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Clues from the Past in Ely Cathedral

By Carol Davidson Cragoe
Ely today

Image of carving on the exterior of Ely Cathedral
Carving on exterior of Ely Cathedral  ©
The cathedral we see today at Ely is not at all as it was in the Middle Ages. Three events in particular had a massive impact on it. The first was the Reformation, in the 1530s and 1540s, when virtually all of Ely’s ‘superstitious’ images, shrines and ornaments were destroyed or covered over.

Interestingly, Prior Robert seems to have been a fairly willing participant in this orgy of destruction and depredation. The monastery was disbanded at this time. A much smaller college of canons was created to serve the liturgical needs of the cathedral.

'In 1847 George Gilbert Scott began a major restoration of the cathedral.'

Perhaps because the job had been done so thoroughly in the 16th century, there was relatively little further damage to the cathedral during the Civil War, except for the demolition of the cloister and chapter house. Or perhaps Oliver Cromwell, who lived in Ely, was reluctant to see the building damaged.

The next major event in Ely’s history was the reordering of the choir in 1770-1, when the pulpitum screen was removed, and the choir stalls moved out of the Octagon to the far east end of the choir. This arrangement lasted less than 100 years.

Then in 1847 George Gilbert Scott began a major restoration of the cathedral. His work included moving the choir stalls to their present position, installing the new gilded iron screen, and laying the geometric marble and tile floor. The new nave ceiling was added a few years later. Structural work, including the reinforcement of the west tower and the rebuilding of the lantern, was also done at this time.

The late Victorian period saw the installation of much new stained glass, some of which was subsequently removed in the 20th century as architectural fashions changed again. The cathedral continues to develop and change. A new nave altar was placed under the Octagon in 1978, and there is an ongoing programme of structural repair and renewal.

About the author

Image of author Dr Carol Davidson Cragoe
Dr Carol Davidson Cragoe works for English Heritage and is currently writing a book on medieval parish churches. She has lectured on parish church architecture both in the UK and North America.

About the author

Carol Davidson Cragoe is Assistant Architectural Editor of the Victoria County History.


Published: 2005-02-01

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