English Churches - Cambridgeshire

Ely Cathedral - Part 1


Some history


Ely Cathedral is massive and dwarfs the city. Standing beside it, it is almost too big to take in and too big to photograph easily. It is best seen from a distance when the cathedral can be seen towering above the landscape, hence its affectionate nickname “The Ship of the Fens”.

Ely Cathedral is massive and
                dwarfs the city. Standing beside it, it is almost too
                big to take in and too big to photograph easily. It is
                best seen from a distance when the cathedral can be seen
                towering above the landscape, hence its affectionate
                nickname “The Ship of the Fens”. it has a long history
                stretching back over 1350 years. Etheldreda, daughter of
                the king of the east Angles established a double
                monastery here in the C7th. After her death she was made
                a saint and Ely became a major site of pilgrimage. The
                church was destroyed by Viking raids in the C9th and
                left in ruins. A Benedictine Monastery was refounded on
                the site by St Dunstan and St Edelwold in 970. It became
                one of England’s most important and wealthiest
                Benedictine Abbeys. After the Norman Conquest and the
                Rebellion of Hereward the Wake. William I installed
                Simeon, Prior of Winchester as Abbot. Although 87 years
                old, he began the rebuilding of the Saxon church, using
                limestone quarried from near Stamford. It became a
                cathedral in 1109. The Norman nave and transepts survive
                and reflect the power of Norman conquerors as well as
                the wealth and prestige of the monastic community. They
                represent some of the best Norman architecture in the
                country, especially their blind arcading both on the
                outside and inside of the building. With increasing
                numbers of pilgrims to St Etheldreda’s tomb in the
                C13th, the east end was rebuilt with an ambulatory to
                provide more space for the pilgrims. It was built in the
                latest Early English style with dark Purbeck marble
                pillars providing a contrast with the white limestone.
                St Elthedreda’s relics were placed in an elevated
                sarcophagus in the presbytery. The Galilee porch at the
                front of the Cathedral also dates from the C13th. Not
                only was it used for liturgical processions, it also
                seems to have had a buttressing function for the west
                tower. It is described as one of the finest in England,
                although it does mask the splendid Norman west front. In
                1322 the massive Norman central tower collapsed. There
                were foundation problems in building a similar tower, so
                it was decided to replace it with an Octagon with a
                lantern top. The four original tower piers and adjoining
                nave, transepts and choir were removed opening up a
                larger area. This moved the weight of the new tower
                further out so increasing stability. The roof and
                lantern were supported by a complex timber structure
                rather than stone also reducing the weight. The lantern
                roof is wood. The Octagon gives Ely Cathedral a
                distinctive appearance making it different to other
                English Cathedrals. The west tower was also extended
                with an octagon top. was destroyed in the Reformation.
                Now marked by a simple slate slab. The LADY CHAPEL was
                added the the north of the church at the same time as
                the Octagon and completed 1349. It is the largest in any
                British cathedral and one of the most elaborate to be
                built at that time. At some point in the C15th, the
                north west transept collapsed and was not rebuilt. The
                monastery was dissolved in 1539 when the royal
                commissioners took possession of the monastery and all
                its contents. The treasures were confiscated, the
                statues and stained glass smashed and St Eledreda’s
                shrine destroyed. The Church however survived as a
                cathedral and Henry VIII established a choir school
                here. It suffered further damage during the Commonwealth
                when the Chapter House and cloisters were destroyed. No
                services were held and it ceased to function as a
                cathedral. After Restoration of Monarchy, money raised
                to repair the church. There was further work in the
                C18th when the Octagon was repaired and remodelled by
                removing the flying buttresses. The choir and presbytery
                roofs were replaced and a new organ screen built across
                western end of choir. By the C19th, the building was in
                very poor condition again and there was a major
                restoration undertaken by Sir George Gilbert Scott. The
                south west transept was restored and became the
                baptistry with a new font. St Catherine’s Chapel was
                rebuilt. The C18th organ screen removed and the organ
                relocated to the north choir, with a carved organ case
                decorated with carved angels. A new choir screen was
                built so those seated in nave could see and hear
                service. Gilbert Scott added sub stalls in front of
                choir stalls and a series of beautifully carved panels
                in the canopies above. He designed a beautiful new
                reredos for behind the altar. Roofs, including the
                Octagon, were repaired and repainted, heating installed
                and the floor partially repaved. The stained glass was
                replaced using the most significant glass painters of
                the period. There was another ‘Great Restoration’ at the
                end of the C20th to repair the roof and stonework. The
                Octagon windows were repaired and strengthened. The nave
                ceiling cleaned. A Processional Way constructed, so
                restoring the route used by Medieval pilgrims between St
                Etheldreda’s tomb and the Lady Chapel. To mark the
                Millennium, three new sculptures were commissioned. The
                Way of Life is beneath the west tower, Christ in Glory
                is above pulpit and the Blessed Virgin Mary in placed in
                the Lady Chapel.

