Ely Cathedral

I was in Ely for the Caritas Chamber Choir tour on Sunday, April 22.  We sang a concert in the cathedral at 2pm that afternoon, in one of the most central and beautiful parts of the building: the presbytery.  This place is so enormous and so inspiring and so ridiculously beautiful.  Well, I hope my photos do it a little justice…but I fear I have not captured the feeling of the place.  Check out the cathedral website and watch some great video footage of the space.

The history of this place is remarkable in that it was founded by a woman.  The story goes something like this:

Etheldreda, a Saxon princess who married twice but remained a virgin, became a nun in part to escape the desire of her second husband to have a “normal” marriage. She founded a double monastery (both men and women) at Ely in 673.  She died in 680 from a neck tumor (supposedly as punishment for her vanity — she wore necklaces when younger).  Anyway, 17 years after her death, her body was allegedly found perfectly intact and the neck tumor had healed itself.  Her body was rewrapped, reburied, and she became a saint.  There was a big shrine made in her honor and it became a destination for pilgrims but was destroyed in 1541 (as were many such shrines…destroyed by that pesky Henry VIII).  The current cathedral building (which grew out of a Benedictine Monastery on the site) was begun in the 11th century.  The church became a cathedral in 1109.

The site of Etheldreda’s shrine:


The building itself is a fantastic mixture of architectural styles, from the quintessentially Norman to the high gothic, and as you move from the Norman nave and transepts into the center of the cross shape of the building, with the glorious wooden octagon tower, decorated in ornate gothic style, it is as if you have just travelled through a few hundred years of history.  Some of the chapels in the Eastern end of the building even have ornate fanned ceilings.  And the stained glass is absolutely brilliant.  (There is even a stained glass museum housed within the cathedral but unfortunately, I did not have time to visit.)

It is a patchwork of architectural styles and periods, which is really fun to see all in one place, at least for a cathedral junkie like me!

Ely Cathedral is sometimes called “The Ship of the Fens”.  It is visible for miles around, throughout the marsh-like countryside.  It is so tall and so massive that it dominates the landscape.  Every time we turned a corner in the little (and delightful) town of Ely, there was a new and literally breathtaking view of this amazing giant.


A very Norman West Tower.  The lower 2/3 of this tower dates from the 12th century.  The top 1/3 was added in the late 14th century.

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I love the surviving detail on the Norman arches.  And the faces!


A very gothic Octagonal Tower.  The inner octagon is made of wood and leaded to protect from the elements.



The gothic Eastern end of the building.


There were lovely gardens back here.

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There is a lot of erosion on the detailed carving work on the spires.  I know there has been an extensive and recent renovation (ended in 2000, I believe). It must take huge amounts of money to keep a building of this size and detail preserved.  Mind boggling.

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The South side.  Clearly Romanesque.  With a Greek (?) sundial…

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I love reading the epitaphs on the gravestones and memorials.  These were in the porch in the South Transept.

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An amazing door in this porch.  I suspect this iron work was added relatively recently.

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Beautiful grounds surround this church.  Several of the buildings from the Medieval Benedictine monastery are still intact.  It was not ravaged so much as some other monasteries during the Dissolution carried out by good ol’ Henry VIII.

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And there is pastureland spreading out from the Southern side.  Perhaps this is the very pasture that the Medieval monks used for their livestock.  It is a lovely pastoral scene.

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This is part of the King’s School just next to the cathedral.

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With a really lovely Medieval gate.


The Bishop’s House.


The West Facade.

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The Galilee Porch.  The doors were magnificent!  (Iron work added in the 19th century)

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One of the magical things about the interior of this cathedral was the presence of color.  There was so much painting throughout the place, and the stained glass was in such good condition that there was color everywhere.  It was a cheerful, uplifting space and I think much of that feeling came from the vibrancy of the colors.

The West Tower interior.


The inside of the giant doors of the Galilee Porch.  these are Medieval Oak timbers.


Love the wiggly zigzags on this Norman archway.


More color.  So much color!

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The painted ceiling of the Nave.

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There were many brass plates available for brass rubbings in the ambulatory, next to the cathedral shop.  I wish I had had time to do this — I would love some of these framed on my walls at home!

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A green man spotted in the ceiling of the ambulatory.

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Loved this gorgeous 15th Century wooden roof with flying angels.  (South Transept)

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The central octagon.

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And then…..look up.


My photos don’t even begin to do justice to this space.  It is light-filled, colorful, awe-inspiring, jaw-droppingly huge, and oh, so exquisitely beautiful.  The history of the space makes it even more amazing.  In the 14th Century, the central Norman tower of the cathedral collapsed, leaving a huge gaping hole in the center of the building.  From this tragedy grew the idea of a large octagonal tower.  The top part of the tower is wooden because using the lighter materials made a larger vault possible.  A phoenix arisen from the ashes of disaster if ever I saw one.

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The Lady Chapel Ceiling.


The Quire

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The organ.  So colorful.  And really, really full and gorgeous when played.

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And the Presbytery (where we sang)


My view for the concert


Isn’t it like some impossible CGI architecture out of a sci fi movie? Amazing.

So much detail.  So much decoration.

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Gorgeous fan ceiling in one of the chapels.


And an amazing carved ceiling in the one next door.

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Love that even the wooden ceilings in the lofted space above the quire were beautifully painted.  These had thistles and shamrocks and some other flower I couldn’t identify.  Lovely.


A spectacularly beautiful place.  So glad to have had the privilege of visiting.  And my visit was made exponentially more special having had the chance to sing in this sacred space.  I am humbled and inspired.


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