Ely, Ancient See and Abbey of
ELY, ANCIENT SEE AND ABBEY OF
In the 8th century Venerable bede recorded the main points of the tradition of a Benedictine abbey at Ely (Hist. Eccl. 4.19), and the monk of Ely who wrote the 12th-century Historia Eliensis amplified Bede's account. Bede noticed the unusual location of Ely in a province of the East Angles surrounded by marshes and the sea, "in the nature of an island." In 649 St. ethelreda (Audrey), daughter of Anna, King of the East Angles, received the "Isle of Ely" as a marriage gift from her husband Tonbert, chieftain of the South Gyrwe. After his death she married Egfrid of Northumbria, who allowed her to become a nun. Returning to Ely, she built a double monastery (673) on the west bank of the Ouse (16 miles NNE of Cambridge) and ruled over it until her death (679). Her sister Sexburgh succeeded her as abbess.
Marauding Danes destroyed St. Ethelreda's conventc. 870. A century later, ethelwold, Bishop of Winchester, persuaded King edgar to establish at Ely a Benedictine house for men. Edgar's charter of foundation and liberal endowment created the medieval "liberty" of Ely, the territorial base of a quasi-palatine authority enjoyed by subsequent abbots and bishops. This temporal power and responsibility became very significant soon after the Conquest. Ely and the surrounding fenland provided a stronghold for Hereward during his legendmaking resistance (1070) to King william i. For almost two centuries thereafter Ely was a bordermarch, a citadel that English kings endeavored to protect—not always successfully—against seizure by an opponent. The search for loyal and experienced administrators led to frequent royal interference in abbatial and episcopal elections at Ely.
In October 1109 the Diocese of Ely was separated from that of Lincoln. The Benedictine monks of the conventual cathedral, numbering about 70 at most, formed the bishop's chapter. Bishop Harvey, translated from bangor, first ruled the diocese, which included Cambridge shire as well as the Isle of Ely. Within the "liberty" of Ely the bishop performed functions comparable to those of a royal sheriff. A remarkable number of the bishops of Ely (for a list of bishops, see P. Gams, Series episcoporum ecclesiae catholicae 188) were appointed to the highest offices in the realm; prior to the 16th-century dissolution, Ely provided eight chancellors and seven royal treasurers.
The cathedral of Ely contains architectural elements representing building styles predominant between 1100 and 1500. The nave and transept are late Norman; the Galilee porch is early English; the lady chapel is in the decorated style and the chantry of Bishop Alcock is an example of perpendicular. The cathedral's most notable feature is a large octagonal tower over the central crossing.
During the bishopric of Thomas Goodrich (1533–54) the monastery at Ely was suppressed (Nov. 18, 1539) and the conventual church transformed into a secular cathedral (1541). Eight prebendaries and the dean thereafter formed the new cathedral chapter. The last Roman Catholic bishop was Thomas Thirlby (1554–59). He was imprisoned by Elizabeth and died in 1570.
Bibliography: thomas of ely, Liber Eliensis, ed. d. j. stewart (London 1848). Liber Eliensis, ed. e. o. blake (Camden Society, ser. 3, v.92; London 1962). j. bentham, History and Antiquities of the Conventual and Cathedral Church of Ely (2d ed. Norwich, Eng. 1812). The Victoria History of the County of Cambridgeshire and the Isle of Ely, ed. l. f. salzman et al., 4 v. and index (London 1938–60). e. miller, The Abbey and Bishopric of Ely: … from the 10th Century to the Early 14th Century (Cambridge, Eng. 1951). d. j. stewart, On the Architectural History of Ely Cathedral (London 1868). d. knowles and j. k. s. st. joseph, Monastic Sites from the Air (Cambridge, Eng. 1952).
[a. r. hogue]