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Ely Cathedral
Ely, Cambridgeshire, UK
Ely Cathedral
associated engineer
Not known
date  1083 - 1189, 1234 - 1250, 1321 - c1351
era  Medieval  |  category  Cathedral  |  reference  TL539803
ICE reference number  HEW 747
photo  PHEW
The Cathedral of the Holy and Undivided Trinity at Ely is built on a Benedictine foundation and includes Norman (Late Romanesque), Early Gothic and Decorated Gothic architecture. It features a unique octagonal tower and lantern. Also called the Ship of the Fens, the Medieval cathedral is situated on the Isle of Ely, a small hill surrounded by low-lying marshland. Major structural repairs were carried out in the 18th and 20th centuries.
This site has been a place of worship since the Anglo-Saxon era, if not before. In 673, St Etheldreda (c.636-79) restored an existing church here and created a double monastery (for men and women) at Ely. It flourished until its destruction by the Vikings in 870. A hundred years later, in 970, the bishop of Winchester Ethelwold (909-84) founded a Benedictine abbey close to the nave of the present building.
The cathedral we see can today was begun in 1083 by Simeon (993-1093), the first Norman abbot and a kinsman of William the Conqueror (1028-87). The Benedictine abbey was demolished in stages from 1102, as the construction of the Norman building progressed. It was surrounded on three sides by monastic buildings ó the cloister, priorís house, accommodation and other buildings to the south, a guest hall to the east and an almonry to the north.
The Norman buildings are of limestone, primarily quarried from Barnack in Northamptonshire, though some of the decorative elements are of Purbeck marble. The monastery received cathedral status in 1109, when King Henry I (c.1068-1135) granted Ely a bishopric.
The oldest parts of the complex were constructed in the 11th and 12th centuries. They include the Galilee Porch, west tower, nave, aisles and transepts of the church, the priorís house and its vaulted undercroft, and the infirmary. The nave roof frame is constructed of trussed rafters without tie beams. The infirmary was originally a long rectangular building with a high roof over a central hall and an aisle on each side, but it has been remodelled, probably more than once, and has lost its roof, as has the adjoining infirmary chapel.
In 1234, the original semicircular apse at the east end of the church was dismantled and replaced with a rectangular structure known as the presbytery. This was finished in 1250, and the cathedral rededicated in honour of the Virgin, St Peter and St Etheldreda. The cathedral and its monastic buildings were substantially complete by the end of the 13th century, including additional work to the porch and west tower.
Construction of the Lady Chapel commenced in 1321, beginning further major structural works. The chapel lies to the north of the presbytery and, unusually, is separate from the main building. It abuts the external corner of the cathedral's north east transept.
During the night of 12th February1322, the stone tower collapsed, destroying the choir beneath. Alan de Walsingham, the sacrist and person responsible for the repair and maintenance of the cathedralís fabric, planned and supervised construction of the present tower. It is unique in Gothic architecture and one of the greatest engineering feats of the Middle Ages. It's design introduced structural forms akin to the hammer beams that would come into use some 50 years later.
The main structure of the tower consists of eight massive stone columns built against the remains of the piers of the original tower, which form the corners of an octagon. The clear diameter between columns is 19.9m. Four main arches and four oblique arches spring from the columns, spanning the crossing of the nave and east transepts, and carrying a magnificent smaller octagonal timber tower (the lantern) and a domed shell roof around the lantern's base.
Just above the vaulted ceiling formed by the towerís arches is a timber floor. The space between the vault and the floor is lit and ventilated by two small round windows in each of the eight walls. The floor serves a 4.6m high room, covered by a flat lead-clad timber roof, with external windows of six (long sides) and three (short sides) lights, and interior windows affording views down into the church. The external diameter of the stone tower is 22.6m. Though the shell roof rises very little above the cathedralís main roof ridge, its pierced stone parapet with corner pinnacles makes it appear taller.
The corners of the octagonal lantern are located opposite the centres of the sides of the octagonal stone tower. The lantern is constructed around eight vertical oak posts, each 19.2m high and 508mm x 813mm in section, and weighing 10.2 tonnes. The timber is thought to have come from 20 oak trees purchased from Chicksands Priory in Shefford, Bedfordshire. They had to be hoisted more than 30m to be fixed in position.
