The Ship of The Fens: A Short History on Ely Cathedral
2 Dec 2020
In the small, historic market town of Ely, stands an imposing, 46,000 sq.ft cathedral.
With visitors flocking from all over the world to explore its ancient buildings and medieval gateways, the cathedral is home to some of the county’s most vibrant history.
It’s this complex past and intricately carved stonework, which led to Ely Cathedral taking almost 300 years to complete. But that’s not just what makes this building such an iconic and frequently visited site of interest.
Keen historians may know its fame derives from being home to the Lord Protector and uncrowned King of Great Britian and Ireland; Oliver Cromwell.
In 1636, Cromwell inherited a large estate in the area of Ely from his uncle, Sir Thomas Steward, where he became a man of greath wealth and influence within the area as the local tax collector. Not the most admired figure in the area, as part of his influence, he also closed the cathedral for approximately 10 years after a disagreement with the local Catholic clergy.
But the cathedral is also famous for many other interesting features, including its Lady Chapel and Octagon Tower which date back to the 14th Century and have featured in two epic Elizabethan films; The Golden Age and The Other Boleyn Girl.
Today, more than 1,000 years after its original construction was completed, the cathedral continues to tower over the surrounding low-lying fenland and town of Ely. Hailed ‘The Ship of the Fens,’ this revered monastery stands as one one of the finest examples of Romanseque architecture in the country.
Take a walk through the history of Ely Cathedral with our short article on its construction, and discover why the building remains such a popular destination for tourists today.
Ely Cathedral: The Early Years
The cathedral’s history dates back to AD 673, when St Etheldreda (c. 636-79), daughter of the East Anglian King Anna, restored an existing church and built a double monastery for men and women in Ely. Twice married, Etheldreda decided to establish the monastery after choosing to take a vow of chastity and become a nun.
The church was very popular among the locals for around two-hundred years until, in 870, it was destroyed by the Vikings, with almost all evidence of Etheldreda’s original site being destroyed.
Fast forward one-hundred years later, and in 970, the Bishop of Winchester Ethelwold (909-84) founded a Benedictine Abbey located close to the current site of the present building.
The Journey to Becoming a Cathedral
The cathedral building which exists today had its foundations laid today by Simeon (993-1093), who is famous for being the first Norman Abbot and a kinsman of William the Conqueror.
After the Norman Conquest of 1066, William the Conqueror and his regime sought to stamp his authority on the British by building imposing stone buildings of worship. In the area of Ely, the Normans encountered resistance against the Anglo-Saxon resistance for five years, with a rebellion which was led by the guerilla leader Hereward the Wake. The rebels blockaded themselves on the Isle of Ely and remained there until William the Conqueror’s men discovered a safe passage through the marshes and ended the siege.
It is unsurprising then, that Simeon then chose to build the magnificent cathedral on the site of the rebellion.
During his construction, Simeon slowly demolished the early Benedictine Abbey which was constructed by the Bishop of Winchester Ethelwold and began building his own Norman building in 1102.
These early foundations were made up of three monastic buildings:
1. Southernly buildings - the cloister, the prior's house, and accommodation,
2. A guest hall to the east, and,
3. An almonry to the north
In 1109, Simeon’s monastery received cathedral status when King Henry I (c. 1068-1135) granted Ely a bishopric.
Ely Cathedral: 13th Century Construction
The oldest parts of the cathedral we know today were constructed in the 11th and 12th centuries, and include; the Galilee Porch, the west tower, nave, aisles, the prior’s house, and the infirmary.
In 1234, the original semicircular apse at the eastern end of the church was replaced by a rectangular structure known as the Presbytery. This was completed in 1250 when the cathedral decided to rededicate itself, creating shrines in honour of the Virgin, St Peter, and St Etheldreda.
By the end of the 13th century, the cathedral and its surrounding buildings were pretty much complete, except for the Lady Chapel (situated to the north of the presbytery, separate to the main building) which was constructed in 1321.
With the cathedral finally complete in 1321, it seems almost ironic that during the night of 12th Feburary 1322, the stone tower collapsed, destroying the choir area beneath it. The construction of the Lady Chapel is said to be related to the tower’s collapse, with the building work weakening the already fragile foundations.
The individual responsible for its replacement was the architect, Alan de Walsingham, who planned and supervised the construction of the present tower. For its time, Walsingham’s tower was considered one of the greatest engineering feats of the Middle Ages, introducing the use of structural forms which are not too dissimilar to the hammer beams that came into mainstream engineering around 50 years later.
Other work completed during the 14th century included; the Prior Crauden’s Chapel (1324), the Queen’s Hall (1330s), a new choir area, and the installation of the organ which was gifted by the Bishopp Niel (1133-69).
Surrendering the Cathedral in 16th Century
On 18th November 1539, Ely Cathedral was surrendered to Henry VIII (1491-1547) under the Dissolution of the Monasteries. By order, much of the cathedral’s carvings, statuary, and stained glass was destroyed, but the building’s main foundations remained in-tact. The shrine which was also created for St Etheldreda was also destroyed.
By September 1541, the Cathedral had been reofunded with a college of secular priests who had been estbalished by order of a royal charter. The last Prior, Robert Steward, became the cathedral’s first Dean. Steward had the existing prior’s accommodation, infirmary and guest halls adapted for his use, but many of the other monastic buildings were left to degrade, with most of them being eventually demolished.
Ely Cathedral’s Three Major Restorations
Early in the 18th Century, the architect James Essex was called in and led the cathedral’s first major restoration to strengthen the cathedral’s foundations, which had been weakened by the vandalism of the Reformation.
In 1839, the arrival of Dean George Peacock and his architect Sir George Gilbert Scott led to its second restoration, where together, they restored the building to its former style.
Ely Cathedral was left untouched for many years until September 1950, when it was listed as a Grade I Building. After a few years, the building’s new title led to a review into the safety of its foundations.
During the 1970s, major works were undertaken to strengthen the cathedral’s foundations, and in particular, the western tower. Rusting irownork and cracks within the masonry has caused a lot of damage, so restoration was carried out to preserve the cathedral.
The ‘Great Restoration’ was completed in the year 2000, and included a significant new addition - the Processional Way. This connected the north choir with the external Lady Chapel, reuniting the building as one.
Ely Cathedral Today
Today, Ely Cathedral still operates as the mother church of the Diocese of Ely, which covers some 1,500 square miles of East Anglia.
Ely itself is only an hour from London on the train. And so it comes as no surprise that thousands of visitors flock to the site each year, with some travelling from across the world to admire its rich history and impressive architecture.
You can visit the cathedral today, with prices starting from £8.00 for adults and free access for those under the age of 16. With current restrcitions, you will need to book tickets, but they offer a wide enough time slot for you to see everything inside the cathedral, including its stained glass museum.
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