Ely Cathedral

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Ely Cathedral
Cathedral Church of the Holy and Undivided Trinity
The west tower of Ely Cathedral, as seen from Palace Green.
The west tower of Ely Cathedral, as seen from Palace Green.
Ely Cathedral is located in Cambridgeshire
Ely Cathedral
Ely Cathedral
Shown within Cambridgeshire
52°23′55″N 0°15′51″E / 52.398611°N 0.264167°E / 52.398611; 0.264167Coordinates: 52°23′55″N 0°15′51″E / 52.398611°N 0.264167°E / 52.398611; 0.264167
Location Ely, Cambridgeshire
Country England
Denomination Church of England
Tradition Broad church
Website www.elycathedral.org
Style Romanesque, Gothic
Years built 1083–1375
Length 163.7m
Height 66m
Nave height 21.9m
Number of towers 2
Tower height 66m (west tower), 52m (lantern)
Diocese Ely (since 1109)
Province Canterbury
Dean Mark Bonney
Precentor James Garrard
Canon(s) David Pritchard, Canon Pastor
Alan Hargrave, Canon Missioner
Director of music Paul Trepte
Organist(s) Edmund Aldhouse

Ely Cathedral (in full, The Cathedral Church of the Holy and Undivided Trinity of Ely) is the principal church of the Diocese of Ely, in Cambridgeshire, England, and is the seat of the Bishop of Ely and a suffragan bishop, the Bishop of Huntingdon. It is known locally as "the ship of the Fens",[1] because of its prominent shape that towers above the surrounding flat and watery landscape.[citation needed]


An aerial view of Ely Cathedral
An aerial view of Ely Cathedral

Most of what is known about the early history of Ely comes from Bede's Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum and above all from the Liber Eliensis, an anonymous chronicle written at Ely some time in the 12th century and covering the history of the Abbey and Cathedral from 673 until the mid-12th century.[citation needed] In 1322 the Norman central tower collapsed. In its place Alan of Walsingham built the current octagonal lantern.

Previous buildings[edit]

The first Christian building on the site was founded by St. Æthelthryth (romanised as "Etheldreda"), daughter of the Anglo-Saxon King Anna of East Anglia, who was born in 630 at Exning near Newmarket.[2] She may have acquired land at Ely from her first husband Tondberht, described by Bede as a "prince" of the South Gyrwas.[3] After the end of her second marriage to Ecgfrith, a prince of Northumbria, she set up and ruled a monastery at Ely in 673, and, when she died, a shrine was built there to her memory. The monastery is traditionally believed to have been destroyed in the Danish invasions of the late 9th century, together with what is now the city. However, while the lay settlement of the time would have been a minor one, it is likely that a church survived there until its refoundation in the 10th century.[4]

A new Benedictine monastery was built and endowed on the site by Athelwold, Bishop of Winchester, in 970, in a wave of monastic refoundations which locally included Peterborough and Ramsey.[5] This became a cathedral in 1109, after a new Diocese of Ely was created out of land taken from the Diocese of Lincoln.

The present building[edit]

Overview and dimensions[edit]

Floor plan.

The cathedral is built from stone quarried from Barnack in Northamptonshire (bought from Peterborough Abbey, whose lands included the quarries, for 8000 eels a year), with decorative elements carved from Purbeck Marble and local clunch. The plan of the building is cruciform (cross-shaped), with an additional transept at the western end. The total length is 537 feet (163.7 m),[6] and the nave at over 75 m long (250 ft) remains one of the longest in Britain. The west tower is 66m high (215 ft). The unique Octagon 'Lantern Tower' is 23 m (74 ft) wide and is 52 m (170 ft) high. Internally, from the floor to the central roof boss the lantern is 43 m (142 ft) high.

