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Wednesday, 3 June 2015

Ely Cathedral

Ely is a farming and marketing town. Today's crops are potatoes, onions, beet,wheat, barley, Maine and rape seed. There was a place of worship where the Cathedral stands even before St Etheldreda built a monastery here in 673. 

Our knowledge of St Etheldreda (who is also known as St Audrey) comes from Bede - a contemporary of hers. It is, by modern standards, a remarkable story. She was the daughter of King Anna of East Anglia - a Christian king said to be a descendant of Odin. He married his daughters to seal alliances against the Heathen King of neighbouring Mercia. Etheldreda, while complying with this arrangement, wanted to remain a nun within the relationship. Her first husband died after three years of marriage. Her second, 15 at the time of marriage, accepted the nun arrangement for 12 years and then tried to change her mind, until a miracle or two convinced him otherwise. Her dowry lands had been the Isle of Ely and here she built and became abbess of a monastery until her death in 679 - of a goitre which she regarded as punishment for frivolously wearing necklaces in her youth.

There's a lot of interest in this story - of alliances, gender, power and religion. The monastery was destroyed by the Danes and rebuilt as a Benedictine monastery in 970. It became a bishopric in 1109 - becoming the richest monastery after Lindisfarne.

 It was, of course,  disestablished as a monastery by Henry VIII and closed for 17 years by Cromwell and the shrine to St Ethelburga destroyed. 

The Lady Chapel, completed in 1349, dedicated to Mary and the largest in the country, had its statues defaced and damaged and stained glass windows smashed by Cromwell. The windows were replaced with plain glass and even with headless statues on the walls it remains a place of great beauty.

There have been several restorations and additions within the Cathedral. The Victorian Great Eastern window, in St Etheldreda's chapel, depicts events in Christ's life.
 The nave is Norman. The painted ceiling, also Victorian, is the work of Henry Le Strange and Thomas Gambier Parry.

Perhaps most beautiful of all is the Octogon - the tower letting light into the centre of the church and built by Alan de Walsingham after the central Norman tower collapsed in 1322. It sheds light on a painted carving of the Risen Christ (way up in the centre, barely visible to the eye).
There is lovely stonework.

I also like the care with which tapestry seat covers have been made to commemorate the saints in the church's story. It's lovely work.
There are also kneeling cushions remembering later brethren.
Above all I like the modern Jonathan Clarke sculpture in the entrance "the way of life " depicting the twists and turns of life's journey from darkness to light. It echoes a Victorian stone maze on the floor below.
There is a really consistent message of endurance, adaptation and faithfulness here that is inspiring- choosing always to repair, to hope, to restore. It is clearly not a wealthy church, but active and persistent. I'm glad I came. 



  1. Simply awesome, great shots of this beautiful cathedral Jillian.

  2. Thanks Jess. I'd like to post the photos at higher res but the' take too long to load.

  3. somehow A and V got distracted looking for pictures of goitres - not what a girl wants over breakfast really.
    What a beautiful place and intriguing stories. So hard as an Australian to have that sense of building revision ...

  4. My favourite of all cathedrals. I look forward to glimpsing it from the marsh as we approach tomorrow!

  5. Such a beautiful place. Thanks for the photos.

  6. Yes, you got some beautiful photos. What a gorgeous building! I have been reading more about it on Wikipedia. It is amazing what they could achieve back then, just with stone, and none of the modern equipment we use today.