 1839. He hired the renowned architect Sir George Gilbert Scott to restore the cathedral to its former glory. And of course, the Victorians could not resist adding their own "improvements" as well.
Elaborate pinnacles were added to the octagon, a new choir screen and high altar reredos was installed, and a painted wooden ceiling covered up the rafters of the nave. The Belgian carvings over the choir stalls, the floor of the nave, and most of the stained glass also dates from the Victorian period.
Further major restoration works began in 1986. In January 1990, a period of stormy weather threatened Ely Cathedral's famous octagon lantern. Men working on the south transept raised concerns about its safety and closer inspection revealed the glass was about to be sucked out. The windows were saved by temporary measures, and the octagon's immanent collapse was prevented by a full restoration in 1991.
What to See at Ely Cathedral
Ely Cathedral looks out over a lovely green space to the west, which continues around its north side. The great window of the Lady Chapel is visible on the north as well. The south (right) side of the cathedral is home to one of the largest surviving collections of medieval monastic buildings in England.
The west front is quite unusual in appearance, due mainly to the loss of its northwest transept but also to the octagonal belfry with surrounding turrets on the west tower. The lopsided effect is loved and hated in equal measures by critics - this author is numbered among the former. The 12th-century exterior retains a number of weathered carvings that reward a viewing with a zoom lens or binoculars.
Inside, Ely has a fine Norman nave that was built from east to west, beginning in 1100 and completed in 1139. Some architectural development over those four decades is visible: the molding in the arches is square until the sixth bay and rounded in subsequent bays.
The clerestory (upper story with windows) was added over a shorter period but has a rather crude finish, indicating junior masons were allowed to try out their developing skills on the latest styles in stonework in a place hardly visible to the worshipers far below.
Both the floor and ceiling of the nave are Victorian. The pavement (1869) replaced rough stones that were showing signs of subsidence. The wooden ceiling (1858) was painted by two gifted amateurs, Henry Styleman le Strange and his friend Thomas Gambier Parry. They painted the ceiling in situ, on their backs on scaffolding in poor light, like Michelangelo.
Off the south aisle of the nave is the Prior's Door, which has a magnificent example of 12th-century Romanesque carvings. Dating from about 1150, its tympanum depicts Christ in Majesty held aloft by archangels and blessing the creatures of the universe. Two human heads peer down from the corners and the pillasters on the sides have medallions populated by various beasts and humans.
In the south aisle near the Prior's Door is Ovin's stone, the oldest artifact in the cathedral. Dating from the 8th century (during the Saxon period), it is the base of a memorial cross. The inscription reads, "To Ovin - give your light, O Lord and rest. Amen."
At its east end, the nave opens into the large space beneath the octagon. This was originally the site of the Norman central tower; after its demise in 1322, the central pillars were removed and the side arches were set back at 45 degrees to form an octagon rather than a square.
Huge triangles of strong English oak rest on eight extra-large supporting pillars, which bear sculptures (1325) of scenes from the life of St. Etherelda. From the apex of the triangles rise the vertical posts of the octagon gallery, which are 20 feet (6m) high. These support a ring beam, on which rest the vertical posts of the lantern (40 feet / 12 m high).
The lantern took 14 years to build, weighs 200 tons, and exerts a perfect perpendicular downward thrust. By 1340, the roof was covered in lead and the ceiling was carved and painted. The ceiling seen today, as well as the wooden panels painted with angels in the octagon, are Victorian renovations. These wooden panels swing open like doors, from which you can get a vertigo-inducing view down to the floor below (via a guided tour).
The wooden stalls in the octagon area were designed by George Pace in 1978. The floor of this area is paved with checkerboard squares in an exact reflection of the octagon above. Above the pulpit is a modern sculpture of Christ in Majesty (2000) by Peter Eugene Ball.
Stretching left and right from the octagon are the transepts, both of which were completed 1106. The windows and upper parts of both transepts were rebuilt in the medieval period. The hammer-beam roofs with angels were added in the early 1400s, partially smashed by Cromwell's men in the 1600s, and restored by the Victorians in the 1800s.
The east side of the south transept once housed the cathedral library, but in the 1950s was converted to the Chapel of St. Ethelwold and St. Dunstan, reserved for private prayer. The west side of the transept houses the vestries.
