Ely Cathedral



[Transcribed and edited information mainly from Britain's Heritage by Marshall Cavendish, London & New York ISBN 0 85685 366 6]

"ELY CATHEDRAL, "When the central tower of Ely Cathedral collapsed in 1322 after standing for more than 200 years it was replaced with a structure that is unique in European cathedral architecture: a great stone octagon topped with a wooden lantern rising from its centre.

Its creator was a man of vision, imagination and engineering ability far ahead of his time. Faced with the gaping hole, Alan of Walsingham, the sacrist, decide against restoring the original tower, opting instead for the revolutionary octagon. First he built eight massive pillars of stone at each corner. Then, after combing England for trees of the right size, he finally settled for eight oaks weighing ten tons each and trimmed to 63 feet in length. These were to be the corner posts of the lantern.

The lantern tower itself, a construction of timber triangles rises 60 feet and weighs a total of 400 tons. Such was the genius of Walsingham and his craftsmen that the entire structure rests on the stone pillars with a sheer perpendicular downward thrust. At the base of the octagon arches are the carved stone heads of those involved in its construction.

The Lady Chapel, completed in the mid-fourteenth century, sometime after the octagon, is the largest such chapel in England and its roof span of 46 feet gives it the widest medieval stone vault. Unhappily the Reformation destroyed much of the chapel's original charm: the stained glass windows were smashed and the sculpture and carvings ruined. However, what was spared is still worthy of attention especially the arcade below the windows.

There is still a good deal of exquisite carving throughout the cathedral, particularly in the south-west transept. The Prior's Door, opening onto the cloister from the nave, is a fine example of late Norman craftsmanship while the fourteenth century choir stalls boast 62 superb misericords.

The west front entrance to Ely is through the lovely Galilee Porch dating from the thirteenth century. From here the entire length of the cathedral is impressively visible, along the narrow Norman nave with its nineteenth century roof painting to die great stained glass window behind the presbytery and high altar at the east end.

Ely's oldest item is Ovin's Stone, the base of a cross and the only reminder that the cathedral has Saxon origins. The shrine of St Ethelreda contains the relic of Ely's foundress, a remarkable woman who was married to King Egfrid of Northumbria before becoming a nun and later Abbess of Ely.

Of the chantry chapels the most elaborate is Bishop Alcock's, the founder of Jesus College, Cambridge. Bishop West's chantry with its beautiful ceiling is also noteworthy. The finest of the monuments is that erected to the Earl of Worcester beheaded in the Wars of the Roses. It has a triple canopy and stands in the south choir aisle.

During the nineteenth century there was a great deal of restoration, both outside and inside the cathedral. Sir Gilbert Scott was in charge and apart from the insertion of some indifferent Victorian glass, did much to improve Ely's then fading glory.""

[Description(s) transcribed by Martin Edwards ©2003 and later edited by Colin Hinson ©2010]
[mainly from Britain's Heritage by Marshall Cavendish, London & New York ISBN 0 85685 366 6]


  • The Monumental Inscriptions for the years 1330-1770 are listed in James Betham's Historty & Antiquities of Ely" , 1771.




  • The Cathedral, Ely (The church of Saints Etheldreda and Peter).
  • The following Churches have their own websites:

Church History

  • "The Cathedral of SS. Etheldreda and Peter was originally the church of a convent, founded here in 673 by Etheldreda, daughter of Anna, King of the East Angles, and wife of Ecgfrid, King of Northumbria, and endowed by her with large possessions, including the whole of the Isle of Ely; it was despoiled by the Danes in 879, and refounded in 970 by Ethelwold, Bishop of Winchester (963-83). The Norman portion of the church was begun in 1081, by Abbot Symeon, who also laid the foundations of an apsidal choir, and completed the basement of the main-transept: Richard; his successor, completed the choir, making it a square-ended presbytery; he further added the clerestory of the transept, and probably also a central tower over a new choir, and erected the greater part of the nave: in 1106, the year preceding his death the relics of St. Etheldreda were translated into the new shrine in the presbytery, which stood immediately under a boss in the vaulting of the choir which bears her image; the main transept was finished about 1083, the nave in 1150, and the west transept and tower in 1107-89, being partly completed by Bishop; Geoffry Ridel (1174-89), who was also a Baron of the Exchequer: the octagonal lantern of the west tower, 643 feet high, is said to have been added in the reign of Henry VI. in place of a spire, removed in 1380: the north wing of the western transept, perfect until the Reformation, either fell or was demolished at some unknown date: in 1234, Hugh Northwold, eighth bishop, began a new presbytery of six bays, which was dedicated September 17th, 1252, in the presence of Henry III.; on February 12th, 1322, the central Norman tower fell, destroying the choir, upon which Alan de Walsingham, the sacristan, in 1322-8, replaced the tower by the present octagon and lantern, at a cost of £2,406 3s. 11d.; and Bishop Hotham (1316-37) rebuilt the three bays of the Norman presbytery, which was finished in 1381, at a cost of £2,034 12s. 8d. and thenceforth used as a choir: the stallwork of the choir was erected by Richard de Saxmundham in 1338-46, and the lady chapel, begun by John of Wisbeach on March 25, 1321, was completed in 1349: Bishop Barnet (1366-73) added Decorated windows in the presbytery, and Bishop Gray (1445-78) those in the aisles: of the two eastern chapels, that of Bishop Alcock was built in 1488: and Bishop West's in 1534: in 1643, Cromwell, then governor, prohibited the choir service, and swept out the congregation, and in 1647, the Parliament proposed to sell the materials of the church for the relief of the maimed soldiers of the Commonwealth.
  • The palace, built by Bishop Alcock before 1500, consists of two wings and a hall, and has a gallery 100 feet in length, added by Bishop Goodrich (1534-54); the extremity of each wing, facing the road, forms a kind of tower of four stages, that on the east side having a rich triple canopy in the second story and above this the arms of Alcock; in the palace is preserved the famous ' Tabula Eliensis,' a late work of the 16th century, representing 40 knights whom William I. quartered on the abbey, with shields of arms and figures of monks accompanying each knight; there is also a curious picture of the funeral of Bishop Cox in 1581.
  • At the Dissolution of the Monasteries in the reign of Henry VIII. a charter was granted, about 1538, and the cathedral, with its revenues and precincts, was given to the Dean and Chapter for perpetual succession; the establishment now consists of a bishop, dean, six canons, four minor canons, eight lay clerks and 10 choristers. As the Bishop represents the former abbots, and the dean takes the place of the prior, the former occupies the abbot's stall in the angle of the screen on the south side, and the latter the corresponding, or prior's' seat, on the north side, and there is consequently no bishop's throne, as in most other cathedrals. The bi-sexcentenary celebration of the foundation of the monastery took place on Friday, October 17th, 1873, being the festival of St. Etheldreda, the foundress, and on the four following days, when special services were held in the cathedral, with addresses by the diocesan and other bishops: lectures on the history of the fabric were delivered by the late Sir Gilbert Scott R.A. and the late Mr. Edmund Sharpe M.A. and on the closing day a great meeting of parish choirs was held in the nave: on the south side of the cathedral is an artificial mound called "Cherry Hill," the origin of which is uncertain, but is thought to be the site of the keep of an ancient castle erected for defence of the monastery: it is now covered with trees and shrubs: a winding path leads to the summit, from which a fine view of the surrounding country may be obtained." [Kelly's Directory - 1900]

Church Records

  • Church of England
    • Ely Cathedral: The baptisms from 1693, marriages from 1691 and burials from 1690 are held in registers at Cambridge University Library but burials 1718-1776 are in the Ely, St. Mary register. The Bishop's Transcripts for the years 1813-41 can be found in the Cambridge University Library. Indexed transcripts exist in the Cambridgeshire Archives for baptisms 1693-1900, marriages 1691-1752, 1861 and burials 1690-1855, 1860-1974.
  • Ely Diocesan Records [EDR]

