Ely Cathedral

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May, 2016

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The square Norman central tower collapsed in 1322, probably due to unstable ground and insufficient foundations. Rather than replace with a similar tower, it was decided to build a wider structure which would spread the load. An octagon with a lantern top was the answer. The four original tower piers and adjoining nave, transepts and choir were removed opening up a larger area. This moved the weight of the new structure further out so increasing stability. The roof and lantern were supported by a complex timber structure rather than stone also reducing the weight. The overall effect is awe inspiring and, along with the nave, it is one of the glories of Ely cathedral, forming an open heart to the cathedral.

It is built in the Early English Gothic style of architecture with pointed arches and more carving. Around the Octagon on either side of the arches of the main pillars are the only Medieval carvings in the cathedral to have survived the Reformation, possibly because they tell the story of St Etheldreda. The tops of the arches support the painted wood fan vaulted ceiling leading to the lantern. Round the base of the Lantern are painted panels with images of angels. Above are Gothic stained glass windows. The painted lantern ceiling has Christ in Majesty at the centre, surrounded by seraphim, cherubs and angels. It is glorious.

The Choir was rebuilt after the Octagon was constructed and is a wonderful example of Decorated architecture. It is small compared to the rest of the cathedral and the dark wood gives it an intimate almost womb like quality. In the C19th restoration, a new choir screen was built. Designed by Sir George Gilbert Scott it enabled the congregation seated in the nave to see into the choir.

The choir stalls round the walls are C14th. Gilbert Scott added the sub stall in front of them and also the beautifully carved canopies above then. On the south side are scenes form the Old Testament, with scenes from the New Testament on the north side. He was also responsible for the beautifully carved organ front standing high on the north wall and decorated with angels playing trumpets.

The Presbytery is Early English with dark Purbeck marble pillars contrasting with the rest of the pale limestone. This was the site of the shrine of St Etheldreda. Destroyed in the Reformation the site is marked by a slate slab in the floor.

The stone tomb canopy on the north wall is often mistakenly described as her shrine. These canopies were common common in the medieval period covering tombs of senior churchmen or members of the aristocracy. It is now thought this may have been part of Bishop Hotham’s tomb. The fragments of stone beneath it may have been part of Etheldreda’s shrine.

Sir George Gilbert Scott was responsible for the elaborate reredos behind the high altar. This took 18 years to complete and cost £4000. Its five panels show the events of Holy Week beginning with Jesus’s entry into Jerusalem, the Last Supper in the Centre and ending with Jesus carrying his cross to Golgotha. Even the candlesticks are good examples of Victorian Gothic work.

The east end of the cathedral was completely rebuilt in the C13th to accommodate increasing numbers of pilgrims to St Etheldreda’s tomb. The choir aisles acted as an ambulatory allowing better access for the pilgrims. They are Early English Gothic with ribbed vaulted ceilings and are lined with the rombs of the reat and good. At the ends of the aisles are chapels.

At the end of the choir aisles are chapels. Bishop Alcock’s Chapel is at the end of the north choir aisle and dates from the end of the C15th. It has elaborately carved walls and a glorious fan vaulted ceiling, the only one in the cathedral. This is now the Chapel to the Victims of Torture. The painted reredos behind the altar depicts Christ’s instruments of torture.

Next to it under the east window telling the story of Christ’s birth, ministry and death, is St Eltheldreda’s Chapel. At the end of the south choir aisle is Bishop West’s Chapel. This was the last to be built before the Reformation and has elaborate Decorated ceiling and carving.

There is more information and pictures “here.”:http://wasleys.org.uk/eleanor/churches/england/cambridgeshire/ely/index.html


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