The north transept has two chapels in its east side, the most interesting of which is the Chapel of St. Edmund. The screen at the entrance is from the 13th century and is part of a larger screen that once stood in the nave. Inside are medieval (13th- or 14th-century) wall paintings, one of which depicts the martyrdom of St. Edmund.
The choir consists of two different periods of construction, clearly evident in the constrasting styles. The first three bays are from the 14th century, part of the rebuild of the area after the collapse of the tower and contemporary with the octagon. These are in the Decorated style of Gothic architecture. The six remaining bays (the presbytery) are earlier, from 1253, and are in the simpler Early English Gothic style.
The choir stalls date from the 14th century and include many fascinating medieval carvings on the misericords. The canopies above the stalls were carved in Belgium in the 19th century and depict Old Testament biblical scenes on the south and New Testament biblical scenes on the north.
Ely Cathedral is unusual in having no bishop's throne (cathedra). When the church was part of a monastery, the Prior and the Abbot sat to the north and south of the choir entrance respectively; this arrangement has been retained by the Dean and Bishop.
The east endof the cathedral is home to a simple chapel with altar dedicated to St. Etherelda. Nearby is a modern statue of the saint. The great east window was designed by Sir Ninian Comper in the 19th century.
To its left, at the end of the north aisle, is Bishop Alcock's chantry chapel. Commissioned by the bishop and built between 1488 and 1500, the year of his death, the chapel houses his tomb and provides a place for prayers to be said for his soul. It is also considered one of the finest examples of Gothic architecture in England, with ornate stonework carved from chalky Cambridgeshire stone and a fan-vaulted ceiling. Statues once filled the niches, but these were destroyed at the Reformation.
In the other corner of the cathedral, on the south side, is Bishop West's chantry chapel. Completed in about 1535, just a few years before Henry VIII's men wrecked havok throughout the cathedral, this chantry is also Gothic but its beautiful ceiling represents an early example of the new Renaissance style.
The north and south choir aisles contain numerous tombs and monuments, many of them to former Ely bishops. The north choir aisle leads through wrought iron gates and an elaborate medieval doorway to the Lady Chapel. This was the Processional Way used by medieval pilgrims, destroyed at the Dissolution but reconstructed on the original foundations in 2000.
The Lady Chapel's unusual position off to the side instead of at the east end of the cathedral is due to the monks' burial ground and outer hostelry being already located there. The chapel stands between the presbytery (east end) and the north transept, and is the largest Lady Chapel in England. It also has the largest medieval vault in England, with a span of 40 feet (12m).
The Lady Chapel was built from 1321 to 1349, a period which also saw the collapse of the central tower and construction of the octagon. The chapel once looked much different than it does today. The walls were bursting with colorful paintings, the windows were filled with the finest medieval stained glass, and the niches were home to exquisite statues.
All this was destroyed at the Reformation, but even the badly damaged state of the stonework and traces of colored paint provide an idea of what it must have looked like. Many of the carved roof bosses survive and have recently been repainted. The chapel became a parish church after the Reformation, but was "returned" to the cathedral in 1938. The unusual sculpture of the Virgin Mary that stands above the altar is by David Wynne (2000).
Housed in the south triforium near the main entrance at the west end is a Stained Glass Museum, which displays examples of stained glass from 1240 to the present day. Admission is £3.50; hours are Easter to October, Mon-Sat 10:30am-5pm, Sun noon-4:30pm.
Quick Facts on Ely Cathedral
|Names:||Cathedral of the Holy Trinity · Ely Cathedral|
|Categories:||cathedrals; Grade I listed buildings|
|Visitor and Contact Information|
|Coordinates:||52.398629° N, 0.263404° E|
|Phone:||+44 (0)1353 667735|
|Hours:||Jun-Sep: daily 7-7|
Oct-May: Mon-Sat 7:30am-6pm, Sun 7:30am-5pm
|Lodging:||View hotels near Ely Cathedral|
- Personal visit (September 10, 2007).
- Ely Cathedral: The Pitkin Guide (2007).
- Photos of Ely Cathedral - here on Sacred Destinations
Map of Ely Cathedral
Below is a location map and aerial view of Ely Cathedral. Using the buttons on the left (or the wheel on your mouse), you can zoom in for a closer look, or zoom out to get your bearings. To move around, click and drag the map with your mouse.