It has a long history stretching back over 1350 years. Etheldreda, daughter of the King of the East Angles established a double monastery here in the C7th. After her death she was made a saint and Ely became a major site of pilgrimage. The church was destroyed by Viking raiders in the C9th and left in ruins. A Benedictine Monastery was refounded on the site by St Dunstan and St Edelwold in 970. It became one of England’s most important and wealthiest Benedictine Abbeys.

After the Norman Conquest and the Rebellion of Hereward the Wake, William I installed Simeon, Prior of Winchester as Abbot. Although 87 years old, he began the rebuilding of the Saxon church, using limestone quarried from near Stamford. It became a cathedral in 1109.

The Norman nave and transepts survive and reflect the power of Norman conquerors as well as the wealth and prestige of the monastic community. They represent some of the best Norman architecture in the country, especially the blind arcading both on the outside and inside of the building.

Ely Cathedral

Ely Cathedral

With increasing numbers of pilgrims to St Etheldreda’s tomb in the C13th, the east end was rebuilt with an ambulatory to provide more space for the pilgrims. This was the latest Early English style with dark Purbeck marble pillars providing a contrast with the white limestone. St Elthedreda’s relics were placed in an elevated sarcophagus in the presbytery.

The Galilee porch at the front of the Cathedral also dates from the C13th. Not only was it used for liturgical processions, it also seems to have had a buttressing function for the west tower. It is described as one of the finest in England, although it does mask the splendid Norman west front.

Ely Cathedral

In 1322 the massive Norman central tower collapsed. There were foundation problems in building a similar tower, so it was decided to replace it with an Octagon with a lantern top. The four original tower piers and adjoining nave, transepts and choir were removed opening up a larger area. This moved the weight of the new tower further out so increasing stability. The roof and lantern were supported by a complex timber structure rather than stone also reducing the weight. The lantern roof is also wood. The Octagon gives Ely Cathedral a distinctive appearance making it different to other English Cathedrals.

Ely Cathedral

The west tower was also extended with an octagon top with four smaller corner towers.

Ely Cathedral

The LADY CHAPEL was added the the north of the church at the same time as the Octagon and completed 1349. It is the largest in any British cathedral and one of the most elaborate to be built at that time.

Ely Cathedral

At some point in the C15th, the north west transept collapsed and was not rebuilt.

Ely Cathedral

Ely Cathedral
 
The monastery was dissolved in 1539 when the royal commissioners took possession of the monastery and all its contents. The treasures were confiscated, the statues and stained glass smashed and St Eledreda’s shrine destroyed. Its position is now marked by a simple slate stone. The Church however survived as a cathedral and Henry VIII established a choir school here.

It suffered further damage during the Commonwealth when the Chapter House and cloisters were destroyed. No services were held and it ceased to function as a cathedral. After Restoration of Monarchy, money was raised to repair the church.

There was further work in the C18th when the Octagon was repaired and remodelled by removing the flying buttresses. The choir and presbytery roofs were replaced and a new organ screen built across western end of choir.

By the C19th, the building was in very poor condition again and there was a major restoration undertaken by Sir George Gilbert Scott. The south west transept was restored and became the baptistry with a new font. St Catherine’s Chapel was rebuilt. The C18th organ screen was removed and the organ relocated to the north choir, with a carved organ case decorated with carved angels. A new choir screen was built so those seated in nave could see and hear service. Gilbert Scott added sub stalls in front of choir stalls and a series of beautifully carved panels in the canopies above. He designed a beautiful new reredos for behind the altar. Roofs, including the Octagon, were repaired and repainted, heating installed and the floor partially repaved. Stained glass was replaced, using the most significant glass painters of the period.

There was another ‘Great Restoration’ at the end of the C20th to repair the roof and stonework.  The Octagon windows were repaired and strengthened. The nave ceiling was cleaned and a Processional Way constructed, so restoring the route used by Medieval pilgrims between St Etheldreda’s tomb and the Lady Chapel.

To mark the Millennium, three new sculptures were commissioned. The Way of Life is beneath the west tower, Christ in Glory is above pulpit and the Blessed Virgin Mary in placed in the Lady Chapel.

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