CAMBRIDGESHIRE: Ely Cathedral Churches



[Extract from Cathedral Churches edited by Prof. T.G. Benney D.sc, LL.D, F.R.S, Hon. Cannon of Manchester, Recvised edition Volume 1, published by Cassell and Company Limited, London, Paris & Melbourne 1896. Pages 189-197 - section by W.E. DICKSON]


Coat of Arms

A SLUGGISH river, fringed by pollarded willows and defined by towing-paths; wide meadows, and corn-fields of rich fertility, intersected by dykes and enlivened by wind-mills; long lines of embankment which defend these prolific tracts from the incursions of winter floods: these are some of the features of time peculiar landscape which surrounds time old city of Ely.

A gentle eminence, adorned in summer with masses of foliage and groups of flowering shrubs; clusters of dwelling-houses, mostly of low elevation and mean exterior, raising their roof-ridges and chimneys amid the greenery; crowning the whole, the central object and single point of attraction, presiding over the humble town spread around it, a church of immense length, its ridge broken by a peculiar octagonal lantern, and terminating in a massive and stately tower, flanked by attendant turrets: this is the general view of Ely and its cathedral presented to the traveller arriving from the south.

From the northern and from the eastern approaches this commanding presidency of the vast church over the secular buildings is still more conspicuous and impressive. At the hamlet of Stuntney, some two miles or less from Ely, a view of the whole group is presented which cannot easily be forgotten; while the huge pile is seen from a curve on the railway, or from the meadows near it, under unexpected conditions which invest it with a grandeur altogether its own.

Mounting the hill after leaving the station, we pass along a street, or rather lane, known as the "Gallery," flanked by low buildings evidently reared in mediæval times, and find ourselves at the west end of the church.

A façade, which might have been magnificent, is manifestly spoiled by the absence of the northern arm of the cross aisle, or western transept, which bears the name of the "Galilee." No record exists of the fall or demolition of this northern arm, and the allusions to the Galilee in the chronicles accessible to us are too obscure to enable us to form an accurate judgment as to its dimensions and builders; nor are we much more fortunate in the references to the porch, which projects from the line of the cross aisle, and, though admirable in itself, certainly contributes to mar the effect of this west front.

Before we pass through the porch into the church, it may be well to carry with us a remembrance of the chief historical facts connected with it. They may be summarised thus:-

A religious house had been founded in 673 by Etheldreda, a queen or princess of East Anglia, remarkable for personal beauty and for gentleness of character. The church which she built, and which was probably of wood, was burnt in one of time Danish irruptions, perhaps about 870. About one hundred years later - namely, about 974 - the buildings were repaired and a body of Benedictine monks placed in them by Ethelwold, a zealous partisan and active supporter of Dunstan, the great champion of monasticism. Another century elapsed; England had passed under the rule of the Normans, who brought with them the love of sumptuous and imposing architecture which has enriched Northern Europe with so many castles and churches. At Ely the newcomers began in 1082 the vast pile before us. We shall keep this brief summary of time local history in our minds as we examine the church; but the times of Etheldreda are too remote, and the chronicles of her life are too largely intermingled with legend and fable, to come within time scope of this work. A fragment of a stone cross, now placed against the south wall of the nave, may perhaps be a relic of her age. "Ovin’s Cross" was possibly erected by her steward, Ovini, or Wini, in the neighbouring village of Haddenham, from which it was brought to its present resting-place. We know, however, that the Abbots of Ely before the Conquest were among the most powerful churchmen of their time. Thurstan, abbot in 1066, had been brought up in the monastery, and had become its head by the favour of Harold, whose cause he most strenuously upheld. For five years - namely, from 1066 to 1071 - the Isle of Ely formed a Saxon stronghold, or Camp of Refuge, for all the English who refused submission to the yoke of the foreigners. William of Normandy conducted in person the military operations for the reduction of the isle; but he was compelled to retire, and it was only by the voluntary submission of Thurstan and the monks that he obtained possession of the Fen fortress, which he garrisoned with Norman troops. Thurstan died in 1072, the last Saxon Abbot of Ely; and after an interregnum of nine years, the first Norman abbot was installed in the person of Simeon, a relative of the Conqueror, and eighty-seven years of age. The stately church before us was commenced by this energetic old man, who reached the age of one hundred.

