Clues from the Past in Ely Cathedral

By Carol Davidson Cragoe
Take a detailed look at Ely Cathedral and uncover the rich history of British medieval architecture. Learn what to look for in a cathedral near you, to discover the secrets of its past.
Ely Cathedral  

Ely's beginnings

Ely has been a place of Christian worship since at least 673, when Etheldreda, daughter of the king of East Anglia, founded a nunnery there. She later became a saint.

'... Ely became a cathedral, as part of the Norman reforms of the English church.'

Ely was sacked by the Danes in the 870s, but it was rebuilt in anglo-Saxon times, and by the 10th century had become a monastery for men. Nothing survives of the Anglo-Saxon church, which was entirely demolished when the present structure was built after the Norman Conquest. In 1109 Ely became a cathedral, as part of the Norman reforms of the English church.

The exterior

Image of the porch to the Galilee chapel at Ely Cathedral
Galilee Porch, Ely Cathedral
The church at Ely was built to impress anyone passing by with the power of the Church to offer salvation. Seen from above, the ground plan of Ely is cruciform [/history/trail/church_state/architecture/clues_ely_cathedral_gloss.shtml] , symbolising Christ’s crucifixion. The high altar [/history/trail/church_state/architecture/clues_ely_cathedral_gloss.shtml] was at the east (top) end, where Christ’s head would have been on the cross.

Ely had two large and many small towers. In medieval painting and sculpture, towers were used indicate a city, so the towers of a church represented the ‘holy city, new Jerusalem’ (Rev. 21:2) of Heaven.

'The whole west front, including the Galilee, is covered in rows of blind arcading.'

If you look closely at the walls, you can see that the decorative details are part of the blocks of stone from which the building is built, rather than being stuck on. If they weren’t, they would simply fall off, as it is the weight of the stone above that keeps the whole thing together. Because the details must be the same date as the wall, it means that we can use this ornament as a guide to dating the building.

If we compare the Galilee [/history/trail/church_state/architecture/clues_ely_cathedral_gloss.shtml] Porch with the rest of the west facade we can find subtle differences that can tell us a lot. The whole west front, including the Galilee, is covered in rows of blind arcading [/history/trail/church_state/architecture/clues_ely_cathedral_gloss.shtml] . On the Galilee the arches have pointed, cusped [/history/trail/church_state/architecture/clues_ely_cathedral_gloss.shtml] heads with stiff leaf capitals [/history/trail/church_state/architecture/clues_ely_cathedral_gloss.shtml] . These are typical of the Early English [/history/trail/church_state/architecture/clues_ely_cathedral_gloss.shtml] style of Gothic [/history/trail/church_state/architecture/clues_ely_cathedral_gloss.shtml] architecture, suggesting that the Galilee was built c.1215.

In contrast, the lower parts of the west front have round-headed arches and geometric ornament. The rows of arcading are separated by string courses [/history/trail/church_state/architecture/clues_ely_cathedral_gloss.shtml] and corbel tables [/history/trail/church_state/architecture/clues_ely_cathedral_gloss.shtml] . These motifs are typical of 12th-century Romanesque [/history/trail/church_state/architecture/clues_ely_cathedral_gloss.shtml] (or Norman [/history/trail/church_state/architecture/clues_ely_cathedral_gloss.shtml] ) architecture.

From this we can deduce that the main parts of the west front were built in the 12th century, and the Galilee was added a few years later in the 13th century. Ely’s west facade now looks rather lop-sided because the north (left) side fell down in the mid-15th century and was never rebuilt.

The nave

Image of the nave of Ely Cathedral from the west
Nave at Ely Cathedral, from the west
Now let’s go from the Galilee through the west door into the nave [/history/trail/church_state/architecture/clues_ely_cathedral_gloss.shtml] . Far away towards the east is the choir [/history/trail/church_state/architecture/clues_ely_cathedral_gloss.shtml] and high altar. On either side are the aisles, separated from the nave by the arcades [/history/trail/church_state/architecture/clues_ely_cathedral_gloss.shtml] .

Ely’s nave was built in the early 12th century, so the architectural style is Romanesque. Ely’s nave originally had 13 bays [/history/trail/church_state/architecture/clues_ely_cathedral_gloss.shtml] . Long naves like this were typical of Anglo-Norman cathedrals and monasteries.

'Every part of the ground-plan and elevation was set out using ratios such as the Golden Section ...'

