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18 September 2014
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Clues from the Past in Ely Cathedral

By Carol Davidson Cragoe
Octagonal lantern

Image of interior shot of octagon at Ely Cathedral
Octagonal lantern, Ely Cathedral ©
When the dust had settled from the collapse of Ely’s Romanesque crossing tower in 1322, there was just a large open space where the crossing tower on its four great piers had been.

Rather than replace the tower as it was, they decided to build an enormous octagonal lantern over this open space. Now known as the Ely Octagon, it is one of the most spectacular spaces ever built in an English church.

'The Ely Octagon is one of the most spectacular spaces ever built in an English church.'

The lantern is supported on eight large stone piers formed out of the first pairs of piers of the nave, transepts, and rebuilt choir. Above this, the superstructure is made of timber, although it was carved and painted to look like stone.

The timber-work was done by William Hurley, the king’s own carpenter. The wooden vaults joining the lantern to the piers are largely decorative, and conceal the real supporting framework. If you are ever at Ely, it is worth taking a tour of the octagon to see these huge timbers.

Each angle of the lantern is formed from a 19m (63 ft) post, which goes up past the upper vaults and supports the lantern’s roof. Pairs of huge braces rise from the piers to meet the posts about mid-way along their length. The ends of the posts rest on the corners of an octagonal timber ring. This in turn is supported by triangular brackets coming out of each pier behind the false vaults.

Today the cathedral’s main altar stands under the centre of the octagon, but in the Middle Ages, this was where the monks’ choir stalls were. They would have been extremely well lit - there are large windows in each face of the lantern, and in four of the eight faces of the base.

The upper windows were redone in the 19th century, but the lower windows have typical 14th-century net-like ‘reticulatedtracery. In the Middle Ages, they would have been full of stained glass.

Published: 2005-02-01

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