Full of these recollections, we enter and stand on the threshold. Under favourable conditions of light and shade, we doubt if a more striking architectural view than this can be presented to the eye. The vista is unbroken as far as the eastern wall, 517 feet from us, save by light screen-work of open design. Three tall lancets, surmounted by five others, ingeniously worked into the curves of the stone vaulting, terminate and close in the distant point in which the long lines of walls, roof, and floor are brought together, with an effect surpassing in solemn grandeur, as we think, any composition in which one vast window, as at York or Carlisle, is the chief feature. Tall and narrow arches carry the eye upwards, and give an impression of loftiness which will bear comparison even with that conveyed by Cologne or Amiens, and to which the narrowness of the central alley contributes.

Above our heads, as we still stand upon the door-step, after passing through the porch, rises the great tower. Its second and third stages are open to the pavement, and are adorned with arcading; its wooden ceiling has been painted with great taste and skill by an accomplished amateur of our own day, Mr. Le Strange, of Hunstanton Hall, in Norfolk. We note that four arches of immense strength and excellent masonry have been built, at some period, beneath the original arches of the tower, sustaining on their shoulders its enormous super-incumbent weight.

The nave is of twelve bays, or severies, and as we walk along it we may take note that the arcade of time second stage, or triforium, is of nearly equal height with that of the lower stage, or ambulatory.

The walls and mouldings have been in many places decorated with polychrome, abundant traces of which may be seen, brought to light by careful removal of the coats of yellow-wash with which they had been encrusted in later times; at the tenth bay the chipping away of the piers of the triforium on the north side shows the probable place of one of the "pairs of organs," of which the church possessed three. The aisles are vaulted, and still show traces of rich decoration in colour upon a plastered surface; the great nave itself has been ceiled in recent times with wood, and on this ceiling, which has a pentagonal section, a vast picture has been delineated with great skill and power by Mr. Le Strange, and by Mr. Gambier Parry, of Highnam Court, near Gloucester, who, after time death of his old friend and school-fellow, continued the half-finished work.

Architectural Sketches

We have said that Abbot Simeon commenced the present church in 1082, probably by laying the foundations of the south transept. His successor, Richard, appointed in 1100, prosecuted the work so far that the remains of Etheldreda, and of three other abbesses, her relatives, were translated into it with great pomp and ceremony, and were laid in shrines immediately behind the chief altar. This was in 1106. To understand the magnificent interior as we now see it, we must picture to ourselves Richard’s church enlarged and enriched, not only by grand western additions, but also by an eastern extension of no fewer than six bays of most perfect design and workmanship. Abbot Richard had greatly desired the conversion of the abbey into an episcopal see. On his death in 1107, this change was pressed upon time king (Henry I.) by Herve le Breton, Bishop of Bangor, who was in temporary charge of the abbey. In 1109 he was himself translated from Bangor, as first Bishop of Ely; and thenceforward, as we shall see, the embellishment of the church became an object of episcopal concern. It was Geoffrey Ridel, third bishop (1174 - 1189), who built the great tower and the western cross aisle; and it was Eustace (1198-1215) who is said to have added the western porch, though this statement is open to considerable doubt.

