In times like these, I think it is important to have beautiful things to read about. So I thought I’d put together a post on Ely cathedral. I’m not religious, but it is a truly beautiful building with a fascinating history. I have written about it before in my tour round medieval cathedrals post a couple of years ago, but I decided it deserved its own post.
Ely is a largely Romanesque Cathedral, which is unusual in the UK. Most UK cathedrals are gothic or later, with the occasional romanesque element remaining. But Ely retains many of its Romanesque features, especially on the exterior. You can see the curved and solid shapes rather than the more common gothic pointed and etherial shapes in the photos above and below. The building you see on the site today is an amalgam of centuries of development, the Romanesque style is largely Norman and in the case of Ely was mainly completed by 1189.
Ely is known as the ‘ship of the fens’ as it dominates what is pretty much the only high point in surrounding areas. In the medieval period it would have been surrounded by fenlands. Even now that a large amount of the fens have been drained you can see how it commands the landscape. The images below are taken from the roof of the cathedral.
Ely’s origins trace back further even than the Normans, back to the 7th century CE when it was founded as a monastery by St Etheldreda. Etheldreda was a Saxon Queen and when she died in c. 680 her shrine at Ely became a pilgrimage site. It was destroyed in 1541, but there is a slate in the cathedral in front of the high altar (I unfortunately don’t have a photo of it) to commemorate where it stood.
This original building was destroyed by the Danes in 870 but was re-founded as a Benedictine monastery in c.970 The buildings you see today were begun in the reign of William the Conquerer under the direction of Abbott Simeon. Ely was partly built as a mark of Norman authority in the aftermath of rebellions in the area such as Hereward the Wake’s against the still reasonably new Norman authority. Originally Ely church was the church for the monastery, but Ely became a cathedral in c.1109 when the Diocese of Ely was carved out of the Diocese of Lincoln. It still retained its place as a Benedictine foundation. You can see some of the remains of the monastic buildings in the photo below.
Ely was dissolved as a monastery in the dissolution of the monasteries in the mid 16th century though it continued as bishopric and ultimately a college of priests was run from the old monastic buildings. Remains of the cathedral’s time as a monastic site still remain in the cathedral itself, such as the prior’s door you can see in the photo below
Although the name is contemporary this intricately decorated door is one of three 12th century doors that led from the monastic buildings and the cloister into the cathedral. The other doors lead into the choir and the south transept (see below).
The prior’s door led straight onto the nave, which was serving as the parish church until the 1360s. The nave itself is one of the most spectacular parts of the cathedral.
One of the key remaining parts of the original Norman church, the nave itself is 75m long and the ceiling is 32m high. The roof is not original. There is a ledge that runs along the top of the Romanesque columns where the original roof would have rested. In 1240 the roof was reconstructed when the cathedral was extended. You can see some the extended areas in the photos below, they are noticeable more gothic than the Norman parts of the cathedral.
The basic interior structure of this secondary roof largely survives today, but it would have been open.
In the 1850s, however, the Dean of the Cathedral Dean Peacock was one of many who thought the open roof detracted from the overall beauty of the cathedral. As part of the restoration of the cathedral by architect Sir George Gilbert Scott he had a boarded ceiling inserted that followed the lines of the open roof. The painting you can see below, was also undertaken at this time.
Henry Styleman Le Strange was the artist. Originally he was painting other smaller areas of the cathedral, but by 1856 he’d agreed to Dean Peacock’s suggestion that he paint the entire ceiling, he began in 1858. The immense work was undertaken by tracing the drawings onto the ceiling. You can see local figures including Dean Peacock and the artist himself in the ceiling panels which depict biblical scenes. Sadly Le Strange was unable to complete his work as he died in 1862 and it was completed by Thomas Parry. To find out more about the ceiling, see the article I’ve listed in the references. Much of stain glass work in the cathedral dates from the Victorian era as well.
Even though the nave is spectacular, the highlight of the cathedral interior is, arguably of course, the octagon
The octagon is not original to the cathedral either, but its construction came about for a very different reason. In 1322 the original Norman crossing tower collapsed. It was said that the noise was so loud that the monks though there had been an earthquake. The sacrist Alan de Walsingham was given the job of rebuilding. He could have rebuilt the tower conventionally, but instead the master mason whose name we don’t know he had an octagonal lantern built of 23 m across. It was a truly mammoth task of engineering, the lantern itself is 12 m high. You can see some of the beams the hold the lantern below.
The view from the lantern down to the cathedral floor is dizzying.
Ely Cathedral has stood as the ‘ship of the fens’ for hundreds of years, and although it is built for the glory of god, I like to look at it as building that is beautiful in its own right regardless of if you believe in God or not. And I think beautiful things are what we need right now.
Site visit 2012
The Companion to Cathedrals and Abbeys by Stephen Friar
Cathedral, Forge and Waterwheel: Technology and invention in the Middle Ages by Frances and Joseph Gies
The Cathedral Builders of the Middle Ages.
The English Cathedral Through The Centuries by GH Cook
A Book of Medieval Outlaws: Ten tales in modern English edited by Thomas H. Ohlgren