February 20 – A day trip to Ely Cathedral

Stained Glass Museum

Hello from 1066 – A Medieval Mosaic

Yesterday we were contacted by the Mayor of Cambridge and Peterborough’s office regarding the possibility of exhibiting the Medieval Mosaic in Ely. As we have not been to Ely yet we decided to take a trip up there primarily to visit the cathedral. The trip up was uneventful until we turned off the A 14 when the traffic turning right was being held up. In the end, we turned left and went just a short distance to the roundabout and we were soon in the queue as well. It turned out that some trees were being cleared that had come down in the Storm Emma and so traffic was reduced down to one lane with traffic lights controlling it. This was a terrible place for this to happen as there are entrances and exits from the A 14 in both directions so the traffic is usually very busy here. After about half an hour of barely moving around Snailwell, well named, we finally got to a clear road again.

The first views you get of Ely are the very top spires of the cathedral and then you turn a corner and there in front of you is Ely cathedral – “Ship of the Fens” sitting on top of a hill. It is truly magnificent and breathtaking. Parking in Ely is free and there is plenty of parking close to the cathedral. It was not a very nice day as it was raining but that was OK as we were going to be inside most of the time. The cathedral is quite expensive to get into and it is not a donation. We paid £22 for entry to the cathedral and the stained glass museum but did not do the tower tour. A cathedral tour had just started when we arrived so we joined in as we always get more from our visit that way.

The cathedral has its origins in AD 672 when St. Etheldreda built an abbey church. The present building dates back to 1083, and cathedral status was granted it in 1109. Until the Reformation, it was the Church of St Etheldreda and St Peter, at which point it was refounded as the Cathedral Church of the Holy and Undivided Trinity of Ely.

The nave was completed in 1140, is over 75 m long and is one of the longest in Britain. One of the most spectacular features is the ceiling of the nave. It is a wooden ceiling with scenes from the Old and the New Testaments in order from one end to the other. Henry Styleman Le Strange did about the first seven sections. Then after his death in 1862, the other seven sections were completed by Thomas Gambier Parry. There is very little difference in the styles of the two artists.

The ceiling of the lantern is also amazing with saints painted by Thomas Gambier Parry all around it. These are actually doors and occasionally you will see one open and a head or a camera will peep out of someone who is doing the Tower tour. From the floor to the central roof boss, the lantern is 43 m high which makes it quite difficult to look at for too long, though you wish you could look for hours.

There are great numbers of beautiful stained glass windows by many different artists including Lusson, George Hedgeland, William Wailes, Clayton & Bell, and Ward & Nixon. These windows are mostly from the 19th-century when a renewed enthusiasm for stained glass swept the country. There is one particular window which was donated by the Bomber Command of the Royal New Zealand Air Force by Powell of Whitefriars in 1955 which showed Wellington bomber preparing for takeoff, flying over Ely cathedral, and the North Sea and then being caught in searchlights and attacked by flak.

The decorated Gothic Lady Chapel from 1321 is 100 ft long by 46 ft wide. It is a wonderful chapel with Purbeck Marble pillars. This space is used for all sorts of things including exhibitions, weddings and conferences and would be perfect for the Medieval Mosaic. It would certainly be an inspiring place to hold an exhibition and it is one of the warmest places in the cathedral as it has underfloor heating. It has an arcade of richly decorated ‘nodding ogees’, with Purbeck marble pillars. There are three arches per bay plus a grander one for each main pillar. Above each arch is a pair of spandrels containing carved scenes which create a cycle of 93 carved relief sculptures of the life and miracles of the Virgin Mary.

The organ is huge and fantastic and the organ case was designed and installed by Sir Gilbert Scott in 1850. The tile work on the floor throughout the cathedral is wonderful with various patterns and colours.

We found a set of tapestry kneelers with the names of the first abbesses of the monastery which St Etheldreda founded in Ely. King Anna, King of East Anglia and was renowned for his devotion to Christianity and the saintliness of his family: his son Jurmin and all his daughters Saxburgha, Etheldreda, Ethelburgh and Withburga were all canonised. St. Etheldreda was the first abbess of Ely monastery to be succeeded by her sister St. Saxburgha and later St. Ermenilda who was the daughter of St. Saxburgha. St. Withburga founded a monastery at Dereham in Norfolk. St. Werburga was Ermenilda’s daughter and became the fourth Abbess of Ely after her mother. They were all part of the research we did for The Queen’s Robing Room in Westminster Palace a few years ago so they were of particular interest to us.

There were also many tombs and wall monuments in the cathedral, one listing the final resting place of seven bishops. The architecture, stonework and woodwork throughout the cathedral are fantastic and it is very hard to take it all in during one visit. Everywhere you turn there is more detail like the decorated Octagon capital depicting the life of St. Etheldreda. Also, all the ages that are represented from the Norman arch to Victorian restorations.

Then there is the artwork, some are temporary exhibitions like that of the ‘Sweetheart pincushions’, some of which date back to the Boer War while others are modern and the ‘To End All Wars’ exhibition created by the Ouse Life Art Group. There are also the permanent artworks like that of Peter Eugene Ball which we can now recognise on sight and a bronze sculpture by David Wynne. There are 84 wonderful 16th-century carved misericords, candelabras and needlework of the banners, chair coverings and kneelers.

There is also a Stained Glass Museum in the cathedral which showcases stained glass in chronological order from the very earliest Medieval glass through to modern stained glass. It also shows the use of ecclesiastical and secular stained glass. During the Reformation, much church glass was destroyed and the art was nearly lost except for its use in secular settings. During the Victorian times, there was a huge revival and the old skills were uncovered and many designers became popular. My favourite is O’Connor and Son who use vivid bright colours and wonderful detail whereas Mike’s favourite designer is C. E. Kempe, whose work is often inscribed with a wheatsheaf.

A wonderful and inspiring visit to the fantastic Ely cathedral really made our day.