Ely Cathedral and its towers rise above the surrounding landscape, so that it has long been known as the “Ship of the Fens” (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)
Students and visitors love to draw comparisons between Oxford and Cambridge. The two university cities share some curiosities, including the names of some colleges, such as Trinity, Corpus Christi, Jesus, St John’s and Pembroke. But there are differences too, including the names of buildings, such as courts and quads, and the names of colleges, such as Queens’ and Queen’s, Magdalene and Magdalene, or St Catharine’s and St Catherine’s.
One noticeable difference, though, is that Christ Church is both an Oxford college and a diocesan cathedral, while Cambridge has no cathedral and no diocese bearing its name. Instead, Cambridge is part of the Diocese of Ely. And so, one afternoon this summer, I took a 15-minute train journey from Cambridge to Ely for Choral Evensong in Ely Cathedral.
As you approach Ely, the cathedral and its towers rise above the low-lying wetlands of the Fens, so that it has long been known as the “Ship of the Fens.” It is said the cathedral can be seen from almost every parish in the Diocese of Ely, which includes most of Cambridgeshire, parts of Norfolk and Essex, and one parish in Bedfordshire.
Mists and myths of the Fens
Ely is 23 km (14 miles) north-east of Cambridge. With about 15,000 people, it is the third smallest city in England – after Wells in Somerset and the City of London, and the sixth smallest city in the United Kingdom – Saint David’s in Wales and Armagh are both smaller. Despite its size, the cathedral has given Ely city status, though this was only recognised officially in a royal charter in 1974.
The name Ely (EE-lee) means “Eel Island,” and for centuries the Isle of Ely was an isolated island in the low-lying Fens where the Bishops of Ely exercised extensive independent powers until 1837. The Isle of Ely remained a separate county until 1965. The Fens are a place of mystery. It was here that Hereward the Wake held out against William the Conqueror. And there are tales of villages lost in mist and time, of payments made in eels, of people walking about on stilts, and of islands isolated for centuries.
The story of early Ely is told in Bede’s Ecclesiastical History (ca 731) and in the Book of Ely, an anonymous 12th century chronicle. The city began with an abbey founded in 673 AD on the Isle of Ely by Saint Ethelreda (Audrey), an Anglo-Saxon princess and Fenland queen. Despite being twice married, she succeeded in her determination to become a nun. When she died, her followers buried her in an old Roman marble coffin found near Cambridge, and a shrine was built to her memory. Ethelreda was succeeded as abbess by her sister, Saint Sexburgha, and later by Saint Werburgh, who gives her name to a city centre church in Dublin.
The Prior’s Door is a 12th century entrance to the cathedral, with a Norman stone carving depicting Christ enthroned in majesty( Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)
The abbey was destroyed by Danish marauders in 870, but was rebuilt a century later as a Benedictine monastery by Bishop Athelwold of Winchester. Under William the Conqueror, Abbot Simeon began a new building in 1083, and this work continued under his successor, Abbot Richard. The Diocese of Ely was formed in 1108 out of the See of Lincoln, and the monastery became a cathedral in 1109.
The nave of Ely Cathedral is the fourth longest cathedral nave in England (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)
Ely Cathedral is cruciform in shape and for its time was a model of symmetry. The nave, at 165.5 m (537 ft) is the fourth longest cathedral nave in England. The Octagon or “Lantern Tower,” which replaced the central tower, is a unique structure and the glory of Ely Cathedral.
The unique Octagon or Lantern Tower is the glory of Ely Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)
The main transepts were built at an early stage, crossing the nave below a central tower, and are the oldest surviving parts of the cathedral. Building work continued throughout the 12th century, when the western transepts and tower were completed under Bishop Geoffrey Ridel (1174-1189) in an exuberant Romanesque style with a rich decoration of intersecting arches and complex mouldings.
The Romanesque south-west transept is one of the oldest surviving parts of Ely Cathedral and has one of the most ornate Romanesque interiors in England (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)
The Galilee or entrance porch was added under Bishop Eustace (1198-1215) in the Early English Gothic style. Under Bishop Hugh of Northwold, a new eastern end was begun in 1234, with a grand 10-bay structure. His chancel was completed around 1252, and adopted several of the stylistic elements already used in the Galilee Porch.
The free-standing Lady Chapel, built between 1321 and 1349, is 100 ft by 46 ft, and was built in an exuberant Decorated Gothic style: sedilia-like niches around the walls are flanked by pilasters of Purbeck marble and covered by sinuous arches. The niches were once filled with an extensive sculpted cycle illustrating the life-story of the Virgin Mary, but they were damaged during the Reformation and the Lady Chapel was stripped of all decoration.
When it was completed in 1340, the Octagon was the largest crossing span in northern Europe (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)
The great Norman crossing tower collapsed in 1322, damaging the first four bays of the Early Gothic choir. These bays were rebuilt, and the tower was replaced by the Octagonal Lantern. Although it is supported on eight massive masonry piers, the lantern is built from oak timbers. When it was completed in 1340, the Octagon was the largest crossing span in northern Europe and it remains Ely Cathedral’s most distinctive feature, visible for miles across the Fens.
At the Dissolution of the Monasteries, the cathedral suffered only minor damage, but Saint Etheldreda’s shrine was destroyed, many of the statues in the Lady Chapel were severely damaged, and Bishop Thomas Goodrich ordered the destruction of all the mediaeval statues, painting and stained glass.
Bishop Thomas Goodrich ordered the destruction of all the mediaeval statues, painting and stained glass (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)
Restoration and inspiration
Ely Cathedral has undergone several major restorations: under James Essex in the 18th century; under George Peacock in 1839; under George Gilbert Scott , when the painted wooden ceiling of the nave was decorated by Henry Styleman le Strange and Thomas Gambier Parry; and between 1986 and 2000.
