Bell's Cathedrals: The Cathedral Church of Ely
by W. D. Sweeting
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A History and Description of the Building with a Short Account of the Former Monastery and of the See


THE REV. W. D. SWEETING, M.A. Vicar of Holy Trinity, Rotherhithe and Author of "Peterborough"

With XLVII Illustrations

London George Bell & Sons 1910 First Published June 1901. Reprinted 1902, 1910.


It is hardly necessary to give a complete list of all the authorities consulted in the preparation of this book. As specially valuable for Ely may be named the "Liber Eliensis" and the "Inquisitio Eliensis"; the histories of Bentham, Hewett, and Stewart; the "Memorials of Ely," and the Handbook to the Cathedral edited and revised by the late Dean; Professor Freeman's Introduction to Farren's "Cathedral Cities of Ely and Norwich"; and the various reports of Sir G. G. Scott. But numerous other sources of information have been examined, and have supplied facts or theories; and in nearly every instance, particularly where the very words are quoted, the authority is given in the text or in the notes.

My best thanks are due to the Dean of Ely for his ready courtesy in allowing free access to every part of the cathedral and for his solution of various difficulties which had presented themselves in comparing different accounts of the fabric. I have also to thank the Rev. T. Perkins and the Photochrom Company for the use of the photographs from which the illustrations have been prepared. For many curious details, and for the loan of some books that are out of print and difficult to obtain, I acknowledge my obligation to Mr. C. Johnson, of Ely.




II. THE CATHEDRAL: EXTERIOR 41 The West Front 43 The Galilee Porch 44 The West Tower 47 The North Side of the Nave 49 The Octagon 50 The North Transept 51 The Lady-Chapel 52 The East End 55 The Aisles 56 The Triforium Windows 57 The South Transept 60 The Monks' Door 60 The Prior's Door 60 The Cloister 61

III. THE INTERIOR 63 The Western Transept and S. Catharine's Chapel 64 The Nave 66 The Ceiling 67 The Nave Aisles 69 The Octagon 71 The Transepts 74 The Choir and Presbytery 76 The Lady-Chapel 84 Monuments and Stained Glass 87 The Chapel of Bishop Alcock 90 The Chapel of Bishop West 93



VI. THE PRECINCTS 131 The Infirmary 131 Prior Crauden's Chapel 132 Ely Porta 133



PAGE Ely Cathedral from the South Frontispiece. The Arms of the See Title. The North Side of the Cathedral 2 The Cathedral from the South 3 The Interior of the Galilee before Restoration 18 The Shrine of S. Etheldreda (from Bentham) 20 The Octagon about 1825 23 Ely Cathedral at the End of the Eighteenth Century 33 The Cathedral from the West 40 Entrance To The Cathedral From The Galilee 41 Doorway of the Galilee 45 The West Tower from the South 48 The Choir and Lady-Chapel from the North-East 53 Elevation of Original Bays of Bishop Northwold's Presbytery 55 The Lantern and South Transept 57 The Prior's Doorway 59 The Nave, looking West 62 S. Catharine's Chapel 63 The Nave, looking East 65 Panels in the Nave Ceiling 67 The North Aisle of the Nave 69 The South Aisle of the Nave 70 The South Transept 74 The North Transept 75 The Choir Screen 76 Elevation of the Bays of the Presbytery 77 The Choir, looking West 79 The Triforium of the Choir and Presbytery 80 The Choir Stalls: North Side 81 The Reredos 84 The Lady-Chapel 85 Doorway of the Lady-Chapel 86 The North Choir Aisle, looking West 89 The Presbytery and the supposed Shrine of S. Etheldreda 91 Bishop Alcock's Chapel 94 Bishop West's Chapel 95 The Choir, looking East 98 The Chapter Seal (from Bentham) 99 Bishop Alcock's Chantry from the Retro-Choir 112 The North Choir Aisle, looking East 122 Bishop West's Chapel 123 The Brass of Bishop Goodrich 124 Bishop Woodford's Tomb 129 Prior Crauden's Chapel 131 Plan of the Infirmary (from Bentham) 132 Ely Porta, The Great Gate Of The Monastery, 1817 133 Ground Plan Of Ely Cathedral At end.




No mention has been found of Ely as a town before the time of the virgin queen S. Etheldreda. The district known as the Isle of Ely—which now includes the whole of the northern part of Cambridgeshire above the River Ouse, together with a few parishes east of that river that are in the county—is spoken of at the time of the marriage of the princess as if it were a district well known and perhaps of some importance, as it was assigned to her as a dowry. Some writers have held that the expression the Isle of Ely applied only to the rising ground on which the city now stands and to its immediate neighbourhood. If this were ever the case, the name was soon used for a larger district. In the "Liber Eliensis" the limits of the isle are given as seven miles in length by four in breadth, while the extent of the two hundreds belonging to Ely reaches from Tydd to Upware and from Bishop's Delf to Peterborough. We have many examples of large inland districts where a series of rivers has happened to isolate them being known as isles. The Isles of Athelney, Axholme, Purbeck, Thanet, are familiar instances. Perhaps the town is more likely to take its name from the district than the district from the town. It will be seen that in none of the examples just given is the name derived from a town. We have the authority of Bede for the statement that Ely (Elge) was a region containing about six hundred families, like an island (in similitudinem insulae), and surrounded by marshes or waters.

When told that Ely means the "Island of Eels," many persons suppose this to be a fanciful etymology, and smile at the idea; but the best authorities are agreed that this is the true derivation of the name.[1] A suggestion that the willow-trees, so abundant in the region, gave the name (Celtic, Helyg) has met with some support. A third suggestion, that the word comes from the Greek for a "marsh," hardly deserves mention. The Saxon word for "eel" was apparently pronounced exactly as the modern word. Bede gives this etymology: "A copia anguillarum, quae in iisdem paludibus capiuntur, nomen accepit." William of Malmesbury, in his "Gesta Pontificum," 1125, takes the same view. The "Liber Eliensis," of about the same date, also adopts it. Milton may not be regarded as a great authority upon such a question; he writes, however, as considering the matter settled. In his Latin poem on the death of Bishop Felton, of Ely, who died in 1626, he says that Fame, with her hundred tongues, ever a true messenger of evil and disaster, has spread the report of the bishop's death:

"Cessisse morti, et ferreis sororibus, Te, generis humani decus, Qui rex sacrorum fuisti in insula Quae nomen Anguillae tenet."

That Ely should mean "Isle of Eels," and that the expression Isle of Ely is consequently redundant, is no argument against this view. The Isle of Athelney, beyond all question, means the Isle of the AEthelings' Isle. Compare also a remarkable instance of redundancy in the name of the Isle of Axholme. This name, says Canon Taylor, "shows that it has been an island during the time of the Celts, Saxons, Danes, and English. The first syllable, Ax, is the Celtic word for the water by which it was surrounded. The Anglo-Saxons added their word for island to the Celtic name, and called it Axey. A neighbouring village still goes by the name of Haxey. The Danes added holm—the Danish word for island—to the Saxon name, and modern English influences have corrupted Axeyholme into Axelholme, and contracted it into Axholme, and have finally prefixed the English word Isle."[2]

The North Girvii and the South Girvii were two peoples that formed districts of the East Anglian kingdom. In the early part of the seventh century Anna was King of the East Angles; and Etheldreda, his daughter, was born at Exning, near Newmarket,—a Suffolk parish, but detached from the main county and entirely surrounded by Cambridgeshire,—about the year 630. When quite young there were many suitors for her hand, but she was altogether unwilling to accept any one of them. But the king, her father, had so high an opinion of Tonbert—one of the noblemen of his Court, who was alderman, or, as some render it, prince, of the South Girvii—that he prevailed upon his daughter to be married to him, and the marriage took place in 652, two years before Anna's death. From her husband Etheldreda received the Isle of Ely—that is, the whole of the region of the South Girvii—as a marriage settlement ("Insulam Elge ab eodem sponso ejus accepit in dotem"). It is clear, therefore, that Tonbert was something more than an officer of the king's if he had the power of assigning such a district to his wife.

Tonbert only lived for three years after his marriage, and at his death his widow came into possession of the Isle of Ely according to the terms of her marriage settlement. She resided within it, and gave herself up entirely to works of religion and devotion, entrusting the civil government of her territory to Ovin. Her reputation for piety was spread far and wide, and attracted the attention of Egfrid, son of Oswy, King of Northumberland, who sought her hand in marriage. But no attraction he could offer could persuade the princess to change her state, until her Uncle Ethelwold, who was now King of East Anglia, overcame her scruples. The disturbed state of his kingdom and the importance of an alliance with so powerful a house as that of Oswy are believed to have influenced Ethelwold to urge his niece to give her consent to the proposed marriage; and the marriage took place at York. It is constantly affirmed by all historians that in neither of these marriages did the married couple live together as man and wife. At the Northumbrian Court Etheldreda lived for twelve years, her husband meanwhile, in 670, having become king. He had been for some years previously associated with his father in the government. The queen, however, became more and more wearied of the glories of her royal position, and tired out her husband with persistent entreaties that she might be permitted to withdraw herself altogether from his Court and devote herself entirely to the religious life. At last she obtained his reluctant consent, and betook herself to Coldingham, where Ebba, the king's aunt, was abbess, and was there admitted into the order of nuns at the hands of Wilfrid, Archbishop of York. This Ebba was afterwards canonised, and her name is preserved in the name of the promontory on the coast of Berwickshire known as S. Abb's Head.