The internal diameter of the lantern is 9.1m, and it reaches some 51.8m at its highest point. The vertical posts are braced by a complicated timber framework of struts, curved rakers and flying buttresses. From the upper compression ring of vaulted timbers, the thrust is taken by diagonal props down to the top of the stone tower and deployed back through the adjoining bays of the transepts and naves. The timber octagon is restrained from spreading by a lower tension ring at the base of the lantern.
The main vaulted chamber of the lantern has a large window on each side. At one time, probably originally, a cantilevered walkway ran around the inside of the lantern base (which from inside would have appeared to be about halfway up). Above the ceiling vault is a room, 3.7m high, with eight louvred windows and a flat lead roof ó used originally as a bell chamber. The lantern roof is encircled by a pierced parapet with traceries, the corner posts extending upwards as pinnacles. The posts have casings of lead-covered timber and, in one of them, the gap between the post and the casing contains a vertical ladder.
The stonework was completed in 1328, by master mason John atte Greene, though itís not clear whether Walsingham, Greene or both did the design. The timberwork took "14 years more: the whole was finished in 1342", carried out by the Kingís carpenter William Hurle, or Hurley, who is said to have designed the lantern. The combined weight of the tower and lantern is more than 400 tonnes.
Other 14th century work included Prior Craudenís Chapel completed in 1324, the Queenís Hall (1330s) and completion of the Lady Chapel in 1349. An organ was installed, the gift of Bishop Niel (1133-69), and a new choir constructed with stalls designed by Hurle. The west tower was topped by an octagonal belfry in lightweight stonework, and in 1345-6, four new bells were cast and hung in there. The sacristís office was constructed and the north aisle of the infirmary was demolished and replaced by Powcher's Hall and Alan of Walsingham's Building. A new gatehouse was constructed on the site of the original Norman porta at the south of the site, completed around 1405.
In the 15th century, the outer end of the north west transept collapsed and was repaired (not rebuilt), and the corner pillars of the west tower were strengthened. Part of the north side of the former cloister was enclosed, creating two vestries and a vestibule. A palace for the Bishop of Ely was constructed to the west of the cathedral (now The Kingís School).
On 18th November 1539, the cathedral was surrendered to Henry VIII (1491-1547) under the Dissolution of the Monasteries, though its bishopric remained. Much statuary, carving and stained glass was destroyed. On 10th September 1541, a college of secular priests was established here by royal charter. The last Prior, Robert Steward, became the cathedralís first Dean. The existing priorís accommodation, infirmary and guest halls were adapted to new uses but many of the other monastic buildings fell into disrepair or were demolished.
Part of the outer wall of the north aisle was refaced in 1662, the bells were removed from the lantern bell chamber in 1669, and the brick paving in the nave aisles was relaid in 1676. On 29th March 1699, the north west corner of the north east transept collapsed. It was made safe temporarily pending full restoration, which began after 14th June 1700 and was completed in 1702.
By the mid-18th century, the timber lantern was said to be in a decayed condition. In 1756 or 1759, architect James Essex (1722-84) began a programme of extensive repairs, including improvements to the internal support system of the lantern ó replacing half the 16 curved timber rakers, removing the flying buttresses and repairing the windows. In the course of this work, "the original design or pattern of the tracery of the windows Ö [was] irrevocably lost". About 1760, Essex also reconstructed the presbytery roof and, in 1770, moved the choir stalls from beneath the octagon tower to the east end of the church. In 1769, the bell frame was removed from the upper room of the lantern and the organ placed on a stone screen of three pointed arches, also by Essex.
The cathedralís dimensions were recorded in 1770 by contractor James Bentham (1709-94). Externally it measured 163.1m long and 57.9m wide at the main transept, with the west tower 65.5m high (82.3m including the timber spire it had at the time). The roof over the nave is 31.7m high. Internally, the cathedral is 157.6m long and 54.3m wide, has a nave 61.9m long and 22.4m wide including side aisles, and from the floor to the centre of the lanternís vaulted ceiling a height of 43.3m.
Around 1800, Canonry House was modernised and extended by the construction of a south wing. In 1801, the spire was removed from the west tower and, in 1803, a neo-Norman pulpit was designed by John Groves. About 1805, a plastered vault was installed below the bell chamber of the west tower and, in 1807, the roof of the Galilee Porch was lowered.
A second major restoration project began in 1845, under the supervision of the cathedral's Dean, George Peacock (1791-1858). The vault and floor of the bell chamber in the west tower were removed, exposing the 12th century masonry above. The bells were moved into a higher chamber. In October 1845, architect (Elias) George Basevi (1794-1845) was visiting to inspect the works and fell 11m through a hole in the scaffolding to his death.