A still more munificent prelate was Huh of Northwold, Abbot of St. Edmundsbury, consecrated Bishop of Ely in 1229. Dissatisfied with the plain and even rude architecture of Richard, and probably desiring a more stately lodgment for the sepulchral monuments of the four abbesses, he commenced in 1234 the erection of a new presbytery or retro-choir, which was consecrated in 1252 in the presence of Henry III. and his son, afterwards Edward I., then a boy of thirteen years, and which remains to this day in all its exquisite beauty, unsurpassed and even unrivalled in this country, unless by the "Angel Choir" of Lincoln

Seventy years afterwards - namely, in 1322 - the central tower, which rose above the intersection of the nave, choir, and transept, fell with a mighty crash, not unexpected, however, by the monks, who for some time had not dared to say the offices beneath the tottering structure.

A calamity almost identical in its incidents befell the Cathedral of Chichester a few years ago. A similar disaster has been averted at Peterborough by timely demolition. In both these cases a wise discretion has limited the rebuilders to an exact copy of the original.

The year 1322, however, belongs to an era in which the beautiful craft of the architect and builder may be said to have reached its culmination; and the Abbey of Ely possessed in its sacrist, Alan, surnamed "of Walsingham," a true artist, who saw his opportunity in the ruin which had overtaken his church, and who availed himself of it to such purpose that we may search Europe without finding a grander example of original design, bold construction, and charming detail than is presented before our eyes in this octagon.

Its history is read at a glance. Instead of re-erecting a heavy stone tower on four massive piers, he threw a canopy of wooden groining over a noble area made by removing the four massive piers altogether; and he filled up the corners of the space so gained by diagonal walls pierced with graceful arches below, and above with large windows of admirable proportions, worked into the curve of the groining by an artifice worthy of a master-mind, and which should not escape the observer. A life of Etheldreda is related in a series of carvings happily uninjured to this day. The carpentry of the roof, strong enough to sustain the great weight of a lantern of lead-covered oak, has been admired by a succession of competent judges, with Sir Christopher Wren at their head.

Alan removed entirely the eastern ruins of Abbot Richard’s choir, and united the new octagon to Northwold’s presbytery by three bays of remarkable beauty. In these three bays Ely possesses probably the most perfect example extant of the pure Edwardian or Decorated style. In the six bays of Northwold the Early English style is presented, as we have said, in grace and beauty well-nigh unrivalled. Both are marked by a specialty full of interest. It is this:- When Northwold (or his architect) designed the presbytery, he respected the proportions already established by his predecessors, and carried his string-courses forward at the same levels. Alan followed this excellent example in his three lovely bays. Hence the Early English and Decorated styles at Ely differ widely from the types of those styles as existing in perfection at Salisbury and at Lichfield.

The lofty triforium must be regarded as a great characteristic and peculiarity of this church and its treatment has given occasion for the introduction of work of the very highest degree of excellence. The eye ranges with entire satisfaction over the ornamentation lavished upon these nine bays. It is never wearied with admiring the clustered columns of Purbeck marble, boldly carved as to their capitals with masses of foliage, and the long corbels of the same refractory material, each representing a marvellous amount of untiring industry as well as of artistic skill - the low open parapet running along time string-courses; the tracery of the triforium-openings and of the clerestorv windows; above, the rich vault.

The changes introduced by successive bishops were not always improvements. Thus Bishop Barnet (1366-1373), unroofing the triforium of the presbytery to the extent of two bays on each side, filled the arches with glass as windows. This was done, probably, with the intention of throwing more light upon the shrines of the abbesses. Happily the bad example was not followed. Bishop Gray, however (1454 - 1478), thoroughly accomplished as he was, altered for the worse many or most of the windows in the aisles; and it was in his time that the outer walls of the triforia were raised, and the character of the whole structure thereby much altered.

Nor must it be supposed that all the bishops were nursing fathers of their cathedral church. Some were too busily occupied with great affairs of the State to concern themselves much with Ely and its abbey.

The convent had the right of nominating to the see, but its election was often set aside by the Pope. The distinguished sacrist, then prior, Alan, had been elected in 1345, but Thomas de Lisle was intruded by Clement VI. Louis de Luxembourg, Archbishop of Rouen, and afterwards cardinal, was similarly intruded in 1438. That jealousies should have arisen between the bishop, the head of the diocese, and the prior, the head of the convent, can occasion no surprise. Even after the division of the revenues of the abbey on the establishment of the see, the position of the prior was one of high dignity and ample emolument. In 1474 we find that he travelled with a retinue of twenty servants.