The piers [/history/trail/church_state/architecture/clues_ely_cathedral_gloss.shtml] of the nave arcades have an alternating A-B-A-B rhythm - first a compound pier [/history/trail/church_state/architecture/clues_ely_cathedral_gloss.shtml] , then a round pier with an attached shaft [/history/trail/church_state/architecture/clues_ely_cathedral_gloss.shtml] , then another compound pier. This moves your eye along the nave towards the east, and makes the wall seem less solid.

Simultaneously, the shafts, which also appear on the compound piers, draw your eye up past the galleries [/history/trail/church_state/architecture/clues_ely_cathedral_gloss.shtml] and clerestory [/history/trail/church_state/architecture/clues_ely_cathedral_gloss.shtml] to the ceiling. Every part of the ground-plan and elevation [/history/trail/church_state/architecture/clues_ely_cathedral_gloss.shtml] was set out using ratios such as the Golden Section to ensure that the whole was completely harmonious.

Today you can see into the choir, but in the Middle Ages this wasn’t possible because the rood screen [/history/trail/church_state/architecture/clues_ely_cathedral_gloss.shtml5] blocked the view. Above the screen stood the great rood [/history/trail/church_state/architecture/clues_ely_cathedral_gloss.shtml4] , and on the nave side was an altar where masses for local lay [/history/trail/church_state/architecture/clues_ely_cathedral_gloss.shtml] people were said.

One bay to the east was the stone pulpitum (demolished in 1770-1) marking the beginning of the choir. About 4.5m (14ft 6in) high and about 2.5m (8ft) wide, it stretched all the way from one outer aisle wall to the other. In the 18th century it held an organ and was used as a pulpit - it probably had similar functions in the Middle Ages.

Before we leave the nave, look up at the ceiling. It is made of painted, wooden panels installed in 1858-65. Previously you could see right up into the beams of the roof. It was quite typical of Victorian restorers to do things that they thought made a church more medieval looking, even if there was no evidence that the church had really been like that in the Middle Ages.

The aisles

Image of the south choir aisle at Ely Cathedral
South choir aisle, Ely Cathedral
On either side of the nave are the aisles. They served as passageways for processions and allowed the monks to move around the church even if there were crowds in the nave.

The aisles have groin vaults [/history/trail/church_state/architecture/clues_ely_cathedral_gloss.shtml2] over each bay. The vaults work as internal buttresses [/history/trail/church_state/architecture/clues_ely_cathedral_gloss.shtml] for the lower part of the nave walls. Above the aisles are the galleries. Now used only for storage, in the Middle Ages the galleries contained extra chapels [/history/trail/church_state/architecture/clues_ely_cathedral_gloss.shtml] . They also helped stabilise the nave walls, because the timbers of the gallery roofs buttressed the nave wall below the clerestory.

'The door jambs have the signs of the zodiac ...'

The south aisle has two doors. The one towards the west end is called the Prior's [/history/trail/church_state/architecture/clues_ely_cathedral_gloss.shtml] Door. If we go through it, we will be in the remains of the cloister [/history/trail/church_state/architecture/clues_ely_cathedral_gloss.shtml] that connected the dormitory [/history/trail/church_state/architecture/clues_ely_cathedral_gloss.shtml] and refectory [/history/trail/church_state/architecture/clues_ely_cathedral_gloss.shtml] to the church.

The Prior’s Door has a tympanum [/history/trail/church_state/architecture/clues_ely_cathedral_gloss.shtml1] showing Christ in Majesty with two angels, reminding the viewer of the Last Judgement. The door jambs have the signs of the zodiac, which symbolised the yearly cycle of work and prayer.

The Monks’ Door at the east end of the aisle has swirly foliage patterns in the carving. These are similar to the patterns in the 12th-century painting on a nearby section of the south aisle vault.

The monks didn’t do stone carving or wall-painting (that was done by professional craftsmen, just like today’s builders). But, the similarity between these motifs and a manuscript that was made by the monks suggests that the monks provided the patterns for the craftsmen to work from.

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 [/history/trail/church_state/architecture/clues_ely_cathedral_gloss.shtml0] wall to the right. This buttress was added in the 1320s to support the Octagon lantern [/history/trail/church_state/architecture/clues_ely_cathedral_gloss.shtml] that was then being built over the crossing [/history/trail/church_state/architecture/clues_ely_cathedral_gloss.shtml] , but before that the doorway could be opened, and led into the a vestry [/history/trail/church_state/architecture/clues_ely_cathedral_gloss.shtml3] 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 [/history/trail/church_state/architecture/clues_ely_cathedral_gloss.shtml] 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 [/history/trail/church_state/architecture/clues_ely_cathedral_gloss.shtml1] 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.