Abbot Simeon's Cathedral[edit]

The present cathedral was started by Abbot Simeon (1082–1094, brother of Walkelin, the then bishop of Winchester) under William I in 1083. Building continued under Simeon's successor, Abbot Richard (1100–1107). The Anglo-Saxon church was demolished, but some of its relics, such as the remains of its benefactors, were moved to the cathedral. The main transepts were built early on, crossing the nave below a central tower, and are the oldest surviving part of the cathedral. Construction work continued throughout the 12th century. The Western transepts and tower were completed under Bishop Ridel (1174–89) in an exuberant Romanesque style with a rich decoration of intersecting arches and complex mouldings.[citation needed]

Early Gothic elements[edit]

A Galilee porch was added under Bishop Eustace (1198–1215) in the Early English Gothic style. It was originally a two-storey structure (it was opened up into a single vaulted space in the 18th century) where liturgical processions could gather before entering the nave. Several details of its decoration, particularly the 'syncopated arches' and the use of Purbeck marble shafts, reflect the influence of St Hugh's Choir at Lincoln Cathedral, built a few years earlier.[citation needed]

Under Bishop Northwold, work began on a new eastern end in 1234, replacing the short Norman chancel with a much grander 10-bay structure. Northwold's chancel, completed by around 1252, adopted several of the stylistic elements already used in the Galilee porch.[citation needed]

Later Gothic elements[edit]

In 1321, under the sacrist Alan of Walsingham work began on a massive (100' long by 46' wide) free-standing Lady Chapel, linked to the north transept and the north aisle of the chancel by covered walkways. This new structure was built in an exuberant 'Decorated' Gothic style. Around most of the wall surface are sedilia-like niches, flanked by pilasters of Purbeck marble and covered by sinuous ogee arches which project forward away from the wall (sometimes known as 'nodding ogees'). Most wall surfaces are covered with richly carved vegetal and diaper patterns which were originally brightly polychromed. An extensive sculpted Life of the Virgin cycle originally filled the spandrels between the niches but this was severely damaged by iconoclasts (either following the Dissolution of the Monasteries or by Puritans during the English Civil War – historians still disagree over which).[citation needed]

On the night of 12–13 February 1322, possibly as a result of instabilities caused by the digging of the foundations for the Lady Chapel, the great Norman crossing tower collapsed, injuring nobody but damaging the first four bays of Bishop Northwold's Early Gothic choir. These western bays of the liturgical choir were rebuilt in a more modern style. More noticeably, the old crossing tower was replaced by an innovative octagonal lantern. Although it is supported on eight massive masonry piers, the lantern itself is constructed from oak timbers and was designed by William Hurley, who later became Master Carpenter to the King at Westminster. Because the crossing was a key part of the liturgical choir, this rebuilding work took priority over other activities and the lantern was largely complete by 1340. The windows on the sides of the upper octagon are a particularly successful way of lighting the centre of the cathedral. The angels painted below the windows are, however, purely Victorian inventions, a product of the restoration under Thomas Gambier Parry in 1874. When built, the Octagon was the largest crossing span in northern Europe and remains Ely Cathedral's most distinctive feature, visible from miles around across the Fens.[citation needed]

It is thought that the north-west transept collapsed during the first half of the 15th century.[7]

Dating from the early 16th century is a set of 44 misericords.[citation needed]

Later history[edit]

Peter Gunning Monument, Ely Cathedral

In 1539, during Henry VIII's Dissolution of the Monasteries, the cathedral suffered only minor damage, but St Etheldreda's shrine was destroyed. The cathedral was soon refounded in 1541, although many of the statues in the lady chapel were severely damaged.

The Bishop of Ely in the mid-17th century was Matthew Wren and in connection with this, his nephew Christopher Wren was responsible for a rather splendid Gothic door, dating from the 1650s, on the north face of the cathedral.[citation needed]

The building has been the subject of several major restoration projects:

  1. During the 18th century, under James Essex.
  2. In 1839, under George Peacock, with the architect George Gilbert Scott (the architect Basevi died in a fall from the west tower). A painted wooden ceiling was added to the nave in this restoration.
  3. Between 1986 and 2000.


  • Dean – The Very Revd Mark Bonney (since 22 September 2012 installation)[8]
  • Canon Pastor – The Revd Canon David Pritchard (Pastor since mid-2008;[9] additionally Acting Dean, 2011–2012; also Vice-Dean, early 2008–30 September 2011; previously Canon Precentor, 2004–mid-2008)[10]
  • Canon Missioner – The Revd Canon Dr Alan Hargrave (Canon since 13 June 2004 installation;[10] additionally Vice Dean, 30 September 2011 – December 2012)[11][12]
  • Canon Precentor – The Revd Canon Dr James Garrard (since 29 November 2008 installation)[13]




Details of the organ from the National Pipe Organ Register

The Lantern from the interior.


