Before England existed, the lonely Isle of Ely lay in the territory of the Gyrwas. Around the year 652AD, Tondbert, a prince of the South Gyrwas, married the Princess Etheldreda, a descendent of the mighty Wuffingas who had united the North-folk with the South-folk. Tondbert died and Etheldreda, whose father was Anna (or Onna), King of all the East Angles, was given to Egfrid, King of Northumbria. But Etheldreda had taken a vow of perpetual virginity and begged Egfrid to allow her to retire from worldly affairs to serve God in a convent. Eventually, the frustrated king reluctantly consented and, in 673, Etheldreda returned to the solitude and sanctuary of her beloved Ely, where she founded a double monastic community (one that combined both monks and nuns). A few short years later, she died – probably of the plague – and was succeeded as Abbess by her sister, Sexburg, who had once been married to King Earconbert of Kent.
The above events are recorded by the cleric Bede, writing in the 8th century in his best-selling ‘History of the English Church and People’. Bede goes on to say that Sexburg decided to exhume her sister (as you do) sixteen years after her death – sometime around 695AD – and found Etheldreda’s body as fresh as the day it was buried. A beautiful white (empty) marble sarcophagus was found in the ruins of Roman Grantchester, which was transported back to the Abbey and (presumably after a bit of a wipe down on the inside with a damp cloth) the blessed Etheldreda was reverently placed in it and finally laid to rest. Her tomb became a shrine and place of pilgrimage, until it was destroyed 850 years later by a King of a united England, Henry VIII; but that’s skipping ahead a little.
Ely, which in Anglo-Saxon was Elge, means ‘district where the eels are found’, was surrounded by sea and fens – low-lying, flooded marshland. It remained that way until the fens were drained with the help of Dutch engineers in the 17th century. The town grew around the religious community, which before the Norman Conquest was the second most wealthy in the land after Glastonbury. St Etheldreda, also known as AEthelryth or Audrey, is widely recognised as its founder. In 1189, long after her death, an annual fair was established in her name in Ely, where a type of gaudy lace – St Audrey’s lace – was sold, thus giving us the word tawdry, a corruption of St Audrey, referring to something in bad taste or of little value. Some sources suggest it was naff necklaces that were sold, but I’ve stuck with the lace theory.
In 869AD – long after Etheldreda (and Bede) had died – East Anglia was invaded by Danes, who sacked and destroyed the Abbey. It was rebuilt and, by the 11th century it was flourishing again, and a centre of learning. There was a monastic school on the site by 970AD, which was re-established as the King’s School by Henry VIII in 1541; it is still there.
It is possible that a youthful Edward the Confessor (1003-66), future King of England, received some education at Ely. But it wouldn’t have been for long; early 11th century England was an unstable place, with different Anglo-Danish-Norse factions vying for power whenever the throne became vacant. At a young age, Edward, and his younger brother Alfred, were forced into exile – probably in Normandy.
There is a gruesome tale; the year is 1036. The princes Edward and Alfred are lured to England with the suggestion that a crown might be available. Edward heads to his waiting mother, Queen Emma, in Winchester. But Alfred is intercepted and tricked, most of his retinue are barbarically murdered near Guildford and Alfred is taken, bound, gagged and confused, to the remote inland island of Ely, far from his mother’s allies. Here his captors sentence him to be blinded for crimes against the Anglo-Saxon state; his eyes are brutally cut out and he is left writhing in agony on the shore as his murderers sail away. The monks, hearing the commotion, find the mutilated stranger and gently take him to the monastery. But he dies. Prayers are said for the young man’s soul and he is buried. Not long after, armed men in the Queen’s service arrive, looking for her son. With growing horror, the monks and the warriors work out what has happened and the prince is reburied with royal honours. It is thought these crimes were probably carried out under the orders of Earl Godwin, father of another future King of England, Harold, or possibly with the connivance of the (recently) incumbent King, Harold Harefoot.
Forty years later, Ely’s location and topography helped turn it into a centre of English resistance. For Ely was the headquarters of the legendary English (or Danish) hero Hereward the Wake, who together with Morcar, Saxon Earl of Northumbria, fought against the Normans after the conquest of 1066. The island, surrounded by treacherous marshland, was difficult to navigate without local knowledge making it an ideal defensive base. Initially, the monks of Ely supported Hereward, but rumour has it they subsequently sold out to the Normans. The island was overrun, but Hereward apparently escaped – and no one knows for sure what became of him.
The Normans, never ones to show too much weakness, levied terrific fines on the monks, who were forced to melt down their treasures to appease the new masters of England.
Nothing now remains of the old Anglo-Saxon Abbey. The Normans quickly put up a castle (which is no longer there either), just to the south of the present cathedral on Cherry Hill, and in 1083 began work on constructing a new abbey and abbey church. The latter was intended as a statement of both spiritual and temporal power and, visible for miles around, has long been known as ‘the Ship of the Fens’, towering over low-lying Ely – which is just 85 feet (26 metres) above sea level. The church – which became a cathedral in 1109 – was mostly constructed between the 11th and 14th centuries; the oldest surviving part is 12th century. It came through the dissolution of the monasteries relatively unscathed all things considered, and even several abbey buildings have survived – now part of the King’s School along with the Bishop’s Palace (itself in use up to 1941). There was extensive restoration in Victorian times, and again in the 1990s. The cathedral lost most of its medieval stained glass during the Reformation, but has some stunning windows now – and is also home to a unique Stained Glass Museum.
One of the beauties of Ely Cathedral is the feeling of external space; it is surrounded with greenery. To the south and east is parkland, giving it a rural feel and the impression that this magnificent medieval building has just risen up out of the ground. To the west is Palace Green, where a Russian cannon, captured at the Siege of Sevastopol (1854-55) proudly sits, kids climbing all over it. Palace Green, once the village green, was the scene of two executions in 1555 when local Protestants William Wolsey and Robert Pygot were burnt at the stake for denying that the body and blood of Christ was present in the bread and wine of the Eucharist.
You’d never know any of this hectic, sometimes violent, past ever happened. These days, Ely is a peaceful, small, English city on the River Ouse, dominated by its stunning medieval cathedral, famous for once being home to Oliver Cromwell and surrounded by agricultural land.
Ely’s cathedral must be one of the most beautiful in England. The painted ceiling, which is actually Victorian, is just breathtaking – helped by the fact that the nave is some 248 feet long and the whole cathedral an enormous 537 feet from one end to the other. The choir area (Ely has a very active choir and long choral tradition) is gorgeous – rich and warm in colour. I liked the Prior’s Door, in the south transept, which is 12th century and which used to connect the cathedral to the medieval cloisters. The Octagon Tower, spanning the entire width of the nave, is extraordinary – and surely an exceptional design, particularly given that it was built between 1322 and 1328. Eight is a symbolic number to some Christians, who believe that Christ was resurrected the day after the Sabbath (7th) day and that the 8th day is also the day after the creation; so 8 symbolises renewal and new beginnings. The Lady Chapel – also 14th century – is full of wondrous light, as well as statues damaged during the Reformation. During our visit, people were gathering there following a memorial service; it struck me that this was a reminder of continuity, of all those who had come and gone over the 1500 or so years since Etheldreda founded her community.
You can check out Ely and other cathedrals on the attraction directory. There is an entrance charge at Ely, but unlike some of the greedier cathedrals it is relatively modest.
Ely cathedral has been used in a number of films and TV productions, including ‘The King’s Speech’ (2010), ‘Elizabeth: the Golden Age’ (2007) and ‘The Other Boleyn Girl’ (2008).