Ely Cathedral

Etheldreda (Æthelthryth, Ediltrudis, Audrey) (d.679), queen, foundress and abbess of Ely. She was the daughter of Anna, king of East Anglia, and was born, probably, at Exning, near Newmarket in Suffolk. At an early age she was married (c.652) to Tondberht, ealdorman of the South Gyrwas, but she remained a virgin. On his death, c.655, she retired to the Isle of Ely, her dowry. In 660, for political reasons, she was married to Egfrith, the young king of Northumbria who was then only 15 years old, and several years younger than her. He agreed that she should remain a virgin, as in her previous marriage, but 12 years later he wished their marital relationship to be normal. Etheldreda, advised and aided by Wilfred, bishop of Northumbria, refused. Egfrith offered bribes in vain. Etheldreda left him and became a nun at Coldingham under her aunt Ebbe (672) and founded a double monastery at Ely in 673. (from FARMER, David: The Oxford Dictionary of Saints, 3rd ed. OUP, 1992.)

Etheldreda restored an old church at Ely, reputedly destroyed by Penda, pagan king of the Mercians, and built her monastery on the site of what is now Ely Cathedral. After its restoration in 970 by Ethelwold it became the richest abbey in England except for Glastonbury.

Etheldreda’s monastery flourished for 200 years until it was destroyed by the Danes. It was refounded as a Benedictine community in 970.

Etheldreda died c.680 from a tumour on the neck, reputedly as a divine punishment for her vanity in wearing necklaces in her younger days; in reality it was the result of the plague which also killed several of her nuns, many of whom were her sisters or nieces. At St Audrey’s Fair necklaces of silk and lace were sold, often of very inferior quality, hence the derivation of the word tawdry from St Audrey.

17 years after her death her body was found to be incorrupt: Wilfred and her physician Cynefrid were among the witnesses. The tumour on her neck, cut by her doctor, was found to be healed. The linen cloths in which her body was wrapped were as fresh as the day she had been buried. Her body was placed in a stone sarcophagus of Roman origin, found at Grantchester and reburied.


For centuries, Etheldreda’s shrine was the focus for vast numbers of medieval pilgrims. It was destroyed in 1541, but a slate in the Cathedral marks the spot where it stood.

Ely Cathedral

Ely Cathedral

Work on the present Cathedral began in the 11th century under the leadership of Abbot Simeon, and the monastic church became a cathedral in 1109 with the Diocese of Ely being carved out of the Diocese of Lincoln. The monastery at Ely was dissolved by Henry VIII in 1539. Ely suffered less than many other monasteries, but even so, statues were destroyed together with carvings and stained glass.

14 Comments CherryPie on Nov 27th 2018

14 Responses to “Ely Cathedral”

  1. Hels says:

    The Nave Ceiling is very impressive! The ceiling’s 12 panels start with Adam, then Abraham, David then all the way to Mary. I would not like to have been the artist, lying in the air on my back.

    • CherryPie says:

      The ceiling is the work of two artists.

      Information from the Cathedral guidebook informs that the first six panels are the work of Henry Styleman Le Strange who sadly died before his work was complete. The further six panels are the work of Thomas Gamber Parry. The style of the two artists differ; Parry uses stronger colours and richer compositions, his supporting figures extend over the borders whereas Le Strange left them freestanding.

  2. Astrid says:

    This is incredible. What a piece of art this is. I always picture the time when this is built and the equipment they had. But the knowledge of building this enormous building is just mind blowing. This must have been a delight te visit this Cathedral, Cherry.

  3. How beautiful – your photos are gorgeous. Thanks for all the interesting information on Etheldreda. I do hope I can go there one day.

  4. Ginnie says:

    I wonder if I have enough time to see everything I want to see in your country alone, Cherry???

  5. Look at the ceiling!
    Is it painted timber?
    I don’t often see painted wooden ceilings here.

    Oh I just remembered one – Waltham Abbey in Essex.

  6. The Yum List says:

    I am seemingly endlessly amazed by old architecture.

  7. Shabana says:

    This architecture is sublime and really impressive Cheire!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    What an amazing history of that nun you shared here
    most fascinating story told by someone !

    while reading about her dead body that remained unspoiled i felt warm waves of shiver in my body!

    May be it was reward by Lord for her sacred way of living!

    • CherryPie says:

      The architecture is stunning the cathedral is immense.

      I love to hear stories of holy people whose earthly bodies remain unspoiled in this way.