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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.