After remaining about a year at Coldingham, the queen found it necessary to move away. The king began to regret the permission he had given her, and, following the advice of some of his courtiers, made his way to the religious house where Etheldreda was settled, with the intention of forcibly compelling her return to his Court. His intention having become known to the abbess, she recommended the queen to escape at once to her own territory, the Isle of Ely. The queen immediately followed this advice. Egfrid arrived at Coldingham very soon after her departure, and set off in pursuit. No reason for her leaving Coldingham is given by Bede; but a lengthy account of the journey and its occasion is given in the "Liber Eliensis." In the remarkable sculptures on the corbels in the octagon are representations of two scenes that are unintelligible without this account; it is necessary, therefore, to summarise it here. Directly after setting out from Coldingham, which is some ten miles north of the Tweed, not far from the sea, the queen, with two lady companions, Sewenna and Sewara, reached a rocky eminence on the coast, where the king in pursuit came up with them; but he was "prevented from coming near them by a sudden and unusual inundation of water from the sea, which surrounded the hill, and continued in that state several days, without retiring into its former channel. Amazed at the strangeness of this appearance, the king presently interpreted it as the interposition of Heaven in her favour, and concluded that it was not the will of God that he should have her again; and this occasioned his retiring to York again, leaving the queen quietly to pursue her journey."[3] After the king had abandoned his intention of reclaiming his wife, the three ladies proceeded southwards, and crossed the Humber, and so through Winteringham and Alftham, where she stayed a few days, and where she is said to have built a church. This can only mean that she arranged for its building or undertook the cost. At West Halton, the next village to Winteringham (as Bentham has observed), the church is dedicated to S. Etheldreda; and this place may be identified with the Alftham of the chronicler. The party had now assumed the dress of pilgrims, and went by unfrequented roads, so as to escape observation. At one point of their journey a second miraculous event is recorded. The queen had lain down to sleep while her attendants kept watch, and had stuck her pilgrim's staff in the ground. When she awoke, this staff was found to have taken root and already to have brought forth leaves. It was left standing, and grew into a flourishing tree; and the place, from the circumstance, was named Etheldrede's-Stow.[4] A church was afterwards built and dedicated to S. Etheldreda.

In course of time the three pilgrims arrived safely at their destination. Wilfrid, the archbishop, soon joined them. He had lost favour with King Egfrid, being supposed to have influenced the queen in her decision to take the veil. The king, regarding his marriage with Etheldreda as being de facto dissolved, took another wife, who was for various reasons much opposed to Wilfrid. The archbishop also greatly resented the action of the king and Archbishop Theodore in dividing his diocese without his consent into four different sees, and he was at one time banished and at another imprisoned.

Etheldreda now set to work in earnest to establish a religious house. Her buildings were begun in 673. This year is accordingly taken as the date of the foundation of the monastery and of the town itself. King Ethelbert is indeed said to have built a church a short distance from the site of the present cathedral, at a place called Cratendune[5]; but there is much uncertainty as to the fact, and some considerable difficulties in reconciling the different references to it. It is stated that this church had but a short existence, being destroyed by Penda, King of Mercia. This Ethelbert was the Bretwalda, King of Kent, husband of the Christian queen Bertha. After his conversion he was instrumental in furthering the spread of Christianity among the East Saxons, and also apparently in East Anglia, one of the East Anglian kings, Redwald, having (but only for a time) given his adherence to the Christian religion. As the building of this church near Ely is stated to have been undertaken on the advice of Augustine, who died in 604, we have an approximate date for it, since Augustine only arrived in England in 597. Whether this church was so built by Ethelbert or not, it seems clear there was some church in a state of partial decay standing in 673, because it is recorded that at first Etheldreda designed to restore it and to make it the centre of her religious work; but the present site was judged to be more suitable, and there she began to build. The few remaining inhabitants of Cratendune soon abandoned their dwellings, and came to live near the rising buildings of the monastery.

Upon the death of King Anna, who fell in battle against Penda, King of the Mercians, he was succeeded in turn by his brothers Adelbert and Ethelwold, and the kingdom then went to Adulphus, Anna's son and Etheldreda's brother. He greatly assisted his sister in raising the buildings of her monastery, contributing considerably to the cost; but the plans and arrangements are thought to have been designed by Wilfrid, who is known to have spent much time at Ely. It was he who gave his benediction when Etheldreda was formally instituted as abbess, and who admitted the earliest members of the house. As was not unusual, the society included monks as well as nuns. In later times the Benedictine rule was adopted. In the very year of the foundation, possibly on account of its royal foundress and the support of the king, her brother, the special privilege of exemption from interference, either by king or bishop, was assigned to it in a national assembly. This at least seems to be the meaning of the decree, as given in "Liber Eliensis," that with respect to the Isle of Ely, now dedicated to God's service, "Non de Rege nec de Episcopo libertas loci diminueretur, vel in posterum confringeretur."

To endow and provide for her monastery, the foundress assigned her entire principality of the isle. In this way the temporal power, which was afterwards so peculiar a feature in the privileges of the bishops, was acquired. In about five years Wilfrid went to Rome to obtain the Papal confirmation of the grants and liberties of the new foundation; but Etheldreda did not live to see his return. She died of some contagious disease, June 23, 679, in the seventh year after she had become abbess. She was buried, by her own directions, not in the church, but in the nuns' graveyard. She was certainly not fifty years of age at the time of her death. As will be seen hereafter, her body was removed into the church in the time of her successor.

No description is extant of the buildings of the monastery first erected. We know that the present cathedral is on the same site. Nor has any record been preserved of any discoveries that may have been made in later times, when extensive operations must have necessitated the laying bare of some of the original foundations. From what is known of some contemporary monasteries, we may conclude that the church at least was of stone. Not a fragment of it is known to be in existence at the present day. Whatever may have been its extent, it was wholly destroyed by the Danes in 870. For four years the Danes had been ravaging the eastern part of the country, burning monasteries and slaying their inmates. In the immediate district, Crowland and Thorney, Medeshamstede (Peterborough), and Ramsey had already felt the severity of their attack; crumbling walls alone remained where their destructive violence had been experienced. On their first attack on Ely they were repulsed. The advantages of the situation among the fens had already suggested the formation of something very similar to the famous Camp of Refuge in the eleventh century; and the force thus collected was sufficient to drive the Danes to their ships. But before long they returned with greater numbers, headed by one of their kings, most likely Hubba, and altogether overcame the resistance of the people of the isle. The conquerors then marched "directly to the Monastery of S. Etheldreda, at Ely, broke their way into it, and put all the Religious to the sword, as well the Nuns as the Monks, and others belonging to it, without any respect to age, sex, or condition; and after they had stript the Monastery of every thing that was valuable, and plundered the town, they set fire to the Church and all the buildings and houses; and went away loaded with the spoils, not only of the Town and Monastery of Ely, but likewise the chief effects and riches of the country round about, which the inhabitants of those parts had brought with them, as to a place of security."[6]

The destruction of Ely monastery in 870 and its resuscitation by King Edgar in 970 are an almost exact repetition of what took place at Peterborough. But there is a difference in the history of the interval. In the case of Peterborough, as far as is known, the ruin was complete, and not the smallest attempt was made for a hundred years either to restore the buildings or to revive the society. But at Ely, though the destruction was hardly less complete, we read that within a few years eight of the inmates of the monastery who had escaped when the place was burnt came back, and to a certain extent continued the establishment. They effected a partial restoration of a small portion of the church, and performed divine service. It is said that King Alfred, who succeeded in expelling the Danes, acquiesced in these clerks thus taking possession of the place, although the former King of Mercia, finding the monasteries deserted, had annexed all their property. It does not appear certain whether these clerks were actual monks of the old monastery or clergy of the place; but the new society thus inaugurated was like a college of secular clergy. They were so far recognised as a settled establishment that new endowments were acquired from various benefactors.

The latter part of the tenth century was a time of great activity in founding monasteries and in restoring those that had fallen into decay. Edgar, the king, Dunstan, Archbishop of Canterbury, and Ethelwold, Bishop of Winchester, were all enthusiastic in the work. The advancement of the monastic system was the great object they all had at heart. Application was made to the king by two nobles about his Court, both foreigners, for a grant of the Isle of Ely, lately the possession of the monastery. It does not appear what services either had rendered to warrant the application. The sheriff of the county, however, interfered to prevent any such grant being made. He represented to the king the true state of affairs—in what way the Isle of Ely had become the property of the monastery, how all had been lost after the Danish invasion, and in what a lamentable condition the place was at the time, although the remains of the sainted abbesses were still on the spot. The king immediately saw here a new opportunity of furthering his religious work. Committing the details to Bishop Ethelwold, he authorised him to repair the church, provide fresh monks (but no nuns), make arrangements for divine service, and supply new buildings for the new inmates. At the same time the king undertook to provide lands and revenues for the support of the monastery. When the bishop had discharged his commission he obtained from the king a new grant of the whole of the Isle of Ely for the restored monastery.

