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Modern Britain

Gallery: Churches of Cambridgeshire

by Peter Kessler, 30 August 2009

 

 

East Cambridgeshire Part 1: Ely Cathedral

Ely Cathedral, Cambridgeshire

Ely Cathedral is the core of the town of the same name, located in eastern central Cambridgeshire. Its full name is the Cathedral Church of the Holy and Undivided Trinity of Ely, and its origins date back to seventh century Anglian Cambridgeshire. The founder and first abbess of Ely was Etheldreda, the daughter of Anna, king of East Anglia, who remained a virgin throughout her first marriage to the local prince, Tondberht, of the mysterious South Gwyras.

Ely Cathedral, Cambridgeshire

After Tondberht's death, Etheldreda was married again, to Egfrith, king of Northumbria. When after twelve years he began to insist on normal marriage relations, Etheldreda retired to Ely, which was part of her dowry, and founded a double monastery there in 673, 1.6 kilometres (a mile) north of the Anglian village of Cratendune. The area was only sparsely settled at the time, being something of a backwater area, making it perfect for a life of isolation.

Ely Cathedral, Cambridgeshire

Etheldreda restored an old church and built her monastery on the site of the later cathedral. She died in about 680, along with several of her nuns, probably from plague, and seventeen years later her uncorrupted body was placed in a Roman-made stone sarcophagus which had been discovered at Grantchester and reburied. The monastery was destroyed by Danes during the great invasion of the ninth century, when East Anglia fell under the rule of the Danelaw.

Ely Cathedral, Cambridgeshire

Despite the Danish rule of the area, a congregation survived at the church and the Danelaw fell to the English in 917. The semi-abandoned site was rebuilt in 970 by Ethelwold, bishop of Winchester (963-984), and refounded as a Benedictine community. Just a century later, William the Conqueror's arrival in England saw Ely become one of the centres of resistance, with Hereward the Wake holding out in the region until 1071.

Ely Cathedral, Cambridgeshire

Even following the harsh Norman pacification of the fens, the east of England was still the richest corner of the country. To show the rest of England, and Europe, just how rich it was, a building boom started up. The three hundred year construction timeframe for the present cathedral was begun by Abbot Simeon (1082-1094). A Norman stone castle was also built in Ely, although it was notably less long-lived than the cathedral, being demolished in the thirteen century.

Ely Cathedral, Cambridgeshire

Work continued throughout the twelfth century, during which construction of much of the main body of the cathedral was completed. The old Anglo-Saxon church was demolished to make way for the new building, and several extra features were added along the way, such as the West Tower, the impressive main entrance which was built between 1174-1194, and the Lady Chapel in 1324-1349, which was attached to the north-eastern transept.

Ely Cathedral, Cambridgeshire

The cathedral grew to become the richest in England other than Glastonbury, with Etheldreda's shrine the focus of large numbers of visiting pilgrims. It was probably at this time that the main growth of Ely as a town occurred, as the pilgrim industry took hold and tradesmen flocked there to take advantage. The cathedral survived with only minor damage during Henry VIII's Reformation, although the shrine of St Etheldreda was destroyed in 1539.

Ely Cathedral, Cambridgeshire

Following the dissolution of the monasteries in 1541, the abbey was refounded as a cathedral in the same year rather than being destroyed, possibly because Henry VIII's first wife, Katherine of Aragon, was buried there. The last abbot became the new cathedral's first bishop, and a slate inside marks the former location of Ely Monastery, while some relics are alleged to be in St Etheldreda Ely Church in the City of London, the former London residence of the bishops of Ely.

Ely Cathedral, Cambridgeshire

The bishop of Ely from 1638-1667 was Matthew Wren, uncle of Christopher Wren, the man behind the rebuilding of fifty-four of London's churches and of St Paul's Cathedral after the Great Fire of London. Together they were responsible for the construction of the Gothic door on the north face of the cathedral which dates to 1665 - one of Wren's first constructions shortly before he started the task of rebuilding much of the heart of London.

Ely Cathedral, Cambridgeshire

In 1839, a painted wooden ceiling was added to the nave, but the original architect, Basevi, was killed when he fell from the West Tower, and George Gilbert Scott had to be brought in as a replacement. Today, over thirteen hundred years after the first founding of the monastery, the cathedral still towers over Ely and the surrounding fens, a magnificent monument to its builders over nine hundred years ago.

All photos on this page contributed by E Simpson.

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