Description & Travel

  • The Cathedral
    • The Cathedral Church of the Holy and Undivided Trinity of Ely is the mother church of the Diocese of Ely, which covers some 1,500 square miles of East Anglia. It was founded as a monastery in 673 by St. Ethelreda, a Saxon Princess from East Anglia, the site of whose shrine is in front of the High Altar. Destroyed by the Danes in 870, the monastery was refounded as a Benedictine community in 970. Work on the present building commenced in the early 1080s under Abbott Simeon, and the church became a cathedral in 1109. For more than 400 years it was the church of the Benedictine monastery and a Cathedral. After Henry VIII dissolved the monastery in 1539 it continued to exist as a Cathedral. The construct of the Cathedral is as follows:
    • Galilee Porch (West Door, Main Entrance) completed in 1215 in the Early English Gothis style.
    • West Tower - 215ft (66m) in height, completed in the late 14th-century by the addition of a belfry and four supporting turrets to the existing Norman tower.
    • South West Transept contains some of the finest Romanesque and Transitional work in England. An identicl transept on the North West side collapsed during medieval times.
    • St Catherine's Chapel - still available for private prayer
    • Prior's Door with its famous Norman carvings dating from around 1135.
    • Nave - built by the Normans, it is 248ft (76m) long. The ceiling was painted in Victorian times.
    • South Door - also known as the Monk's Door, leads into what remains of the South Cloister, with fine Norman carving on the cloister side.Outside is the largest collection of medieval domestic buildings in Europe still in use.
    • Octagon - in 1322 the Norman central tower collapsed. Alan of Walsingham, Sacrist of the monastery, with William Hurley, created this great glory of Ely. Eight massive pillars support 200 tons of timber, glass and lad which seem to hang in space: a major engineering feat.
    • North and South Transepts - these form the oldest part of the Cathedral still standing and date from around 1090. The 15th-century roof is decorated with angels.
    • St Dunstan's Chapel - still available for private prayer.
    • Old Library
    • Choir - rebuilt in the 14th-century. The choir stall canopies and misericords - carved seats - date from this period.
    • Presbytery - built in the 13th-century to house the shrine of the founder of the Cathedral, St Ethelreda. A significant place of pilgrimage in medieval times.
    • Bishop West's Chapel - completed around 1530. There is elaborate Renaissance celing and carving to be found here.
    • St Ethelreda's Chapel
    • Bishop Alcock's Chapel - completed in 1486. Bishop Alcock founded Jesus College, Cambridge.
    • St Edmund's Chapel - with wall paintings from the 14th-century.
    • St George's Chapel - the Cambridgeshire Regimental Chapel.
    • Lady Chapel - the building of this, the largest Lady Chapel in England, was interrupted by the collapse of the Norman tower. Work began in 1321, and was completed in 1349. The sculptures were defaced in 1541 soon aftr the dissolution of the monastery.
    • Details of the Cathedral can be found in an extract from Belle Assembleé: May 1845, London published at The Office, 24 Norfolk Street, Strand.
    • A complete history of the Cathedral can be found in CATHEDRAL CHURCHES, edited by Prof T.G. Benney D.Sc, LL.D, F.R.S., 1896.


  • Please see the Ely page for the gazetteers.


You can see maps centred on OS grid reference TL541803 (Lat/Lon: 52.399024, 0.263552), Ely Cathedral which are provided by:


Military History


Probate Records

  • Peculiar Court of the Dean and Chapter of Ely
    • Jurisdiction in the Cathedral precint; otherwise called Elt College.
    • Records with the Dean & Chapter Records in the Cambridge University Libary. An index of the probate recordsm, 1565-1800, is to be included in the index of Ely Consistory Court probate records, to be published by the British Records Society. A copy of this index is available in the Cambridgeshire Archives and at the Cambridge University Lbrary.