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Ely Cathedral



The history of Ely Cathedral can be traced back to AD 672 when St Etheldreda restored an old church and built a monastery on the site. Destroyed by the Mercians in the 7th century it was restored in the mid to late 10th century when it was re-founded as a Benedictine community. Work began on the current cathedral in 1083 and it was designated a cathedral in 1109.  The cathedral is most famous for its octagonal tower which was built to replace the Norman central tower which collapsed in 1322.

Known locally as "the ship of the Fens", due to its prominent position above the surrounding flat landscape. The history of Ely Cathedral can be traced back to AD 672 when St Etheldreda restored an old church and built a monastery on the site that was to become the cathedral. Following the destruction of the monastery by the Mercians in the 7th century it was restored in the mid to late 10th century when it was re-founded as a Benedictine community and became one of the richest abbeys in England, second only to Glastonbury.

In 1083 work began on the present cathedral under Abbot Simeon, with it being designated a cathedral in 1109, although it took several centuries to complete its construction. The West Tower was completed around 1189, while the new Presbytery wasnít finished until 1252. The construction of the central octagonal tower, with lantern above, was started following the collapse of the central tower in 1322, this was completed in 1342. The Lady Chapel was completed in 1349.  The monastery was closed by Henry VIII in 1539 and in 1540 the cathedral underwent a great deal of damage due to Protestant religious reform during the English Reformation under the reign of Henry VIII (1491-1547 r. 1509-1547). 

Work was carried out following the death of Henry VIII and the Restoration era under Charles II, but very little maintenance was carried out on the building. The first major restoration took place in the 18th century.  The second Victorian restoration project began in 1839 under the then Dean George Peacock and architect Sir George Gilbert Scott. It was Scott who moved the choir to its present position retaining as much of the medieval material as possible. A third major restoration project began in 1986 and was to last until 2000.

Built in a monumental Romanesque style with stone obtained from Barnack in Northamptonshire, its decorative elements are in Purbeck Marble and a local chalky limestone rock known as clunch. The galilee porch, lady chapel, and choir were rebuilt in an Early English Gothic style. Its design and architecture make the Cathedral outstanding both for its size and details. 

Cruciform (cross-shaped), in plan, the cathedral has an additional transept at the western end. It has a total length of 164 metres (537 ft) with the nave at over 75 m (246 ft) long it is one of the longest in Britain. 

The principal entrance into the cathedral is at the west end through the Galilee Porch. This rises two storeys and also has a structural role in that it acts as a buttress for the west tower.

The Galilee Porch leads into the West Tower with the ticket sales and information on the left. The tower itself is 66 m (217 ft) high. On the right is the south-west transept and baptistry with the baptismal font, which was added in the 19th century.


Leading straight on through the West Tower is the Nave, construction of which began around 1115, with the roof timbers dating to 1120, which suggests that the eastern portion of the Nave roof was in place by that time. Completed in phases the nave, as well as the western transepts and west tower up to triforium level, had been completed by 1140 as well as buttressing the crossing tower and transepts.  Following that, there was a 30-year pause in construction before work recommenced.

One of the most striking things is the nave ceiling. This was installed during the second restoration project. This entailed the construction of a timber boarded ceiling which was then painted by Henry Styleman Le Strange who pained six of the panels, and then, following his death in 1862, by Thomas Gambier Parry, who painted the other six, Parry also repainted the interior of the octagon. The ceiling depicts the ancestry of Jesus from Adam to Mary.

Adjoining the nave is the central octagonal tower which was constructed following the collapse of the Norman central tower in 1322. This is thought to have been a result of digging the foundations for the Lady Chapel, which resulted in work on the Lady Chapel being suspended. Instead of being replaced by a new tower on the same ground plan, the work involved the enlargement of the crossing to an octagon, the removal of the four original tower piers, and absorbing the adjoining bays of the nave, chancel, and transepts in an open area far larger than the square base of the original tower.

The octagonal tower, constructed in large stones has eight internal archways, which lead up to timber vaulting. The roof and lantern are held up by a complex timber structure above the vaulting. The central lantern, also octagonal in form, has angles offset from the great Octagon, and panels showing pictures of musical angels. At the centre of the lantern roof is a wooden boss carved from a single piece of oak, showing Christ in Majesty.