The charter of King Edgar is printed in the appendix to Bentham's "History and Antiquities." The king describes himself as "Basileus dilecte insule Albionis," and as desirous of shewing his gratitude for the peace secured after conquering the Scots, Cambrians, and Britons by restoring decayed monasteries and establishing them under the Benedictine rule; and in particular he desires to honour the monastery in the region of Ely (Elig), anciently dedicated to S. Peter, rendered famous by the relics and miracles of the renowned virgin Etheldreda, "who, with body uncorrupted, lasts even to this day in a white marble mausoleum." He appoints Brithnoth first abbot, and assigns certain lands and revenues, including ten thousand eels due to him as king, for the maintenance of the monastery. To signify the public character of the grant, it is stated in the attestation clause that it is made not in a corner, but in the open: "Non clam in angulo sed sub divo palam evidentissime." The charter is signed by the king, two archbishops, twelve bishops, the queen, eleven abbots, nine dukes (duces), and forty-one knights. This was in the year 970.

As has been said, the old establishment had given place to a company of secular clergy. These were dispossessed by Bishop Ethelwold, unless any chose to attach themselves to the new foundation upon the constitution of the Benedictine house. But during the century that had elapsed since the Danes evicted the monks, these clergy must have been careful custodians of the church and buildings, most likely restoring by degrees and erecting fresh accommodation as their means permitted, for there is no account of any considerable rebuilding by Bishop Ethelwold. Repairs and enlargement and decorations were necessary; but the bishop probably found everything nearly ready to his hands, and he was not required to undertake anything so extensive as had to be done under similar circumstances at Peterborough. Everything was duly prepared for the new monastery by the Feast of the Purification, 970; and on that day the church and buildings, some partly restored and some newly erected, were consecrated by Archbishop Dunstan.

During the time of Elsin, the second abbot (981-1016), some considerable improvements were effected by Leofwin (of whom more will be told in a later chapter) in the church. He rebuilt and enlarged the south aisle, joining it to the rest of the building. In one of its porches, or side-chapels (in uno porticu), he built an altar to the Virgin Mary, erecting over it a stately image of gold and silver, adorned with valuable jewels. It is probable that this chapel, and the one that possibly replaced it when the present cathedral was built, may have been colloquially known as the lady-chapel, for it is sometimes said that a lady-chapel was in existence before the fourteenth century; but there was nothing about it of the dignity and importance usually associated with the name.

Although the Isle of Ely plays so important a part in the history of the Norman Conquest, and was the scene of the last great stand made against the Conqueror, neither the party of Hereward and the Camp of Refuge, nor the forces of the king, did any material damage to the buildings of the monastery. Its affairs were indeed brought to confusion, as the monks had sided with Hereward, and the Conqueror gave orders for the plunder of all the goods of the monastery. But the monks purchased from the king his forgiveness, and the liberty of the place, and the restoration of what property had been taken away, for the sum of a thousand marks. To raise this amount they had to sell almost everything in the church of gold and silver; and the "Liber Eliensis" enumerates among precious objects thus alienated, crosses, altars, shrines, texts, chalices, patens, basins, brackets, pipes (fistulas), cups, salvers, and the image of the Virgin seated with her Son on a throne, which Abbot Elsin had wrought of gold and silver. It is true that most, if not all, of these were recovered in about ten years, for it is on record that the Norman abbot, Theodwin, refused to accept the abbacy until the king would restore what had been taken away. This seems to refer to the goods sold to raise the money demanded as the price of his forgiveness.

When the building of the existing cathedral was commenced there was not the same necessity as existed in many other cases. There was no ruin to be rendered serviceable. A church was actually standing and in constant use. It must therefore have been felt that the importance and wealth of the foundation demanded a more magnificent minster. When Simeon, the ninth abbot (1081-1093), was appointed, he found the property of the abbey still in an unsatisfactory state. Lands really belonging to it were in many instances held by powerful persons, who under various pretences defied the rights of the religious house. So the abbot's first work was to recover these. By help of the king's commission he was entirely successful. But while inquiries were being instituted, and proceedings for recovery were being taken, he conceived the design of erecting a very noble church, and set about laying the foundations of it. He could not, from his great age, have hoped to see much progress made, but he did live to see a very considerable portion completed. He devoted a great part of his private fortune, which was large, to the work. He began with the transepts. This is in itself sufficient to shew that there was a choir in use. The regular practice, when a wholly new church was to be built, was to commence at the east end. The lower part of both transepts is Simeon's work. It is of plain Early Norman character, and represents all that is now in existence of what he erected. From a slight increase in ornamentation in the capitals in the north transept, we infer that the actual commencement was made in the south transept. Of course these transepts were of four bays—not as at present, of three only—the bay in each case nearest the central tower having been destroyed when the tower fell. That tower was of Norman date, and is sometimes spoken of as Simeon's Tower. But he cannot have built the whole of it. If he raised it as high as the great supporting arches, which is of course possible, there must have been also supports in all the four adjacent portions of the church, reaching almost to the summit of the arches, so that he would have had to build at least one bay of the triforium and clerestory stages. If he did so, all such work perished with the fall of the tower. It is more probable that he raised the piers of the tower arches only a few feet higher than the main arcade of the transepts.

Abbot Simeon's successor, Richard (1100-1107), proceeded with the building. No abbot had been appointed by William II., and the works had consequently been suspended for seven years. Notwithstanding many troubles and distractions (he was actually deposed at a council at Westminster in 1102, though restored by Papal bull in the next year), Abbot Richard made great advance in the building of the church. He was only abbot for seven years. By 1106 he had finished the east end, which may have terminated in an apse as at Peterborough, and possibly the tower. On October 17 in that year the remains of Saints Etheldreda, Sexburga, Ermenilda, and Withburga were solemnly removed to the new choir, and re-interred in front of the high altar. For some reason not explained there was no such attendance of high ecclesiastical dignitaries as was usual on such occasions. The Bishop of Norwich, four abbots, and one archdeacon were all that could be found to attend the translation. The account is noteworthy because it describes the orderly processions from "the Old Church," and the taking the bodies thence one at a time, "with singing and praise into the New Church." We are not to conclude from this that the former church was on a different site. The new buildings were apparently quite close to the former, and possibly some part of the old church had already been pulled down as the new choir was being built, and the completion of the aisles of the choir would necessitate the pulling down of the remainder. But the remains of the foundress and others must first be removed to their new resting-place. Both Simeon and Richard, while urging on the church building, were by no means regardless of the domestic buildings of the monastery. These were being enlarged and improved at the same time. Two bays of the nave next to the tower were also the work of Abbot Richard.

Two years after the death of Abbot Richard the bishopric was constituted. The bishop henceforward was the abbot of the house, though the superintendence of the domestic concerns of the monastery devolved upon the prior. Until 1198 the bishops appointed the priors, but afterwards they were elected by the monks. There was naturally some difficulty in dividing fairly between the bishop and the monastery the peculiar rights which were attached to the government of the Isle of Ely; but all was amicably arranged. As part of the arrangement the bishops were discharged from all obligation to repair or sustain the fabric of the church. But numbers of the bishops did contribute largely to its building and embellishments; and henceforward the works carried on are assigned to the bishops holding office at the time.

By degrees, during the twelfth century, the building of the nave advanced. For upwards of sixty years we find no record in the chronicles of any specific work done at any particular time. When we come to Bishop Riddell (1174-1189) we read that he "carried on the new work and Tower at the West-end of the Church, almost to the top." How high this tower was we cannot tell. It was probably surmounted by a pyramid. A later bishop, Northwold (1229-1254), removed the original capping and built the existing Early English stage; so we conclude from the words: "Ipse construxit de novo turrim ligneam versus galileam ab opere cementario usque ad summitatem."

