As cathedrals go, Ely Cathedral is one of the biggies. Literally, at 537 ft long, but also because of its story, which began in 672. 

A lot has happened in the intervening 13+ centuries.

Not just the usual political squabbling and overly ambitious clerics, but catastrophic physical occurrences, such as the complete collapse of the central tower in the 14th century, rebuilt as a magnificent octagon, 74 feet wide and crowned by a beautifully painted lantern, for which Ely is famous.


The collapse of the central tower wasn’t the only architectural catastrophe. Do you notice something peculiar about the structure in the picture below? I didn’t see it at first. We arrived, explored the cathedral, took snaps and departed. It was only later I realized that the tower on the right (the southwestern transept) used to have a mate on the left (the northwestern transept). This collapse happened about 100 years after the central tower debacle. Now it looks like something is missing, doesn’t it?

Here is the floorplan (thank you, Wikipedia). The two transept towers in question are down at the bottom. The scale of the Cathedral begins to become evident. When you’re outside the cathedral, facing the western entrance, the height is what is noticeable (and continues to be – wait until we get inside). The West Tower is the square piece in what should have been the middle. It stands some 215 ft in height. And here are further clues about Ely’s piecemeal construction over the years: the lower 2/3 is 12th-century work, and the top 1/3 was added in the late 14th century. Up, up and away.

Not only is the cathedral tall, but looking at the diagram, you get a real sense of how long it is. It goes on forever!

Simon Jenkins, the author of England’s Cathedrals, calls Ely “the great eccentric among English Cathedrals,” but also includes it in his “three graces,” the other two being Lincoln and Wells. It may be eccentric, but it’s magnificent.

Here is Ely in its entirety. We did see it from this angle as we were driving away, but didn’t manage to get a shot (there is only so much “can you pull over, now?” that Glenn is prepared (or able) to do, and this angle was evident at the end of a very long day. Wine o’clock was calling. This shot is courtesy of Tony Margiocchi from 2008. The great central octagon is evident, and the very tall western tower with its one flanking transept. The lovely lady chapel is the lower bit over on the far right-hand side.  

photo courtesy of Tony Margiocchi

Speaking of the Lady Chapel, that is what you see below, with the enormous clear arched windows.

It’s a foretaste of the wonderfully lighted, airy interior.

Pulling back a bit, you can see how the Lady Chapel is tucked behind the north transept in the central body of the church.

Here are the two towers in the southwestern transept who are missing their mates.

Perfect for a Rapunzel scene, no?

We went in through the great West Door in the Galilee Porch. I’d heard the term before at one of the Royal Weddings, “the Queen will enter through the Galilee Porch,” and thought it must be something significant to the Royal family. But no, the term ‘Galilee’ simply means a porch or entrance. Quite Monty Python. The “porch” porch. 

Here are the Western Doors. You begin to get a sense of the height when you realize the whole door doesn’t open. You go in through the cut-out bit on the left. 

The floor just inside the door has a labyrinth that was installed in the 19th century. I completely missed it, and think it would have been difficult to get a good perspective shot in any event. The Cathedral website has come to our rescue with the diagram and a description: “Unlike a maze, there are no dead ends. If you walk the labyrinth, you will have walked the same distance as the height of the ceiling above. Walking a labyrinth is an ancient spiritual exercise; its twists and turns mirror the journey of life, with God at its centre.” How cool is that? 

Diagram courtesy of Ely Cathedral Website

Here we are inside. Until I processed the photos, I’d forgotten that there was a production going on during our visit, which involved screens and sound equipment and a lot of bustling people (and visitors all complaining about same). It’s an ongoing hazard of visiting these cathedrals. They’re desperate for dollars, and thus make themselves available for concerts, exhibits, etc. It’s just the luck of the draw on the day you turn up. So I don’t have a great picture of the nave looking in from the west.

Plus, I’m always looking up, up, up (probably why I missed the labyrinth, come to think of it). And what a view! 

