Work began on Ely Cathedral in the 11th century under the leadership of Abbot Simeon, the brother of King William I. St Etheldreda had founded the monastic community at Ely in the 7th century and a shrine to her remained in the cathedral until the monastery’s dissolution by Henry VIII in 1539. Fortunately, the building suffered less damage than many monasteries and remains a prominent landmark, known locally as the ‘ship of the fens’, due to its prominence in the Cambridgeshire landscape. Its magnificent octagonal lantern tower (52m high) was constructed after the original central Norman tower collapsed in 1322 and consists of eight internal archways, supporting 200 tonnes of timber, lead and glass. On the ceiling, at the lantern’s centre, is a beautiful depiction of Christ carved from a single oak. The cathedral also has a striking west tower (66m high) which was expanded in 1392 to include an octagonal belfry and four turrets.
Did you know?
One of the last Anglo-Saxon kings of England, Edward the Confessor (1003-1066) spent his early years at Ely Abbey, attending the monastic school, and it’s likely he sang in the choir. He had to flee into exile to escape the invading Danes and settled for a time in Normandy. When he succeeded the throne, in 1042, it heralded a time of peace. Today’s boy choristers continue a tradition of singing in Ely’s Lady Chapel that began in the 15th century. In November 2006, the cathedral’s Girls’ Choir made its debut at Evensong.