The first three bishops ruled for a period of eighty years. This seems too long a time to assign for the building of the nave, because there is so little difference in detail as we examine the work from east to west; and even when later work in a large building is purposely made to assimilate to what had been built some years before, the experienced eye can usually discover slight variations in mouldings or ornamentation which indicate something of a new fashion in architecture. Here we detect nothing of the sort. We can well understand how much reason there was at Ely why building work should have been in the twelfth century intermittent. The troublous times of Henry I. and Stephen were specially unfavourable to this place. Bishop Hervey, moreover, would have had but little time to devote to building. The complete constitution of the bishopric, the regaining possession of property that had been alienated in the time of Rufus, and the thorough establishment of his temporal jurisdiction over the isle took up all his time and energies. He was also constantly abroad in attendance on the king. In the next bishop's time the disaffected barons assembled in the Isle of Ely, and the bishop was of their party. The whole district was alternately in the hands of the king and of the barons. The property of the monastery suffered greatly by fines and exactions. The bishop himself was constantly moving about from place to place, and was many times compelled to make a hurried escape in fear of being apprehended by the king's party. When at last his peace was made with the king, his submission cost him three hundred marks. Neither his own resources nor those of the monastery were sufficient to raise this sum. Some of the treasures of the church had already been sold. Now the monks were persuaded to part with silver from S. Etheldreda's shrine and other valuable ornaments, in order to lend the bishop the sum he required. After the death of King Stephen there occurred a time of tranquillity. The bishop was advanced in dignity and became a Baron of the Exchequer. These various considerations make it at least very probable that no additions to the church of any importance were made until the reign of Henry II.; and, if so, we may come to the conclusion that the whole of the nave was built in his reign. The difference in the style of architecture between the Late Norman and the Transition to Early English is very noticeable as we look at the remaining portion of the west front, south of the galilee porch, the lower stages shewing no trace of anything but pure Norman, while above we see pointed arches, quatrefoils in circles, and other indications of the approaching change of style.

Bishop Eustace (1198-1215) made large additions to the fabric at his own expense. One sentence in the account of his work has given rise to much controversy: "Ipse construxit a fundamento novam galileam ecclesiae Eliensis versus occidentem sumptibus suis." Was this the Early English porch now known as the galilee? Some have thought that this name was bestowed upon the whole of the western transept, not including the porch. This is the view taken in recent years by Canon Stewart. He shews it was the current local opinion at the beginning of the eighteenth century. Dr. Tanner, who wrote the account of Ely in Browne Willis's "Mitred Abbies," takes this view, and speaks of the south arm of the transept as the "old Galilee" and the north arm as the "new Galilee." In the plan in Willis's "Survey of Cathedrals," 1727, the south part is described as the "South galilee, now the church workhouse," while on the north side we read, "Ruined part of Galilee." No doubt the character of the architecture is not inconsistent with the theory that the northern part may have been built or finished by Bishop Eustace, soon after he was appointed, in intentional imitation of the pronounced Norman work adjacent. Canon Stewart also points out that Bishop Eustace is known to have rebuilt S. Mary's Church, where the rough masonry and plain lancets are wholly unlike the beautiful work in the west porch. And he adds: "It is evident that Eustace had nothing to do with the erection of any part of the present cathedral. The galilee which he built has totally disappeared, and the porch which has gone under that name of late years must be the work of some unknown benefactor, who had probably seen Hugh de Northwold's presbytery, and determined to lengthen the church westward as it had been extended in the opposite direction."[7] The more generally received opinion, however, is that Bishop Eustace did really build what is now called the galilee. This is accepted by Bentham, Essex, and Miller, and more recently by Sir G. G. Scott.

No one can doubt that the entire west front, when standing, was much improved by the addition of this great porch. The front indeed never had the painfully flat appearance presented at some cathedrals, for its extreme length was not very great, and the projecting turrets at each end would greatly relieve the impression that it was the side, and not the end, of a building. But it requires something more than a tower in the centre of the front to give a true finish to a composition in which there runs at the top a single horizontal line from north to south. Richly traceried windows are not sufficient. Deeply recessed doorways are better; but here there was only one, of the nature of which we have no account. The great porch is exactly what was wanted.

In 1757 Essex recommended the removal of the galilee as being an encumbrance. The roof was ruinous, the walls were in bad condition; it was "neither ornamental nor useful"; it would cost a large sum to put it into decent repair. Happily this advice was not followed. In the course of the renovation then undertaken it was discovered that the remains of an older porch had been incorporated with the present one.

Bishop Northwold (1229-1254) commenced the building of the present presbytery.[8] There are now nine bays between the screen and the east end. The apse, if such were the termination of the Norman church, was situated between what are now on each side the fourth and fifth piers from the screen. A line drawn from the west side of the fifth piers north and south would just touch the eastern end of the apse. Bishop Northwold pulled down the apse and one bay west of it, and extended the presbytery four more bays to the east, building in all six bays, of which two were included in the ritual choir, and four were to the east of the high altar. All this was done between the years 1235 and 1251. The bishop also erected a lofty timber spire on the west tower, which remained until the present Decorated stage was built.

We have no account of the consecration of the Norman choir. But after this extension of the building eastwards we read that the whole church was solemnly dedicated on September 17, 1252, in honour of Saints Mary, Peter, and Etheldreda. King Henry III. was present, as well as Prince Edward, afterwards king. When the new portion of the church was ready, the remains of the four saints were removed further east. In the Norman church the high altar was in the chord of the apse, assuming one to have been built; after Bishop Northwold's alterations it was placed at the east end of the present sixth bay, where the apse terminated. The shrine of the foundress was placed some feet further to the east, its eastern face standing about twelve feet in front of the existing altar.

This work of Bishop Northwold completed the plan of the cathedral as it now stands. The lady-chapel was indeed built afterwards, but that is to all intents and purposes a separate building. Nor is there any later thirteenth-century work in the church itself. The building operations of the second half of the century were confined to the domestic part of the monastery. As these were doubtless carried out by the convent from its own resources, there is little notice to be found of them in the records of the see. It is known that the rectory, now in the deanery grounds, belonged to this period. It was finished in the time of Prior Hemmingston (1274-1288).

The first half of the next century was a time of great and important work at the church. In 1321 the first stone of the lady-chapel was laid by Alan de Walsingham, the sub-prior, afterwards sacrist. It was finished in 1349; and though John of Wisbech had the charge of the erection, the sacrist having more important work to do at the church itself, we can hardly doubt that the designs were by Walsingham. The position of the lady-chapel, to the north-east of the north transept, is unique. At Bristol it is to the north of the north choir aisle. At Peterborough the lady-chapel (destroyed during the Commonwealth) was in a nearly similar situation, projecting eastward from the north transept. Whatever may have been the reason at Peterborough for this unusual position (some say that a public road close to the apse prevented an extension of the choir to the east), there is no necessity to question the accuracy of the explanation generally given of the site of the lady-chapel here—namely, that the place of honour, east of the high altar, was already appropriated to the shrine of S. Etheldreda.

On the night of February 12, 1322, the eve of S. Ermenilda's day, the central tower fell. Its insecurity had long been known. The monks had just left their matin service in S. Catharine's Chapel. Some persons conclude from this fact that the choir had already been disused as being unsafe; but unless there is other evidence of this, the mere fact of the monastic matins being held in the chapel nearest to the domestic buildings seems hardly sufficient to justify the conclusion. The chapel here named was not (according to Dean Stubbs) the one now dedicated to S. Catharine at the west end of the cathedral, but one that adjoined the chapter-house. The fall of the tower destroyed three bays of the choir. Different opinions are held as to the character of the architecture of the bays thus destroyed. Some hold that Bishop Northwold built the choir and presbytery, from the central tower to the east end, in the Early English style, and that three of his bays were thrown down by the fall of the tower[9]; others think that the bays now ruined were part of the Norman work.[10] It is most probable that Northwold, designing to increase the length of the presbytery, only pulled down so much of the Norman work as was necessary for his purpose, leaving the western arches standing. This opinion is adopted in the account of his work given above. If this is correct, there would have been four Norman arches left standing between the tower and the Early English work. Of these, three on each side fell. When the new choir was constructed, the octagon taking up the space of the first bay, the fourth bay—presumably left uninjured—was removed, as being out of keeping between the Early English and the new Decorated bays; and hence three new bays were built, reaching to Bishop Northwold's work. All accounts agree that three bays were destroyed. But if both choir and presbytery were of Early English date, there must have been four bays overthrown, because the three Decorated bays now existing do not correspond in position to the three destroyed, for the present third bay from the screen is where the fourth bay was when the tower was standing.

No one could possibly have been found in the whole kingdom better qualified to cope with the great disaster that took place at Ely in 1322 than the officer of the house who had the special custody of the fabric. The originality and skill with which he designed and carried out the noble work that takes the place of the central tower, which is without a rival in the architecture of the whole world, are beyond all praise. The exquisite work in the lady-chapel would in itself have been sufficient to establish Walsingham's reputation as an architect of the very highest order of merit; but it would have revealed nothing, if it stood alone, of the consummate constructive genius which he displayed in the conception of the octagon. Of the design itself we shall speak hereafter. No time was lost in removing the mass of ruins; and we can imagine, as the ground was cleared and the grandeur of the opportunity gradually dawned upon Walsingham's mind, how he formed the design of dispensing with the four central pillars, and thereby securing eight instead of four for the support of his substitute for a central tower. At the same time the weight which these supports would have to bear was very much less than that of a massive tower of stone; so that there need be little fear of the fall of the lantern. Fergusson has pointed out that the roof of the octagon is the only Gothic dome in existence. Beresford Hope[11] compares the octagonal lanterns of Milan and Antwerp with that at Ely, which he calls unique in this country.