Ely, like its brethren, was extensively restored during the Victorian period, and the ceiling in the Nave was part of it. Henry Styleman Le Strange began the work, painting the first six panels (counting from the west). His close friend, and fellow artist, Thomas Gambier Parry, painted the last six.

The ceiling tells the story of the ancestry of Jesus, beginning with Adam (panel 1) and continuing through Abraham (panel 4). David (panel 8) and Mary (panels 9 and 10).

I believe this is panel 1, looking back against the entrance wall.

Here is the nave looking back towards the western doors. My back was to that screen you saw. Now we get a feel for the height and the distinctive round Norman arches. In case you’ve ever wondered where the term ‘nave’ comes from, it’s derived from the Latin word navis, meaning ‘ship,’ hence Ely Cathedral is known as the ‘Ship of the Fens.’

Ely is the fourth-longest of the English cathedrals at 537 ft. Winchester is the longest by mere 10 feet more. St Albans and Canterbury are in between. Four cathedrals are within 2% of the length of each other,  all demonstrating the wealth and prestige of the Norman conquerors and their monastic community.

In 1672, St. Ethelreda, England’s first female saint, founded both a monastery and a nunnery after fleeing not one but two arranged marriages (and remained a virgin throughout, according to legend). 

The abbey was located in somewhat marshy land, reached via three causeways. Its isolation was a concern to William the Conqueror. He called upon his cousin, Abbot Simeon of Winchester, to keep an eye out and deal with any local uprisings. Apparently, his concern was well-founded. A brief Saxon rebellion soon arose, headed by Hereward the Wake (I suppose that beats being Hereward the Woke, though he might have been viewed in a similar light by the Normans). Simeon demolished the abbey in 1081 and began to rebuild. In 1109 the Church of St Etheldreda and St Peter became a Cathedral.

Simeon’s original Norman building stopped at what is today the central octagonal tower. By the end of the 12th century, the number of pilgrims flocking to Ethelredas shrine sparked an expansion eastward. The new structure was built in the 13th century in the sumptuous Early Gothic Style. Here we are, right at the cross point between the old and the new. It’s also the site of the great collapse.

Disaster! On February 13, 1322, the crossing tower collapsed into the choir. At first, the monks thought there had been an earthquake. Alan of Walsingham, the monk responsible for the building, was overcome with shock and grief, and blamed himself for the catastrophe. 

Ely isn’t called The Ship of the Fens for nothing. Fen means “a low and marshy or frequently flooded area of land.”  Firmer foundations were needed, and those were found further out from the original pillars. Thus the idea of building an octagon surmounted by a lantern came to be.

Its width was dictated by the massive blank space in the middle of the cathedral. At 74 feet, it was too wide to support the weight of a stone vault, and so it was built in wood and covered in lead.

The octagon’s internal height is 142 feet; the total weight is 400 tons. It’s truly a masterpiece of medieval engineering and took 18 years to build, employing the contemporary Gothic style, with more strongly pointed arches and elaborate decoration. 

In the centre is Christ in majesty, carved by John of Burwell, a village south-east of Ely.

A series of small carvings surround the octagon on either side of the arches of the main pillars. These are among the few medieval carvings in the Cathedral to survive the baseball-bat swinging redecorators of the Dissolution of the Monasteries. 

Initially, the choir stalls were located in this area, but they were relocated into the newer, eastern portion of the cathedral. Bishop John Hotham commissioned the work at his own expense and cost 2034 pounds, 12 shillings, 8 pence and three farthings. Now that’s exact accounting! You can see George Gilbert Scott’s carved wooden organ screen below. Its light, airiness opened up the view between the nave and the choir. It’s one of his earliest works and replaced a stone pulpitum that was in poor shape (besides being a visual block).

The style is “Decorated,” a lighter, more slender, and more heavily embellished rendition of Early English. (Why does someone always want to linger, oblivious, whilst on their phone? I coughed, discreetly, then coughed more loudly, to no avail. Most annoying.) 

The rear rows of the choir stalls date from the fourteenth century. I didn’t get shots of the misericords, but you can see similar versions at Ripon and Manchester cathedrals. The desks and the front stalls are Victorian.