To John of Crawden (or Crowden), elected prior in 1321, the church and abbey were largely indebted for judicious administration and personal munificence. Living on terms of close friendship with Bishop John of Hotham, these two distinguished men, aided as they were by royal favour, secured many privileges for the monastery, which may be said to have reached the culminating point of its prosperity under their rule. Crawden greatly improved the secular buildings of the abbey; and he erected besides a beautiful little chapel or oratory, which still, happily, remains.

The cathedral is not rich in monuments. The great bishops, abbots, and priors, to whom the fabric owes its sumptuous grandeur, lie buried, for the most part under its pavement; but we have to deplore in some cases the displacement or destruction of the tombs which commemorated them. Their true monument is the church which they helped to rear and beautify.

Further architectural sketches

Turning from the choir, fitted now with the beautiful fourteenth-century stall-work of Alan, enriched by modern alti-rilievi, and closed in by an oak screen with brass grilles and gates, we betake ourselves to the Lady Chapel.

This superb example of the Decorated style will probably be seen with something like astonishment by those who enter it for the first time. Its erection, begun in 1321, side by side with the vast works entailed on the monks by the fall of their tower, is an instance of indomitable energy characteristic of the times. Bishop Montacute (1337-1345), who succeeded the munificent Hotham, was a large contributor towards its cost, and his body was buried in front of its altar; but it was not actually finished until 1349.

The sculptures with which the interior is profusely adorned, through the figures are now, with one single exception, headless, are thought to betray an Italian hand, or the influence of an Italian school of artists. In the days of its glory the whole chapel must have been a perfect storehouse of statuary and elaborate canopies; no part of the wall-space was left undecorated with diapering, executed in the most brilliant colours or carved in the stone itself, and it is not easy to name any example of old masonry of which the execution is more finished and masterly. Every true lover of art must wish to see this English " Sainte Chapelle" cleared of all which now disfigures it, and reverently restored to its pristine beauty.

The dissolution of the abbey in 1531 fell gently upon Ely. When the prior became dean, and when eight canons, three of whom had been monks, were established in houses of residence near the church; when eight minor canons, six of whom had been monks, with eight singing-men, eight choristers, and the masters of a school for twenty-four poor boys of Ely, were lodged in the old monastic buildings, the change, however important in itself, must have been little more than nominal to those on the spot.

But an end had come to the care and devotion lavished on the cathedral. Bishop Goodrich (1531 - 1554), the last episcopal Lord Chancellor, and Bishop Cox (1559-1581) were resolute promoters of the Reformation, and cared little for the relics of the past. The Lady Chapel was handed over in the reign of Elizabeth to the parish of the Holy Trinity in Ely as its church, with the usual results. The Parliamentary Survey in 1649, signed "Mr. Cromwell," condemned to destruction many of the conventual buildings which were still standing, though its behests were not always obeyed. The potent Protector is believed to have willingly saved from utter profanation the church with which he was so familiar, for he resided for some years in Ely, and is said to have collected rents, in early life, for the dean and chapter. But the historian and novelist Defoe, in his "Tour Through the Islands of Great Britain," published early in the eighteenth century, speaks of the cathedral as tottering to its fall, and likely, in a very few years, to become a total ruin. From this fate it was saved by timely though tasteless repairs, executed with great mechanical ingenuity by Richard Essex, a builder of Cambridge, in the episcopate of Bishop Mawson (1754 - 1770); and in 1845 great works of restoration were commenced which have placed the church beyond the reach, we trust, of danger. With these works two names must always be associated: those of George Peacock, dean (1839-1858), and Edward Bowyer Sparke, canon (1829-1879).


©Genuki 2001