The building was begun as soon as the space was cleared. The stonework was finished in 1328, little more than six years after the tower fell. The woodwork of the vaulting and lantern took longer time; but this also was quite complete in 1342. Walsingham had become prior in the previous year. The weight of the lantern, it need hardly be said, is not borne, though it looks like it from below, by the vaulting that we see. There is a perfect forest of oak hidden from sight, the eight great angle posts being no less than 3 feet 4 inches by 2 feet 8 inches in section. There is also the leaden roof of the octagon (of that part which is exclusive of the lantern), 18 feet above the vaulting, to be supported. A glance at Plate 44 in Bentham's "History" gives some slight idea of the method of construction.[12]

With such a man as Walsingham on the spot we cannot be wrong in assigning to him the authorship of all the architectural designs that were carried out in his lifetime. It is believed—for the date is not exactly known—that he died in 1364. Besides the lady-chapel and octagon, he must have designed the singularly beautiful bays of the presbytery between the octagon and Northwold's work. The exquisite way in which the main characteristics of the Early English work are adapted to the Decorated style demands our highest admiration. The arrangement of the three western bays on each side is exactly like Northwold's work, while the additional grace and beauty of ornamentation mark the advance in taste that distinguished the Decorated period. Bishop Hotham undertook the whole expense of rebuilding this portion of the cathedral. He did not live to see it completed, as he died in 1337, but he left money for the purpose. The total expense of this rebuilding is given at L2034 12s. 8-1/4d., while the cost of the octagon and lantern amounted to not very much more—L2406 6s. 11d. Nearly all this latter cost was defrayed by the monastery, little more than L200 having been contributed from external sources. These amounts must be multiplied by twenty, if not twenty-five, to represent the present value. The rebuilding of these three bays in the presbytery involved the rebuilding of the corresponding portions of the aisles.

The domestic buildings were also improved, and some new ones erected by Walsingham. "The Sacrist's Office he almost new built, made several additional apartments in it, and encompassed the whole with a strong wall; in the North-west corner of which he built a square building of stone, and covered it with lead; part of this he appropriated to the use of Goldsmith's work, and for other purposes relative to his Office; another Building taken notice of as built by him, was contiguous to the Infirmary; it was of stone, covered with lead, and had convenient offices under it, chiefly intended for the use of the Custos of the Infirmary. In his time also, Bells[13] were first put up in the great Western Tower."[14] Of this period the following are enumerated as works executed in the monastery[15]: Prior Crauden's chapel, the prior's new hall above the old one, the guest hall, the fair hall, and the residence of the sub-prior.

On the death of Bishop de Lisle in 1361, Walsingham was elected bishop by the convent, but the election was set aside by the pope. This eminent architect was buried in the cathedral, but the precise spot is not known. The epitaph on his tomb has been preserved, and in it we find that he was buried "ante Chorum" (in front of the choir). This would mean the ritual choir as then existing, and would fix the place of his interment approximately at the spot where there is now a large monumental slab, from which the brass has been removed; and this has always been traditionally said to be the actual stone placed over his body. The brass represented an ecclesiastic with mitre and pastoral staff. The objection to this having been Walsingham's memorial, that these emblems could not have been correctly placed upon it, has been thus met: "On the other hand it is contended that although Alan died a Prior of the Convent, he had been elected Bishop by the Monks, though his election was overruled by the Pope, and that seeing to his successor Prior Powcher the Pope gave permission that he and all future Priors of Ely should wear the mitre and carry the crozier, it is possible that the Monks had anticipated somewhat the Pope's edict, and had represented their beloved Prelate with episcopal mitre on his head and crozier in his hand."[16] He well deserved the description in the epitaph, "Flos operatorum" ("The Flower of Craftsmen"). The rich woodwork in the choir—the stalls with their beautiful canopies—is also certainly Walsingham's work.

Besides the great operations of this century there were various alterations and additions made in the cathedral of which the date is not recorded. The triforium in the presbytery was rearranged; the external walls were raised, and the Early English windows of Northwold's work were replaced by much larger ones with Decorated tracery. As the clerestory windows were not altered, the lean-to roof of the triforium was of course made much more flat than before. The graceful flying buttresses, with their elegant pinnacles, are of this same date. The character of Northwold's triforium windows and the corbel table below the parapet may be still seen in two bays on the south side. The aisle windows of the presbytery were also enlarged in the Decorated period; but they are not of the same design as the triforium windows, and they were probably not inserted at the same time. Judging by ordinary methods of discriminating dates by character and style, we should suppose the aisle windows to be earlier than those above; possibly some of this was done by Bishop Barnet (1366-1373). The whole designing is so unlike any of Walsingham's known work that we can hardly suppose that he was the author.

After the extensive changes of the fourteenth century were completed, the fabric of the cathedral was left practically as we see it now. Rearrangements of the interior have taken place on many occasions since, and the numerous side-chapels have been despoiled of their altars; but there has been no material structural change.

From the death of Bishop Barnet in 1373 to the suppression of the monasteries no Bishop of Ely is credited with having done anything towards the fabric of the cathedral except Bishop Gray (1454-1478). Some of them were at variance with the prior and convent, and would be little inclined to spend money on the church. Those that had a taste for architecture displayed it in beautifying their palaces or manor-houses, or upon buildings connected with the universities or other places in which they had private interest. Some were men of great political influence, and found their time and energies fully occupied in matters of national importance. One at least spent immense sums upon the drainage of the fens. Some did indeed erect chapels or shrines in the cathedral, or left provision that they should be erected after their deaths, but these were as memorials of themselves. The monastery carried out whatever was done in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries as long as the monastery existed. The first such work was begun early in the fifteenth century by Prior Powcher: this was the erection of the upper portion of the western tower. At the top of the tower, before this addition, there was a wooden spire covered with lead. The upper story now is octagonal, and there are also octagonal turrets at the corners, detached, except at top and bottom, from the main body. These were clearly built so as to harmonise with the large projecting turrets—massive enough themselves to be called towers—at the ends of the west front. This octagon was also itself—but probably at a much later date—surmounted with some sort of spire. An engraving dated 1786 shows this spire: it was no improvement to the tower. It was happily removed early in the nineteenth century. This additional story was built without due preparation. The extra weight was too much for the support which had been sufficient for the smaller tower; accordingly casing was added round the four great piers to increase the support. This was in Bishop Gray's time, and he contributed largely towards the cost. "The Prior and Convent were at great charges in repairing the lower part of the Western Tower; the Arches and Pillars of which, being found insufficient for its support, were therefore obliged to be strengthened, by wholly new-casing them with Stone, in the most substantial manner, as we now see them."[17] It has been reasonably conjectured that this extra weight was the cause of the ruin of the northern part of the west transept, or that it was then damaged beyond repair. To Bishop Gray is also assigned in particular the insertion of two windows in the north aisle of the presbytery, near the place where he was afterwards buried. The undoubted Decorated character of the upper stage of the west tower marks it as belonging to the very earliest years of the century. There is not the least tendency towards any features of the Perpendicular style. Without reckoning tombs and chapels, there is no structural work of distinct Perpendicular character to be seen at Ely Cathedral, except some remains of the cloisters, and the windows in the nave aisles and clerestory, and those in the upper parts of the great transept, and the large supporting arches which have been inserted beneath the Norman arches of the west tower. The triforium walls in the nave were raised in the fifteenth century, as those in the presbytery had been raised in the fourteenth. The style of the tracery shews that this alteration was carried out quite late in the century, perhaps about 1480. In the south transept there is also a large Perpendicular window. The very late east window of the south presbytery aisle was inserted as part of Bishop West's Chapel, who died in 1533.

In 1539 the monastery was surrendered to the king. Such of the domestic buildings as were not required for the use of the dean and canons were as usual sold. The Constitution of Henry VIII. provided for the customary officers of a cathedral establishment. The prior became the first dean, and remained in office till his death, eighteen years later. Though the minster had become a cathedral when the bishopric was instituted, yet the prior and convent were always custodians of the fabric, and apparently supreme therein; and there was nothing strictly corresponding to a capitular body. A memory of the fact that the bishop was in place of the abbot remains to this day in the position of the bishop's seat in the choir. There is no throne, properly so called. The bishop occupies what is in most cathedrals the dean's seat—on the south of the entrance at the screen. The north side is in consequence the Decani side, and the Cantoris side is on the south. This position of the dean's stall on the north, though very unusual, is not unique. It occurs also at Durham and Carlisle; but at those cathedrals there is a throne for the bishop, and the bishop's seat in a stall in the south, corresponding to the dean's in the north, is not met with elsewhere. "At Ely alone, of all cathedrals in Christendom, owing to its first bishop having been an abbot who was himself the banished bishop of another see, the diocesan has continued to occupy the abbot's stall, while the head of the corporation (before the Reformation a prior, and since then a dean) has occupied the opposite stall, usually assigned to a sub-prior or sub-dean."[18] There were three Benedictine abbeys which retained their monastic establishment after a bishop had been made and the minster became a cathedral—Canterbury, Durham, and Ely.