The end pieces are heavily carved. 

At the east end of the choir, is the High Altar. The marble reredos (the central pieces that look like gold) was designed by George Gilbert Scott.

Its five panels depict the events of Holy Week, from Christ’s entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday to his death on Good Friday. The central panel shows the last supper.

Note the heavy embellishment on the pillars that support the arches on the second level of the Presbytery.

And the tile floor. Not a surface escapes some kind of decoration. 

You can see where the Georgians got into their quest for some architectural restraint.

The organ case is also by Scott and was modelled on the medieval organ in Strasbourg Cathedral. Apparently, King Henry VIII was a fan of music because even when the monastery was dissolved in 1539, he provided for a full-time choir in Ely. 

The detailed painting on the organ pipes is very Sound of Music, don’t you think?

The eastern part of the Cathedral is almost a church within a church, with spacious aisles down each side. Over 100 people are commemorated in this area, with tombs and effigies. Some modest.

Some highly decorated.

Here we have Robert Steward.

These lounging effigies always amuse me. They’re kind of a cross between the “peel me a grape” Romans and “pass me the chips” of today’s TV watchers.

Directly behind the choir, at the easternmost part of the church, we find the chapel of St. Ethelreda, Ely’s foundress. The east window, like virtually all the glass, was installed during the Victorian restoration. It tells the story of Jesus. It needs to be “read” from right to left to middle. The right-hand lancet depicts Jesus’ birth, the left-hand lancet recounts his ministry, and the central panel retells the last week of his life, from the entry into Jerusalem to the crucifixion.  


The upper window depicts the resurrection, the ascension and Christ in glory.

The ceiling itself is airly simple, with lovely vaulting.

But there are many other chapels at this end of the church. Honouring the dead didn’t stop with tombs and effigies. Small chapels were “founded” in the name of prominent individuals.

A nice touch, you say. Well, it has a more sinister underbelly. The church knew how to capitalize on fears of divine punishment. Wishing to spare their deceased loved one time in purgatory, relatives would pay a priest to say Mass for their souls. The sums were such that a chapel would also be endowed. Elaborate chapels.

Sometimes the deceased made their own preparations to avoid lingering in purgatory, such as John Alcock, Bishop of Ely.

The fan vaulting you see below in his chantry chapel is the only example of such at Ely.

Here the elaborate chapel reaches its apogee in the heavily decorated Perpendicular style, which bursts forth in an absolute frenzy of carvings of monsters, flowers and musical instruments.

If you think it looks jammed together, you’re correct. Rumour has it; it was designed for another location, possibly Worcester, where Alcock was Bishop before coming to Ely. Clearly, he was a man who didn’t want to take a chance on being forgotten. It almost looks like it’s been accordion folded to fit into the space. Oy! 

courtesy of Ely Cathedral’s website

The Dissolution of the Monasteries was particularly hard on Ely. On November 18, 1539, the royal commissioners assumed control of the monastery and all its possessions. Ely’s future hung in the balance for nearly two years as Henry VIII and his advisers considered what role, if any, Cathedrals might play in the newly constituted Protestant church. On September 10, 1541, Ely was granted a new charter, and Robert Steward (of the lounging effigy) was re-appointed as the first dean. Slick maneuvering, Robert!

But then the destruction began. Under Bishop Thomas Goodrich’s orders, the shrines to the Anglo-Saxon saints were destroyed, followed by nearly all the stained glass and much of the sculpture in the Cathedral.

The practical functions of the Cathedrals eventually saved them from utter annihilation: to be places of true worship of God (with which Henry VIII didn’t really argue), education, and care of the poor. The “talent” was redeployed: many of the vicars choral, lay clerks and boy choristers were all appointed to assist in worship. A grammar school with 24 scholars was established in the monastic buildings, and in the 1550s, plate and vestments were sold to buy books and form a library. Buildings were also repurposed. Many of the monastic buildings became the houses of the new Cathedral hierarchy, although others were demolished.