Following its completion new choirstalls were installed beneath the octagon and work resumed on the Lady Chapel. 

Below the Octagon is an altar and the pulpit

The Pulpit in the Octagon is believed to originate from an old church that was restored by Etheldreda.

On either side of the Octagon are the north and south transepts which date from around 1090 and are the oldest parts of the cathedral still standing. 

The north transept contains the St Edmundís Chapel which contains paintings dating from the 14th century. Edmund was killed by the Danes in 870 for refusing to renounce the Christian faith. Next to that is the St Georgeís Chapel which is the chapel of the Cambridgeshire Regiment.  The wooden panels record the names of over 5,000 men from Cambridgeshire and the Isle of Ely who died in WWI.

The south transept has the Chapel of St Dunstan and St Ethelwold who were significant churchmen from the 10th century. 

On display in the south transept are the tiles that once were on the floor of the Processional Way, this linked the cathedral to the Lady Chapel and the Shrine of St Etheldreda.  It is believed that the tiles date from the early 14th century. The tiles are usually covered but are also displayed for visitors to see them on a regular basis.

Passing on from the Octagon is the Choir Screen which leads into the choir.

The choir was rebuilt in the 14th century and contains the choir stalls and carved seats (known as misericords) which date from the 14th and 19th centuries.

The choir is also where the organ is found.

Through the choir is the Presbytery which was built in the 13th century to house the shrine of St Etheldreda, and this attracted pilgrims for many centuries.  The shrine was destroyed during the Reformation.  It is here that you find the High Altar.

The high Altar with its lavishly carved and ornamented alabaster figures on the marble reredos carved by Rattee and Kett was completed in 1857.  The five panels depict the events from Holy Week from Jesusí entry into Jerusalem to his death on the cross.

Behind the High Altar is the East window and shrine to St Etheldreda.

The east windows date from the Victorian restoration and depict the life of Christ, with the Resurrection and Ascension in the upper window.

Below, to the left of the window is the Shrine to St Etheldreda and the Etheldreda Panels.  The original shrine was destroyed in 1541 during the Reformation and would have been more ornate than the one today which was placed in 1961. 

The panels are in fact copies.  They are painted on oak and depict the life of St Etheldreda. The original ones are in the collection of the Society of Antiquaries of London.

Leading from the cathedral is the Processional Way which was built between the 1980s-2000 to join the Cathedral and the Lady Chapel.

The Lady Chapel was originally built in the 13th and 14th centuries in honour of the Virgin Mary. These chapels were added to many churches and cathedrals during that time. In Ely, the foundations were laid in 1321, just before the collapse of the central tower, but it was still constructed and completed in 1349. Its look then was highly coloured, with stained glass windows and painted statues in the niches.  During the Reformation, the chapel was vandalised with the windows broken and statues removed while the ones incorporated into the wall were defaced. Today many of these statues can still be seen, some with traces of the paint that brightly covered them.

The chapel is 100 feet (30 m) long and 46 feet (14 m) wide and is the largest Lady Chapel attached to any British Cathedral.

In 2000 a life-size statue of the Virgin Mary was installed over the altar in the chapel.

The cathedral also has a number of chantry chapels which are found in the presbytery aisles. In the south aisle is the chapel of Bishop Nicholas West (1515Ė33).

In the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries elaborate chantry chapels were inserted in the easternmost bays of the presbytery aisles. On the south at the south-east corner of the presbytery, is the chapel of Bishop Nicholas West (1515Ė33). It is panelled with niches for statues (these were destroyed or disfigured just a few years later at the reformation), and it has a fan tracery forming the ceiling, West's tomb being on the south side. 

The niche statues leading into the chapel were destroyed by his successor, the reformer Bishop Goodrich. (1534-1554).

In the north bay of the presbytery aisles is the chantry chapel for Bishop John Alcock (1486Ė1500). Construction started on this in 1488 and is believed that it was intended to be much larger.

Also, to be seen around the cathedral are numerous tombs.

Prior to leaving the cathedral visitors can visit the souvenir shop which is situated where tickets were obtained.


              All  Photographs were taken by and are copyright of Ron Gatepain

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