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 [/history/trail/church_state/architecture/clues_ely_cathedral_gloss.shtml] 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 ‘reticulated [/history/trail/church_state/architecture/clues_ely_cathedral_gloss.shtml2] ’ tracery [/history/trail/church_state/architecture/clues_ely_cathedral_gloss.shtml9] . In the Middle Ages, they would have been full of stained glass.

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 [/history/trail/church_state/architecture/clues_ely_cathedral_gloss.shtml] ’ where the monks sat extended into the eastern bays of the nave. To the east was the presbytery [/history/trail/church_state/architecture/clues_ely_cathedral_gloss.shtml] and high altar.

Beyond that was the feretory [/history/trail/church_state/architecture/clues_ely_cathedral_gloss.shtml] around the shrine, and beyond that the retrochoir [/history/trail/church_state/architecture/clues_ely_cathedral_gloss.shtml3] 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 [/history/trail/church_state/architecture/clues_ely_cathedral_gloss.shtml] .

The new extension made it easier for pilgrims to get to St Etheldreda’s shrine by creating an ambulatory [/history/trail/church_state/architecture/clues_ely_cathedral_gloss.shtml] , 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 [/history/trail/church_state/architecture/clues_ely_cathedral_gloss.shtml] have rib vaults, while the high vaults have more elaborate tierceron [/history/trail/church_state/architecture/clues_ely_cathedral_gloss.shtml7] vaults supported by flying buttresses on the outside. A boss [/history/trail/church_state/architecture/clues_ely_cathedral_gloss.shtml] 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 [/history/trail/church_state/architecture/clues_ely_cathedral_gloss.shtml] - and in the vaults - which have liernes [/history/trail/church_state/architecture/clues_ely_cathedral_gloss.shtml] as well as tiercerons. New choir stalls designed by William Hurley, each with a misericord [/history/trail/church_state/architecture/clues_ely_cathedral_gloss.shtml] , were also installed.

14th-century craftsmanship

Image of Lady Lady Chapel, Ely Cathedral
West side of Lady Chapel, Ely Cathedral
No visit to Ely is complete without going into the Lady Chapel [/history/trail/church_state/architecture/clues_ely_cathedral_gloss.shtml5] , next to the north transept. Built between 1321-53, it is the epitome of the Decorated [/history/trail/church_state/architecture/clues_ely_cathedral_gloss.shtml] style.

Today, the space is cool and white, but in the Middle Ages both the walls and the windows were brilliantly coloured - it must have been like walking into a kaleidoscope. Sadly, only a few traces of paint survive on the stonework, and there are only a few fragments of the original stained glass left.

'... it was believed that having masses and prayers said could reduce the amount to time your soul spent in Purgatory.'

The niches [/history/trail/church_state/architecture/clues_ely_cathedral_gloss.shtml] on the buttresses between the windows once contained large statues, while the lower row of niches served as seats. Each niche has a little arch and gable over it, as if it were a door. This use of architectural motifs as decoration is called ‘micro-architecture’, and here it symbolically linked the people sitting in the lower niches to the sculpted saints standing in the upper niches.

There was very little late medieval Perpendicular [/history/trail/church_state/architecture/clues_ely_cathedral_gloss.shtml] style work at Ely. The transepts were given new angel roofs [/history/trail/church_state/architecture/clues_ely_cathedral_gloss.shtml] in c.1430, and the cloister was rebuilt c.1509-10. The most important work of this period, though, was the creation of two new chantry [/history/trail/church_state/architecture/clues_ely_cathedral_gloss.shtml] chapels at the east end of the 13th-century retrochoir.

Chantries were very popular in the late Middle Ages, as it was believed that having masses and prayers said for you after your death could reduce the amount of time your soul spent in Purgatory.

Bishop Alcock’s chantry in the north-east bay is dated c.1488. A forest of tabernacles [/history/trail/church_state/architecture/clues_ely_cathedral_gloss.shtml6] with open-work spires, each originally containing a statue, guards the entrance, and inside is a fan vault.

At first glance Bishop West’s chantry of 1525-33 in the south-east bay seems much the same, if a bit simpler. On closer inspection, though, you can see that the vault is filled with early Renaissance motifs, newly imported from Italy. The Middle Ages were coming to an end and a new style of architecture was beginning.

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 [/history/trail/church_state/architecture/clues_ely_cathedral_gloss.shtml] 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 [/history/trail/church_state/architecture/clues_ely_cathedral_gloss.shtml] . 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.

Published on BBC History: 2005-02-01
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