It is always taken for granted that the destruction of the beautiful work in the lady-chapel, as well as of the shrines and statuary in the cathedral, was effected very soon after the dissolution of the monastery; but precise authority for this seems not to be forthcoming. It is known that Bishop Goodrich was an ardent supporter of the Reformation movement, and that he issued an injunction in 1541 which would have authorised such destruction. There was no other material damage done to the cathedral at this time. In 1566 a parish church, dedicated to S. Cross, which was situated at the north side of the nave, was found to be so dilapidated that no attempt was made to render it fit for service, and the dean and chapter gave to the parishioners the lady-chapel for a parish church, and it has so remained to this day.

It is probable that the wealth of the monastery had kept the fabric itself in such a state of complete repair that there was no occasion for much sustentation work for a long time after the Reformation—at least, we read nothing of any work being undertaken or of any portions of the building falling into decay. In the Commonwealth period the cathedral suffered less than in many places. The stained glass was indeed destroyed, and the cloisters and some parts of the domestic buildings pulled down, by order of commissioners. As Oliver Cromwell was Governor of the Isle of Ely, and often in the city, he was not likely to let the cathedral services alone. In January, 1644, he interfered during service, and stopped it, ejecting the congregation, and is said to have professed that this was an act of kindness, in order to prevent damage to the building. According to Carlyle,[19] he had written to the officiating minister, requiring him "to forbear altogether the choir service, so unedifying and offensive, lest the soldiers should in any tumultuary or disorderly way attempt the reformation of the cathedral church." If the people of Ely had heard about the "reformation" of the cathedral church at Peterborough, as carried out by the soldiers of the Parliament in July of the preceding year, they were certainly well advised in taking this hint. Bishop Wren—an eager opponent of the Puritans—was at the time in prison, where he remained until the Restoration.

The only account we have met with of disrepair in the seventeenth century says: "A little part of the end of the North Part fell down March 28, Anno 1699, but it was soon neatly rebuilt again at the Charge of the Church, with some Assistance from a Brief."[20] This was the north-west[21] corner of the north transept. The rebuilding was carried out under the direction of Sir Christopher Wren, nephew of the bishop.

There is an account of the impression produced upon a visitor to Ely in the reign of William and Mary, the quaintness of which may perhaps justify the length of the quotation: "The Bishop does not care to stay long in this place, not being good for his health; he is Lord of all the island, has the command and ye jurisdiction.... There is a good palace for the Bishop built, but it was unfurnished. There are two Churches. Ely Minster is a curious pile of building all of stone, the outside full of Carvings and great arches, and fine pillars in the front, and the inside has the greatest variety and neatness in the works. There are two Chappels, most exactly carv'd in stone, all sorts of figures, Cherubims Gilt, and painted in some parts. Ye Roofe of one Chappell was One Entire stone most delicately Carv'd and hung down in great poynts all about ye Church. The pillars are Carv'd and painted with ye history of the bible, especially the new testament and description of Christ's miracles. The Lanthorn in ye quire are vastly high and delicately painted, and fine Carv'd work all of wood. In it ye bells used to be hung (five); the demention of ye biggest was so much that when they rung them it shooke ye quire so, and ye Carv'd worke, that it was thought unsafe; therefore they were taken down. There is one Chappel for Confession, with a Roome and Chaire of State for ye priest to set to hear ye people on their knees Confess into his Eare through a hole in ye wall. This Church has ye most popish remaines of any I have seen. There still remains a Cross over the alter; the Candlesticks are 3 quarters of a yard high, massy silver gilt, very heavy. The ffont is One Entire piece of White Marble, stemm and foote; the Cover was Carv'd Wood, with ye image of Christ's being baptised by John, and the holy Dove descending on him, all finely Carv'd white wood, without any paint or varnish."[22]

In the eighteenth century some extensive repairs became necessary, and some alterations in the arrangements of the choir were carried out. The former chiefly affected the roofs of the octagon and presbytery. Other parts of the cathedral seem to have needed some repair, but not to a considerable extent. The latter consisted in the moving of the ritual choir to the extreme east end of the church, the returned stalls at its western limit being at the sixth piers from the east end. This alteration was effected in 1770.

The position of the high altar has been perhaps more often moved in this cathedral than in any other. In the Norman choir the altar was situated in the centre of the fourth bay east of the present octagon. When Bishop Northwold enlarged the presbytery it was moved one bay further east. After the rebuilding of the three bays west of Northwold's work, it seems to have been moved again westward, as far as the first piers east of the octagon. Again in 1770, at the time of which we are now speaking, it was moved to the extreme east end, and was placed just against the east wall. Now it stands between the second piers from the east.

It is not a little singular to notice the enthusiasm with which this eighteenth-century change was greeted. Bentham says[23] it was "an alteration which had long been wished for, by all persons of true taste." And again: "It is allowed by the best judges to be one of the most useful and ornamental Improvements that could have been effected"; and he gives a long disquisition highly praising the alteration. The eastern portion, formerly "an useless encumbrance," was now brought into use. The organ and voices could be better heard, the view of the octagon was greatly improved, and the nave and transepts "have acquired their due Dimensions." Compare this with Hewett's observations less than eighty years later: "Never was there a more ill-judged step than the removal of the Choir hither, towards the latter portion of the last century. To give it such stinted proportions, and for this purpose to displace some of the fine old monuments, and to hide others, to obscure the pillars, and, above all, to erect the miserable organ gallery which we now behold, may surely be pronounced most tasteless performances"[24] When he wrote, the proposal was to replace Walsingham's stalls in the octagon, and to make Bishop Hotham's three Decorated bays into a sacrarium, and so presumably re-erect the high altar on the very spot where it stood in Norman times.

Bishop Mawson contributed L1000 towards the removal of the choir to the east end. He had also been at the expense of paving the choir with black and white marble, and of inserting stained glass at the east end. The work done at this time was under the superintendence of the architect Essex. An organ-gallery was placed at the entrance of the choir: judging by the plan given by Bentham, this occupied the whole of the eastern bay of Hotham's work. Screens of some sort are marked as crossing both aisles, as a continuation of the western face of this organ-gallery: or perhaps these were only metal gates. The design of the whole seems to have been very poor: "the miserable organ gallery" is what Hewett calls it. The original stone screen that formed the entrance to the choir before the tower fell, situated in the bay of the nave next to the octagon, was still standing. It had served as the organ-loft until the alteration. Browne Willis, who wrote before Bishop Mawson came to Ely, records that the choir had been paved with black and white marble at the charge of Bishop Gunning, and that he had proposed to move the choir to the east end nearly a hundred years before it was actually done, "which if he had done ... it would have added vastly to the Beauty of the Church."[25]

Still later in the century, in 1796, Wyatt "the destructive" was directed to make a report on the state of the fabric, and to supply estimates for a restoration. Among other things he recommended the selling of the lead on the roof, the removal of the rood-loft, and the reducing of the number of bells from five to one.

The nineteenth century began with works of destruction. In 1801[26] the spire on the tower was taken down. Soon afterwards, in accordance with Wyatt's recommendation, the ancient rood-loft in the nave was removed. As it had ceased to be the entrance to the choir, it was probably deemed useless. The roof of the galilee was also removed, and the lancets at the west of the cathedral blocked up. Mr. Bernasconi's contract, in 1801, for the repair of part of the west end, amounting to L232 14s. 6d.,[27] probably covered the whole of this. A note on the receipt speaks of a picture at the east end in 1800, a pulpit in 1806, and a new window in 1808; but whether all these were new or merely repaired does not appear. From Goodwin's "Ely Gossip" we learn that the upper part of the doorway of the galilee porch was "renewed in plaster." In a pamphlet published in 1827 it is said that "so much has been done to this cathedral of late as to afford a reasonable ground of hope, that ere long the beautiful Purbeck shafts will be cleared of the yellow ochre which coats and defiles them, and that the earth will be cleared away from the walls on the north side, where at present it is injuring both walls and pavement."[28] What had then been recently done, and thus mentioned, apparently with approval, did not long satisfy the public taste, although a large outlay testified to the good intentions, if not the judgment, of the authorities. Walsingham's stalls were painted; and the nave, octagon, lantern, and transepts were colour-washed. Within about twenty-five years what had been introduced as embellishments were removed as disfigurements, and the removal cost possibly as much as the introduction.

