The town's name means Eel Island and there are several explanations for its origins.
One story has it that eels were the staple diet of the islanders in Saxon times. Another says that St Dunstan turned the local monks into eels as a punishment for their sexual misdemeanours.
It was at Ely that Hereward the Wake held out against the Normans, and the town was Cromwell's home when he was MP for Cambridge.
When the central tower of Ely Cathedral collapsed in 1322 after standing for more than 200 years it was replaced with a structure that is unique in European cathedral architecture: a great stone octagon topped with a wooden lantern rising from its centre.
Its creator was a man of vision, imagination and engineering ability far ahead of his time. Faced with the gaping hole, Alan of Walsingham, the sacrist, decided against restoring the original tower, opting instead for the revolutionary octagon. First he built eight massive pillars of stone at each corner. Then, after combing England for trees of the right size, he finally settled for eight oaks weighing ten tons each and trimmed to 63 feet in length. These were to be the corner posts of the lantern.
The lantern tower itself, a construction of timber triangles, rises 60 feet and weighs a total of 400 tons. Such was the genius of Walsingham and his craftsmen that the entire structure rests on the stone pillars with a sheer perpendicular downward thrust. At the base of the octagon arches are the carved stone heads of those involved in its construction.
The Lady Chapel, completed in the mid-fourteenth century, sometime after the octagon, is the largest such chapel in England and its roof span of 46 feet gives it the widest medieval stone vault. Unhappily the Reformation destroyed much of the chapel's original charm: the stained glass windows were smashed and the sculpture and carvings ruined. However, what was spared is still worthy of attention especially the arcade below the windows.
There is still a good deal of exquisite carving throughout the cathedral particularly in the south-west transept. The Prior's Door, opening onto the cloister from the nave, is a fine example of late Norman craftmanship while the fourteenth century choir stalls boast 62 superb misericords.
The west front entrance to Ely is through the lovely Galilee Porch dating from the thirteenth century. From here the entire length of the cathedral is impressively visible, along the narrow Norman nave with its nineteenth century roof painting to the great stained glass window behind the presbytery and high altar at the east end.
Ely's oldest item is Ovin's Stone, the base of a cross and the only reminder that the cathedral has Saxon origins The shrine of St Ethelreda contains the relics of Ely's foundress, a remarkable woman who was married to King Fgfrid of Northumbria before becoming a nun and later Abbess of Ely.
Of the chantry chapels the most elaborate is Bishop Alcock's, the founder of Jesus College, Cambridge. Bishop West's chantry with its beautiful ceiling is also noteworthy. The finest of the monuments is that erected to the Earl of Worcester beheaded in the Wars of the Roses. It has a triple canopy and stands in the son choir aisle.
During the nineteenth century there was a great deal of restoration, both outside and inside the cathedral. Sir Gilbert Scott was in charge and apart from the insertion of some indifferent Victorian glass, did much to improve Ely's then fading glory.
Last Updated on: 17 November 1999
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