In 1848, the ruined north west transept was repaired by constructing a plain wall at the end of the (truncated) transept. The semicircular apse on the east side was not reinstated. The west tower was strengthened with iron ties, allowing the removal of some of the infill 'hearting' material to reduce the overall weight. A new ceiling was constructed in the tower, painted Henry Styleman le Strange (1815-62) and completed in 1855, and a new floor was laid in 1870. Further building work was undertaken in the former infirmary complex.
In 1852, architect George Gilbert Scott (1811-78, knighted 1872) was appointed to reconfigure the 14th century choir stalls. He put them in the present location at the west end of the presbytery, enclosed by a carved timber screen and brass gates of his own design. The high altar was moved two bays westwards. Scott designed a new carved timber organ case (1850), the elaborate alabaster reredos (1858), a new font for the south west transept (moved to its present position in 1895), an octagonal pulpit, and new stone and marble flooring for the nave and aisles (laid in 1868-70). New paving to the north east transept was finished in 1876.
In 1874, Scott began the restoration of the lantern, removing the interior walkway. He reinstated the spires on the pinnacles of the stone tower, and attempted to recreate the lanternís delicate window traceries. In 1897, the vestries and vestibule in the former cloister were refurbished and new cross walls built. A new vestibule and vestries were constructed on the south wall of the Lady Chapel. Other new furnishings replaced various Baroque items installed in the 1690s.
Part of the overall project was an initiative to reglaze the cathedral with stained glass, most of which had been destroyed in the 16th century, though some Medieval glass survives in the Lady Chapel. Among the many designers, artists and manufacturers, William Wailes (1808-81) was responsible for the great east lancet windows (1857) and some in the octagon, south west transept, south aisle and north transept. Additional adornment was provided by the installation of a timber boarded ceiling in the nave, painted with scenes from the Old and New Testaments by le Strange and Thomas Gambier Parry (1816-88), completed between 1858 and 1865. Parry also repainted the interior of the octagon, and the panels in the lantern are hinged so they can be opened.
In September 1950, Ely Cathedral was Grade I listed. Around 1960, after archaeological investigation and analysis, the floor of the Lady Chapel was replaced with a patterned Purbeck marble floor.
During 1973 and 1974, major works were undertaken to strengthen the west tower and its lantern. Much damage had been done by rusting ironwork and the masonry of parapets and turrets was in poor condition with many cracks visible throughout the tower. Restoration had to address the weak hearting within the walls and maintain the geometry of the structure.
The 19th century iron ties were replaced with three sets of 32mm diameter stainless steel ties. The two shells of the tower were 'stitched' together at four levels using 16mm diameter stainless steel bars grouted into 40mm diameter holes up to 4.5m long, drilled at 1m centres. Stainless steel plates were embedded behind the masonry surface to act as anchorages and the area around each plate grout stitched to distribute the tie bar load. The belfry was strengthened by the construction of a reinforced concrete ring beam and insertion of four pairs of pre-tensioned stainless steel cable ties.
In 1986, much of the cathedralís fabric was found to be deteriorating and becoming unsafe. A public appeal was started, raising £12m for an extensive restoration project. Work commenced in 1987, and included major repairs and conservation to the roofs, masonry and glazing of the nave, as well as to the octagon tower, lantern, Lady Chapel, choir and transepts.
The 'Great Restoration' was completed in 2000, and included a significant new addition to the cathedral ó the Processional Way. This restored a direct link between the north choir aisle and the Lady Chapel, and re-opened the chapel's medieval entrance.
Architect (18th century): James Essex
Architect (19th century): George Gilbert Scott
Architect (1960-5): Donovan Purcell
Architect (1965-2012): Purcell Miller Tritton
Structural engineer (1973-4): Jacques Heyman
Structural engineer (1973-4): R.T. James & Partners
Master mason (14th century):John atte Greene
Master carpenter (14th century): William Hurle
Contractor (1858, 1973-4): Rattee & Kett
Foundation works (1973-4): Fondedile Foundations
Research: ECPK
"The history and antiquities of the conventual & cathedral church of Ely: from the foundation of the monastery, A.D. 673, to the year 1771" by James Bentham, Stevenson, Matchett, and Stevenson, Norwich, 2nd edn, 1812
reference sources   CEH E&C

Ely Cathedral