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18 September 2014
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Clues from the Past in Ely Cathedral

By Carol Davidson Cragoe
The choir

Image of north side of choir at Ely Cathedral
North side of choir, Ely Cathedral ©
At Ely, as at many other monasteries and cathedrals, the ‘liturgical choir’ where the monks sat extended into the eastern bays of the nave. To the east was the presbytery and high altar.

Beyond that was the feretory around the shrine, and beyond that the retrochoir for additional shrines and minor altars. For simplicity’s sake, though, architectural historians usually use the term ‘choir’ for the entire eastern arm of a church.

'The new extension made it easier for pilgrims to get to St Etheldreda's shrine ...'

The six eastern bays of Ely’s choir were built between 1234 and 1252, as an extension of the original 11th-century four-bay Romanesque choir. One half-round shaft, similar to those in the nave, marks the arch into the former Romanesque apse.

The new extension made it easier for pilgrims to get to St Etheldreda’s shrine by creating an ambulatory, so that they could come and go easily from the door in the north transept without disturbing the monks in the choir. The contrast between the new Gothic retrochoir and the old Romanesque choir would have enhanced the area around the shrine.

The 13th-century choir aisles have rib vaults, while the high vaults have more elaborate tierceron vaults supported by flying buttresses on the outside. A boss depicting St Etheldreda probably marks the position of her shrine below.

After the fall of the crossing tower in 1322, the Romanesque choir had to be rebuilt, but because the Octagon was larger than the old crossing tower, the new section had only three bays, not four. The architecture of the new part of the choir was similar to, but more elaborate than, the 13th-century work.

The difference is especially noticeable in the gallery openings - which have flowing ogee tracery - and in the vaults - which have liernes as well as tiercerons. New choir stalls designed by William Hurley, each with a misericord, were also installed.

Published: 2005-02-01

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