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18 September 2014
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Clues from the Past in Ely Cathedral

By Carol Davidson Cragoe
The transepts

Image of the East Window and St Ethelreda's Chapel
East Window and St Ethelreda's Chapel, Ely Cathedral ©
The Monk’s Door is partially covered by a large buttress and there is a blocked doorway in the transept wall to the right. This buttress was added in the 1320s to support the Octagon lantern that was then being built over the crossing, but before that the doorway could be opened, and led into the a vestry in the transept. Blocked doors are good clues to the history of a building, because they can tell us about how the building was used in the past.

'... ordinary lay people didn't normally go into the choir of a cathedral or a monastery ... '

Let’s go back into the nave through the Monks' Door. In the Middle Ages, we would now have been to the east of the pulpitum screen and in the monks’ part of the church. Turning right (east) from the Monks’ Door, we come into the south transept.

The transepts, or cross-arms, of the church helped to stabilise the central tower over the crossing by providing lateral thrust against it. They also provided space for extra chapels.

In the Middle Ages, ordinary lay people didn’t normally go into the choir of a cathedral or monastery, but many pilgrims wanted to visit the shrine of St Etheldreda in Ely’s choir. So a special entrance was made for them in the north transept. None the less, access to the shrine was probably quite strictly controlled, rather like going on a modern-day guided tour.

At Ely the transepts are the oldest surviving part of the cathedral. In anglo-Norman times, great churches were built from east to west, so that the choir could be used while the nave was still under construction. Ely’s Romanesque choir would, therefore, have been built before the transepts, but the choir was rebuilt after the crossing tower fell in 1322.

Published: 2005-02-01

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