The nave ceiling was painted during the Victorian restoration (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)
The Victorian Gothic architect Augustus Pugin was once found weeping in the Lady Chapel, disturbed by the destruction of its beauty. But he was inspired by the Octagonal Lantern Tower later when he was designing the chapel for the Loreto Abbey in Rathfarnham in south Co Dublin.
The south gallery of the nave in Ely Cathedral now houses the Stained Glass Museum, with a collection dating from the 13th century, including modern glass by William Morris and John Piper. For several years, the curator was the Cambridge art historian, Dr Carla Hicks, who died this summer.
David Wynne’s sculpture in the South Transept captures the moment when the distraught Mary Magdalene meets the Risen Christ on Easter Morning (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)
Modern works of art in the cathedral include Jonathan Clarke’s sculpture, The Way of Life, Hans Feibusch’s Christus (1981), with Christ’s arms outstretched in welcome to show the strength of his compassion for the world, and David Wynne’s sculpture (1967) in the South Transept, capturing the moment when the distraught Mary Magdalene meets the Risen Christ on Easter Morning.
The Lady Chapel with David Wynne’s statue of Mary (Photograph: Max Gilead/Wikipedia)
But Ely’s most controversial modern work is David Wynne’s new statue of Mary in the Lady Chapel. Robed in stark blue, she is rejoicing in the news that she is to be the mother of the Christ Child.
William of Kilkenny, Bishop of Ely from 1254 to 1256, had resigned as Bishop of Ossory before being consecrated (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)
It was interesting to come across the monument of William of Kilkenny, who was Bishop of Ely from 1254 to 1256, and Lord Chancellor of England. His name indicates his Irish background, for William of Kilkenny was appointed Bishop of Ossory in 1231 but resigned in 1232 before being consecrated. By 1234, he was in England, and he was sent to Rome twice as a royal emissary twice, once in 1234-1235 and again in 1237. He was Archdeacon of Coventry from 1247, and became Bishop of Ely in 1254.
William of Kilkenny accepted this second episcopal appointment, and was consecrated in 1255 at Bellay in Savoy by the reforming Archbishop of Canterbury, Boniface of Savoy. However, he survived for little more than a year and died in Spain in 1256 while he was on a diplomatic mission for the king. His heart is buried in Ely for burial. His only known relative, a nephew, lived in Waterford and was knighted in 1254.
There were other bishops with dual identities: Louis II de Luxembourg was Archbishop of Rouen in France and Bishop of Ely at one and the same time. As Bishop of Rouen, he was a leading French collaborator with the English regime in France. When his personal safety became precarious, Henry VI made him Bishop of Ely in commendam in 1437. But he may have never visited the diocese before he died in 1443.
Bishop Alcock’s Chapel recalls the founder of Jesus College and is set aside for prayers for the victims of torture and abuse (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)
William of Kilkenny endowed two divinity scholarships at Cambridge, and many of his successors as Bishop of Ely had strong links with Cambridge: Hugh de Balsham (1258-1286) founded Peterhouse, the first college in Cambridge; John Alcock (1486-1500) founded Jesus College; Matthew Wren (1638-1667), a former Master of Peterhouse, endowed a new chapel for Pembroke College. Stephen Sykes (1990-2000), one of the most eminent Anglican ecclesiologists, was Dean of Saint John’s College, Cambridge, Professor of Divinity at Durham and the Regius Professor of Divinity in Cambridge before becoming Bishop of Ely.
Bishop West’s Chantry Chapel, completed in 1530, has an exquisite altar, an elaborate Renaissance ceiling and a window by Ninian Comper (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)
Other bishops played pivotal roles in English history. Lancelot Andrewes (1609-1619) oversaw the translation of the Authorised Version of the Bible. Matthew Wren (1638-1667) was a protégé of Lancelot Andrewes. His nephew, Christopher Wren, who designed a splendid Gothic door for the north face of Ely Cathedral in the 1650s, later rebuilt Saint Paul’s Cathedral, London. Francis Turner (1684-1691) preached at the coronation of James II and was one of the nine bishops of the Church of England who lost office for refusing to take the oath of allegiance to William III.
Visiting Ely today
Ely has Europe’s largest collection of mediaeval monastic buildings still in domestic use (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)
Many of the early monastic buildings survive to the south of Ely Cathedral, so that Ely has Europe’s largest collection of mediaeval monastic buildings still in domestic use. They include the Porta or great gateway to the monastery, which now houses the library of the King’s School.
The Porta or great gateway to the monastery now houses the library of the King’s School (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)
A few steps from the west door of the cathedral, on Saint Mary’s Green, is the house where Oliver Cromwell lived for ten years from 1636 to 1646 while he was the tithe collector in Ely. He had been an undergraduate in Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, where I was staying. The 16th century half-timbered house is now a tourist information office and houses a museum with exhibits from Cromwell’s time and the English Civil War.
Oliver Cromwell’s House in Ely ... he lived here for ten years (Photograph: Oxyman/Wikipedia)
The city stands on the River Great Ouse and was a significant port until the 18th century, when the Fens were drained and Ely ceased to be an island. Today, Ely retains many of its historic buildings, with charming winding streets, and a market each Thursday and Saturday. The river is a popular boating area with a large marina, Olympic rowers, riverboats and swans. Cambridge University’s rowing team has a boathouse on these river banks and trains here for the annual Boat Race with Oxford. The connection lives on.
Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin. This essay was first published in the September 2010 editions of the Church Review (Dublin and Glendalough) and the Diocesan Magazine (Cashel and Ossory).