Ely Cathedral was originally the Abbey Church of the Great Benedictine monastery founded by St Etheldreda in 672AD. The present building dates back to 1083, and cathedral status was granted it in 1109. Until the Revolution of Henry VIII it was the Church of St Etheldreda and St Peter. It is now a Church of England Cathedral.
The shrine of St Etheldreda, with the incorrupt body of the saint was a major pilgrimage site in the Middle Ages. At the revolution the abbey was suppressed, the church looted, the shrine despoiled and the relics of the saint thrown out. The saints mummified hand was salvaged and is enshrined in the small Catholic Church of St Etheldreda in Ely.
Architecturally it is outstanding both for its scale and stylistic details. Having been built in a monumental Romanesque style, the galilee porch, lady chapel and choir were rebuilt in an exuberant Decorated Gothic. Its most famous feature however is the central Octagonal tower, with lantern above, which provides a spectacular internal space and, along with the West Tower, gives a unique exterior landmark that dominates the surrounding landscape.
The ceiling of the Nave is Victorian–the work of Henry Styleman le Strange and Thomas Gambier Parry. The images depict the ancestry of Christ.
After becoming a Catholic I once visited Ely Cathedral for Choral Evensong. Sitting in the choir facing South I listened to the glorious Anglican music and felt nostalgic for the beauties of the Anglican Church. Then I looked across and saw what was left of the night stairs–the stairway that led from the monks’ dormitory, down which they would process for Matins in the wee hours of the morning.
As a Benedictine oblate and now a Catholic I suddenly felt connected in a deeper way with that beautiful church. It had been a Catholic Benedictine Abbey for 1,000 years before the monastery was destroyed and the church turned into a temple to the religion of Henry VIII. It has belonged to the state church for half the time it was a Catholic monastery.
The Lady Chapel of the Cathedral is another sad and poignant reminder of all that was lost in the sixteenth century. I will post pictures and tell a story of that corner of Ely Cathedral another day.