Notable organists at Ely Cathedral have included the composers Basil Harwood and Arthur Wills.

Stained Glass Museum[edit]

Nave of Ely Cathedral

The south triforium is home to the Stained Glass Museum, a collection of stained glass from the 13th century to the present that is of national importance and includes works from notable contemporary artists including Ervin Bossanyi.[citation needed]

In popular culture[edit]

  • A number of John Rutter's choral albums feature the cathedral, a reference to early recordings of his music being performed and recorded in the Lady chapel.
  • Direct references to the cathedral appear in the children's book Tom's Midnight Garden by Philippa Pearce. A full-length movie with the same title was released in 1999.
  • Parts of Marcus Sedgwick's 2000 novel Floodland take place at the cathedral after the sea has consumed the land around it turning Ely into an island.
  • Direct references to Ely Cathedral are made in Jill Dawson's novel Watch Me Disappear.
  • The film Macbeth used the cathedral for filming in February and March 2014.[16]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "History & Heritage - The Ship of the Fens". Ely Cathedral. Retrieved 2014-02-06. 
  2. ^ For the origin of the word "tawdry", see Æthelthryth.
  3. ^ Bede, Ecclesiastical History, iv, 19.
  4. ^ Whitelock, D., 'The Conversion of the Eastern Danelaw', in Saga-Book of the Viking Society 12, London 1941.
  5. ^ [1] Consumption and Pastoral Resources on the Early Medieval Estate, accessed 12 July 2007
  6. ^ The English Cathedral. Tatton-Brown, T. and Crook, J. ISBN 1-84330-120-2
  7. ^ 'City of Ely: Cathedral', A History of the County of Cambridge and the Isle of Ely: Volume 4: City of Ely; Ely, N. and S. Witchford and Wisbech Hundreds (2002), pp. 50–77. URL: http://www.british-history.ac.uk/report.aspx?compid=21891 Date accessed: 16 January 2012
  8. ^ "Ely Cathedral – The Installation of Canon Mark Bonney as Dean". Elycathedral.org. Retrieved 2014-02-06. 
  9. ^ "Diocese of Ely – New Precentor at Ely Cathedral". Ely.anglican.org. 2008-09-07. Retrieved 2014-02-06. 
  10. ^ a b "Cambridge News – Cathedral gets ready to welcome new canons with special service". Cambridge-news.co.uk. Retrieved 2014-02-06. 
  11. ^ "Ely Cathedral – Acting Dean". Elycathedral.org. 2011-06-17. Retrieved 2014-02-06. 
  12. ^ Ely Cathedral News – January 2013 (p. 4)
  13. ^ "Diocese of Ely – Installation of the Precentor". Ely.anglican.org. 2008-11-29. Retrieved 2014-02-06. 
  14. ^ Ely News Retrieved 24 April 2013
  15. ^ Mila Kunis at the Cathedral Retrieved 24 April 2013
  16. ^ Setting up for filming of Macbeth at Ely Cathedral gets underway Retrieved 26 March 2014

Further reading[edit]

  • W. E. Dickson. Ely Cathedral (Isbister & Co., 1897).
  • Richard John King. Handbook to the Cathedrals of England – Vol. 3, (John Murray, 1862).
  • D. J. Stewart. On the architectural history of Ely cathedral (J. Van Voorst, 1868).
  • Peter Meadows and Nigel Ramsay, eds., A History of Ely Cathedral (The Boydell Press, 2003).
  • Lynne Broughton, Interpreting Ely Cathedral (Ely Cathedral Publications, 2008).
  • John Maddison, Ely Cathedral: Design and Meaning (Ely Cathedral Publications, 2000).
  • Janet Fairweather, trans., Liber Eliensis: A History of the Isle of Ely from the Seventh Century to the Twelfth Compiled by a Monk of Ely in the Twelfth Century (The Boydell Press, 2005).
  • Peter Meadows, ed., Ely: Bishops and Diocese, 1109–2009 (The Boydell Press, 2010).


External links[edit]