Soon after Dean Peacock came to Ely he commenced the restoration and decoration of the fabric which have gone on continuously to the present time, and are not yet complete. Besides many munificent gifts, of which the cost is not known, upwards of L70,000 has been expended upon the works at the cathedral since 1843. The first great work included in this sum was the entire re-leading of the roof. In 1842 there had been a fire discovered in the roof near the west tower, but no great damage was done. Most likely it was the prospect of having to spend large sums upon the cathedral itself that induced the dean and chapter to sanction the demolition of the sextry-barn, "on the ground that the repairs it required were too expensive." This barn was situated to the north of the lady-chapel. It was an object of the greatest architectural interest, and its destruction is much to be lamented. It was of Early English date, and is said to have been a "noble and almost unrivalled" building. It seems to have been of the same character as the abbey tithe-barn at Peterborough, which was perfect a very few years ago, and of which the whole of the wooden posts and beams are still to be seen in situ. The Peterborough barn was also of thirteenth century date; it had aisles and nave all formed by the oak beams and supports. The Ely barn was much smaller.

In July, 1845, the restoration had been well begun, and was being carried on with energy. The works in Bishop Alcock's chapel had been commenced. The south end of the west transept, hitherto used as a kind of storehouse or lumber-room, was repaired and thrown open to the church. A poor deal roof was added as a temporary protection. The choir roof was scraped and cleaned. In the lady-chapel the colour-wash that had obscured the remains of the beautiful carvings was removed. The west tower was ceiled. Up to this time there appears to have been no properly qualified architect in charge of the work. In 1847 Mr. Scott (afterwards Sir G. G. Scott) was appointed architect to the cathedral. He soon made an extensive examination of the whole building, and issued a report upon the state of the fabric and the amount of restoration needful.

Dean Peacock, who so thoroughly identified himself with the restoration, died in 1858. His successor, Dean Goodwin, entered with enthusiasm upon the work, and was instrumental in raising large sums of money for the carrying out of the architect's designs. After he had been dean seven years he published a paper upon the progress that had been made, which commences with these words: "The time seems to be now come, when the completion of the great work of restoration, commenced under Dean Peacock, and guided for many years by his care and judgment, may be looked upon as within reach."[29] In this paper he enumerated these works as already accomplished:

1. The choir restored and rearranged.

2. Central lantern restored (Peacock Memorial).

3. South-east transept restored.

4. South-west transept restored.

5. Roof of north transept restored and painted.

6. Nave ceiled and painted.

7. Nave roof repaired and re-leaded.

8. S. Catherine's chapel rebuilt.

9. Bishop Alcock's chapel restored.

10. Galilee porch re-paved.

11. Western tower opened, ceiled, re-roofed, strengthened, etc.

12. About seventy windows filled with stained glass.

Of the painting the north transept roof the expense was borne by the tradesmen employed upon the cathedral. The restoration of Bishop Alcock's chapel was undertaken, out of respect to the memory of their founder, by Jesus College, Cambridge. The painting of the nave ceiling was the work of Mr. le Strange and Mr. Gambier Parry, the former of whom also painted the ceiling of the west tower. Exclusive of special donations for specific works included in the above list, the dean reckoned that up to the time of his report L27,185 had been spent, of which the dean and chapter had contributed no less than L15,200. Several individual members of the chapter had, besides money gifts, presented windows or other decorations, or had been responsible for various structural repairs. At a rough estimate the total sum expended had amounted to L40,000. The works still to be executed were these:

1. Paving the nave, octagon, and transepts.

2. Completion of pinnacles and parapet of octagon.

3. Internal decoration of lantern.

4. Repair of galilee.

There would also be much to be done in the matter of properly warming and lighting the cathedral; but those expenses were more strictly within the ordinary obligations of the dean and chapter.

The only one of the above works that calls for special notice is the restoration of the octagon and lantern. In a statement circulated by the dean and chapter in 1853 it was declared that "of all works which remain to be undertaken, the most considerable and the most important is the restoration of the lantern, including the decoration of the vault, the substitution of windows of an appropriate character for those which now disfigure it so seriously, and the addition of the outer corona of turrets and pinnacles as originally designed by Alan de Walsingham." But nothing was done towards this during Dean Peacock's lifetime. In the summer before his death he had described more particularly the disfigurements and the mutilations which the lantern had undergone; and he further pointed out the unsafe condition of the exterior. The upper windows of the octagon were of the "meanest description of carpenter's Gothic"; they had been reduced from four to three lights each; they had been shortened more than three feet (probably by Essex in the eighteenth century); the upper timbers were in a ruinous state, and incapable of being used again. The original design provided for eight lofty turrets at the angles of the greater octagon and four pinnacles in the middle of its longer sides. At the first meeting of the chapter after Dean Peacock's death it was resolved that no memorial of him would be so appropriate as the restoration of the lantern, and Mr. Scott was instructed to prepare designs at once. A tentative sketch of his design was published in October, 1859; and the opinion of experts was invited. Mr. Scott's report, dated June 10, 1859, gave the result of his careful examination. He concluded that the wooden lantern was originally "to a certain extent an imitation of the general form of the stone octagon below it. Each had large windows of four lights below, with circular panels in the spandrils; each had a distinct story over these windows, lighted by smaller windows consisting of several detached lights, and each had considerable turrets, probably surmounted by pinnacles at the angles, and, in all probability, open parapets between them."[30] He embodied the results of the evidence he had got together in the design he submitted. Further examination, in the following year, satisfied the architect that no spire had ever been erected on the lantern, and that even if Walsingham had ever intended to have one, he had yet finished his work without any preparation for such an addition. A design for such a spire was, however, prepared and submitted to the dean and chapter, but it was never adopted.

As was to be expected, many opinions were expressed upon the design. Some wanted the whole to be surmounted by a pyramidal capping. It was objected that the design was a stone construction for what must of necessity be erected of wood. It was pointed out that Walsingham used his upper story as a bell-chamber, and argued that a true restoration should aim at reproducing this feature. In the end Scott's design was carried out exactly as proposed, except that the eight small square turrets of the wooden lantern have no pinnacles.

The enumeration of works completed in 1866, as given by Dean Goodwin above, did not include several important and costly gifts. The chief of these were: the carved panels above the stalls, supplied by individual donors; a pinnacle at the south-east corner of the choir (Mr. Beresford Hope); the reredos (Mr. J. Dunn Gardner); the font (Canon Selwyn); the gates of aisles of presbytery (Mr. Lowndes and Dean Peacock); the brass eagle lectern (Canon E. B. Sparke); and the monumental effigies of Bishop Allen and Dr. Mill. Canon E. B. Sparke had also contributed to the restoration of the south transept; Mr. H. R. Evans, sen., and Mr. H. R. Evans, jun., had helped with the works in the west tower; the Rev. G. Millers, minor canon, had bequeathed L100, and his residuary legatees gave another L300, which was applied to the ceiling of the nave; Miss Allen, daughter of the bishop, also bequeathed L500, appropriated to a new pulpit; and Bishop Turton left the same amount for re-paving the nave.

The only other work of importance done before Dean Goodwin left for Carlisle was the reconstruction of the organ. Canon Dickson, in his admirable historical account of the organ, is confident that the instrument in use in 1831 was the original pre-Reformation organ, gradually enlarged from time to time with "all the improvements suggested by the progress of musical and mechanical art." Its preservation during the Commonwealth period is possibly due to the personal influence of Oliver Cromwell. About that date (1831) the organ was rebuilt by Elliott and Hill. It was fitted into the old cases, of Renaissance design. From the similarity of these cases to some which are known to have inclosed organs built by Renatus Harris, the old organ has sometimes been attributed to him; but there is "no record whatever of the employment of Harris by the Dean and Chapter."

The progress made in the time of Dean Merivale (1869-1894) was steady and substantial, but calls for no detailed account. The foundations of many parts of the building were made more secure; much of the pavement was renewed; the tower at the west was strengthened with iron bands; several stained glass windows were inserted. Perhaps the most noteworthy undertaking of this period was the decoration of the interior, and the completion of the series of pinnacles of the exterior, of the octagon and lantern. In a summary of the amount spent between 1843 and 1898 the total, exclusive of special gifts, is given at L69,543 1s. 0d.[31]


[1] The origin of the name Ely has been discussed in "Fenland Notes and Queries," ii., pp. 316, 371.

[2] "Words and Places," 2nd ed., 1865, p. 355.

[3] Quoted in Bentham, p. 52.

[4] This place has not been positively identified; but the general opinion is that Stow, about ten miles north-west of Lincoln, is the place. The existing church there is, however, dedicated to the Virgin Mary. It has been said that, besides Ely Cathedral, six ancient churches in England are dedicated to S. Etheldreda. In this number the ancient episcopal chapel in Ely Place and the destroyed church at Histon, Cambridgeshire, are probably not included. Other churches with this dedication occur at Guilsborough, Northamptonshire, West Halton, Lincolnshire, Bishop's Hatfield, Hertfordshire, Norwich, and S. Audrie's, in Somerset. The writer has not been able to discover the sixth. At Swaffham Prior, ten miles south of Ely, are the ruins of a small chapel with this dedication.

[5] A mile south is a field still known as Cratendon Field.

[6] Bentham, p. 68.

[7] "Architectural History of Ely Cathedral," 1868, p. 53.

[8] The presbytery, as the term is used at Ely, signifies the six eastern bays of the central portion of the church east of the transepts. The choir, or portion devoted to the daily choral service, varied in position from time to time.