On to the Lady Chapel.

The Lady Chapel started auspiciously. During the 13th and 14th centuries chapels in honour of the Virgin Mary were added to many churches and cathedrals. Ely’s is exceptional by its size; at 100 ft by 43 ft, it is by far the largest attached to any British cathedral. (Please avert your gaze from the controversial statue of Mary, which was installed in 2000, to mixed reviews). Indeed!

It reminds me forcibly of what my parish priest, Father Strohmeyer, referred to as “Our Lord of the Trampoline.” He was referring to the figures of the risen Christ, which frequently appear above the altar in more modern churches, in a praiseworthy attempt to provide a more hopeful alternative to the traditional (and gruesome) crucifix. Regrettably, they often feel unanchored, hence his quip. 


Ignoring Bouncing Mary for a minute, let’s have a look round. The Lady Chapel is imbued with a feeling of gracious, light, and open space. 


Of particular note are the stone stalls surrounding the chapel. Described by Simon Jenkins as “ogival and triangular gables undulate around the room in a continuous flowing line, voluptuously coated in leaves, crockets and figures.”

Much of this fell under the swinging clubs of Bishop Thomas Goodrich’s band of destructors. The free-standing statues were demolished and all 147 carved figures in the frieze of St Mary were decapitated. By the time Oliver Cromwell’s group of Puritans arrived in the 1640s, there wasn’t much left to deface. 

The Lady Chapel of 1349 would have been very colourful, with stained glass windows and painted statues in the niches. Traces of the paint can still be seen, and fragments of the glass survive in the central window on the south side.

I was somewhat surprised to learn that the Georgians were responsible for a lot of stained glass destruction. They preferred clear glass and lots of light. What the Reformation and the English Civil war left untouched, they finished. One James Wyatt was particularly active at Durham, Salisbury, Lichfield, and Hereford, among other places. He removed all of Salisbury’s medieval stained glass and dumped it in a ditch. 

Speaking of colour, before we go, let’s have a look at the ceiling.


Dig those fig leaves!

I think this statue is somewhat prophetic. It’s almost like it knew what was coming to its beautiful cathedral.


All right, back to the nave. Here we have a 12th-century carved doorway, connecting the cathedral to the medieval cloister. The almond-shaped frames around the figures are called mandorlas; they symbolize new life and hold out hope to all who pass through the door.

Christ is shown in the central carving, believed to date from 1135. His right hand (missing two fingers, suggesting a quite improper gesture) is raised in blessing, and his left hand is holding the Book with the Seven Seals, the record of good and evil deeds – a naughty and nice list, as it were.

We will finish up with the North and South transepts, which, as they were built at the turn of the 11th and 12th centuries, are among the oldest parts of the church. 

The original roofs were replaced in the mid-fifteenth century with hammer-beam roofs decorated with flying angels.

There are two chapels in the south transept. One is dedicated to St Dunstan and St Ethelwold, two tenth-century bishops who re-founded the monastery in 970 after it had been sacked by the marauding Danes. It was then St. Ethelred’s Monastery became a Benedictine community for men.

The other chapel is dedicated to St Edmund, who was King of East Anglia in the mid-ninth century. He also gained acclaim during the Viking invasion by refusing to deny his faith. The Vikings seem to have spared him their traditional treatment of hacking through the breast bone and flinging the lungs over the shoulders so that the victim gradually suffocated. Perhaps they were bored with this technique and wanted to branch out. They tied him to a tree and shot him through with arrows, in the manner of St. Stephen; in 915 his body was buried at Bedricsworth in Suffolk, later renamed Bury St Edmunds, which we have visited in another post. Edmund was once a candidate to be the patron saint of England.

The transepts are very evidently Norman. Look at those rounded archways and sturdy columns.

Lots of stained glass, too.

That winds up our tour, ladies and gentlemen. Let’s step outside now and enjoy one last view of Ely Cathedral on a lovely, sunny day. So typically English, with the cows nearby!

Have a good rest of the weekend, folks.

I’m sharing this post with Between Naps on the Porch.