Ely Cathedral, Cambridgeshire

Ely Cathedral, Cambridgeshire, UK – the Ship of the Fens

Ely Cathedral, founded by St. Etheldreda, boasts fine architectural features, including the largest Lady Chapel in England and an Octagon Lantern Tower.

, in the country of Cambridgeshire, can be seen for miles around. The central feature of this magnificent building, the fourth longest English Cathedral, is the Nave, which derives from the Latin for ship – navis. In the Middle Ages, the Church thought of itself as a vessel transporting the faithful to God, and so Ely Cathedral is fondly known as the ″Ship of the Fens″.

This medieval Norman church, founded by St. Etheldreda, has some amazing features:

  • The overall length of the building is 161 meters.
  • The West Tower is 66 meters high.
  • The Lady Chapel is the largest in England.
  • The Octagon Tower rises 52 meters.
  • The total area covered by Ely Cathedral is 4,273 square meters.

The Cathedral has an abundance of beautiful carvings, interesting memorials, tombs and chapels, mosaics, and vibrant stained glass windows. There are many interesting areas within the building, but the three that stand out are The Lady Chapel, the Octagon Tower, and the Stained Glass Museum.

The Lady Chapel

The Lady Chapel, located on the north side of the building, was built between 1321 and 1349. This is the largest Lady Chapel in England, with a vault spanning 14.02 meters. This chapel replaced an earlier Lady Chapel in the South Choir Aisle, where the piscina, in which sacred vessels were cleansed, can still be seen. When first completed, the chapel was lined with numerous painted statues and enjoyed richly colored stained glass windows, all destroyed in the Reformation. The windows are now plain glass, and the niches are empty – a sad testament to the destructive power of religious zeal.

The frieze carvings tell the story of Mary’s life and miracles. The stories come from two sources popular in medieval times: The Golden Legend, a selection of stories about the saints, and the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew, which claimed to fill in some of the gaps in the early life of Mary and Jesus.

The Octagon Tower

On the night of 12/13 February 1322, the Norman central tower collapsed. Investigation showed that it had been constructed on unstable ground. The tower was rebuilt under the directorship of Alan of Walsingham, the monk responsible for the original structure. The new construction took the form of an octagon. Because the space was so large – 22.5 meters wide, it was decided to build a wooden vault with massive oaks measuring 19.20 meters long. The octagonal lantern tower rises from the vault to more than 18 meters. William Hurley, the architect of the lantern tower, described it as ‘the only true Gothic dome in existence.’

The Stained Glass Museum

The Stained Glass Museum is located in a gallery in the Cathedral’s South Triforium, which stretches the entire length of the Nave. The exhibition includes one hundred examples of the best in British and continental stained glass, dating from the Middle Ages to the 21st century. The Museum charts the history of stained glass, an art form practiced for more than thirteen hundred years, and many of the unique pieces on display have been rescued and preserved.

A wealth of additional information about the Cathedral and Saint Etheldreda is available from Ely Cathedral, together with times of services and public opening times.