[9] See Murray's "Handbook," p. 198.

[10] See Hewett's "Brief History," p. 10.

[11] "The English Cathedral of the Nineteenth Century," 1861, p. 195.

[12] See also Dean Stubbs' "Historical Memorials of Ely Cathedral," pp. 151, 152.

[13] The largest of these bells, weighing 6,280 pounds, was called by Walsingham's name.

[14] Bentham, pp. 221, 222.

[15] "Handbook," ed. Stubbs, 20th ed., p. 29.

[16] Ibid., p. 83. The full epitaph is given on p. 84.

[17] Bentham, pp. 177, 178.

[18] Hope's "The English Cathedral of the Nineteenth Century," p. 178.

[19] Quoted in Murray's "Handbook," p. 258.

[20] Browne Willis's "Survey," vol. iii., p. 334.

[21] Hewett ("Brief History," p. 24) says the north-eastern angle, and gives the date 1669; but the account in the text is correct.

[22] "Through England On a Side-Saddle in the time of William and Mary, being the Diary of Celia Fiennes." Published 1888. Quoted in "Fenland Notes and Queries," vol. i., pp. 291-293.

[23] Page 214.

[24] Page 17.

[25] Page 334.

[26] Date so given in "Handbook," 20th ed.

[27] Gibbons' "Ely Episcopal Records," p. 112.

[28] "Notes on the Cambridgeshire Churches," p. 4.

[29] "Ecclesiologist," xxvii., p. 71.

[30] "Ecclesiologist," xxi., p. 26.

[31] "Handbook," 20th ed., App. II.



Few persons would dispute the statement that for external grandeur of effect the cathedral at Ely is surpassed only, if at all, in England by Durham and Lincoln. With the natural advantages of position enjoyed by those cathedrals Ely cannot compete. In both these cases, also, there are grand mediaeval buildings of great size near at hand, that group well with the cathedrals and materially improve the effect. But, compared with the adjacent country, Ely does stand on an eminence, and consequently can be seen from a great distance in all directions. At Durham the distant view is limited by the hilly nature of the district; Lincoln, except on the north side, can probably be seen more than thirty miles off, from the ground.[1] Ely can be seen quite well from the tower of Peterborough—about thirty-five miles as the crow flies. Ely is nearly, but not quite, the highest spot in the Fenland. One place in Ely is 109 feet above mean sea-level. The highest elevation in the Fenland is near Haddenham, some five miles to the south-west of Ely, where a few bench-marks give 121 and 122 feet above sea-level.

It is not only its magnificence that makes the view of Ely Cathedral so remarkable, there is also the feeling that it has so many striking features, to which we can find nothing to compare. "The first glimpse of Ely overwhelms us, not only by its stateliness and variety of its outline, but by its utter strangeness, its unlikeness to anything else." So says Professor Freeman[2] and again: "Ely, ... with its vast single western tower, with its central octagon unlike anything else in the whole world, has an outline altogether peculiar to itself."

Although Ely, with the single exception of Wells,[3] is the smallest of the ancient episcopal cities[4] of England, the area of the cathedral is exceeded only by four others—York, S. Paul's, Lincoln, and Winchester. The church certainly gives the impression of being out of all proportion to the town.[5] There has been nothing to occasion any considerable increase in the number of the inhabitants. Sixty years ago there were within about four hundred as many as now. The town, as has been pointed out above, grew out of the foundation of the monastery. "The history of Ely is the history of Wells, Lichfield, Peterborough, Bury Saint Edmunds, and a crowd of others, where the church came first and the town grew up at the gate of the bishop or abbot." The great wealth of the monastery accounts for the original magnificence of the church; and even when the resources both of the see and the cathedral body were reduced, they were still amply sufficient to maintain the fabric without the loss of any material portion of it. We have no knowledge of the occasion of the ruin of the northern part of the west transept, but there is no suggestion that it was allowed to fall through want of means to keep it up.

The West Front.—The visitor will naturally commence his investigation of the cathedral with studying the view of the tower from the west; and here he should endeavour to picture to himself the appearance of the west front as it originally stood. It has, indeed, been questioned whether the northern limb of the western transept had ever been really completed. The prevailing opinion is that it was completed, and the weather-mould against the north wall of the tower is held by many to be almost conclusive evidence of the fact. From what we see remaining, it is clear that it was (if ever built) similar to the southern limb; and it was doubtless terminated in the same way by two massive octangular towers. Imagine, therefore, a west front, having to the left of the tower (as we look at it from the west) a limb corresponding to that on the right; imagine also a line of roof, extending over both western transepts, situated in a line with the foot of the three lancet windows just below the clock; imagine also, further, a roof of similar pitch over the galilee porch,[6] and, instead of the present Decorated stage at the summit, a pyramidal spire of timber, leaded. "The front, with its tower thus terminated, with leaded spires also on the four terminal towers of the transept, and with the high roofs of the transept and western porch, must have presented a tout ensemble of the most imposing and majestic character."[7]

When we examine the details of the architecture we can express nothing but the greatest admiration. The whole of the south wing of the front belongs to the last quarter of the twelfth century. The lowest stage of all (for there are six stages, divided by horizontal strings) is blank; the next three are late Norman. These have in the lowest stage in each of the two divisions an arcade of seven tall lancets; in the next above are four broader arches, each containing two small lancets beneath; in the upper one is a large window, under a round arch of four receding orders, with a blank lancet on each side. In the north wing, it should be noted, the late Norman work was carried up one stage higher than on the south. The upper stages are Transitional in character, but they carry on the idea of the Norman design below. Here we see first an arcade of four trefoiled lancets, of greater depth than those underneath; while the uppermost stage has a large pointed window, with a lancet on each side, and above each lancet a quatrefoil in a circle. The arches of the window and lancets are highly enriched with carving. Below the parapet is a good corbel table. The fourth and sixth stages are further covered with admirable diaper panel-work. The octagonal towers at the end of the southern transept, of which that to the west is larger than the other, have three more stages, the central one having small, deeply sunk trefoiled lancets; the other two, large plain ones; the uppermost tier of lancets being open. A singular effect is produced in the third stage from the top by the lancets being divided in the centre by the main shaft that rises from the ground at the angles of the tower. On the south and east these shafts are not perfect.

The Galilee Porch is of excellent Early English work, with details of great beauty. Certainly nowhere in England, possibly nowhere in the world, is there to be seen so fine a porch. "Perhaps the most gorgeous porch of this style in existence is the Galilee at the west end of Ely Cathedral: this magnificent specimen of the Early English style must be seen to be duly appreciated; it combines the most elegant general forms with the richest detail; a very happy effect is produced by the double arcade on each side, one in front of the other with detached shafts, not opposite but alternate."[8] Each side, externally, is covered with lancet arcading in four tiers. In the upper tier the lancets are trefoiled, with dogtooth in the moulding; in the next lower tier the lancets are cinquefoiled, with two sets of dogtooth. The lancets in the west face are all cinquefoiled, and the three lower tiers here have trefoils in the spandrels. Nearly all are highly enriched with dogtooth; while the mouldings of the west door have conventional foliage as well. The lancets here are deeper than on the sides of the porch, and were probably designed to hold figures. Of the three large lancets in the west window the central one is slightly more lofty than the others.

The interior of the porch is even more beautiful; the profusion of ornamentation on the inner doorway and the exceeding gracefulness of the double arcades in the sides are quite unsurpassed. Both doorways are divided by a shaft, and both have open tracery of exceptional beauty above.

Bishop Eustace, to whom this porch is attributed, died in 1215. It is not surprising to learn that many careful students of English architecture have found a difficulty in believing that work of such consummate grace and perfection of detail can belong to so early a date. Many dated examples belonging to later years in the century, which seem to indicate a steady growth from the simplest pointed lancets to the elaborately cusped arches which were themselves the prelude to the Geometric period, are adduced as evidence of the improbability of the Early English style having, so to say, grown suddenly to perfection at Ely. Numerous instances may, however, be found in other great minsters, where a similar difficulty has been encountered. The probable explanation is that the best artists and the most original designers belonged to the monastic or cathedral bodies. They maintained what would be described in modern language as schools of architects; and the very best talents and energies of such bodies would naturally be brought to bear upon any great work connected with their own church. We cannot suppose that a new conception in architectural design sprang into existence simultaneously in several different centres. There must have been a beginning in some one place. The idea would spread in the neighbourhood and in buildings where the particular abbey or cathedral had property or influence, and would by degrees be carried to other religious houses, and so become generally adopted, and mark a distinct change in style. But this would take time. Sometimes we can trace how new methods were carried about. Those who were brought over from Normandy by the Norman kings of England to be abbots in English monasteries, brought with them their characteristic style of building; and at the end of the twelfth century this had entirely superseded the old English style. One monastery passed on the new fashion to another, as Simeon, at Ely, came fresh from the great work being carried on at Winchester under his brother Walkelin.

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