Sunday, May 26, 2013

Today's Cathedral: Ely

Ely Cathedral in Cambridgeshire, England is a huge church in pretty much the middle of nowhere. This puzzles us moderns, but Ely was founded as a monastery and the isolation was part of the point. This area was known in the Middle Ages as the "Isle of Ely" because it was dry land largely surrounded by rivers and marshes. At various times it was a virtually independent "liberty," where the abbey held almost all the powers of the crown.

The monastery at Ely was founded by Queen Etheldreda of East Anglia. She was one of those early medieval princesses who wanted nothing to do with the dynastic marriages planned for them by their families. Etheldreda, devoted to God from her childhood, let her family wed her to two successive noble husbands but insisted on remaining a virgin. The first husband does not seem to have objected to her chastity, but the second eventually decided that he wanted a more normal marriage. Etheldreda ran away to a nunnery, and the next, year, 673, she founded her own double monastery (monks and nuns) on her dower land at Ely. This was sacked by Vikings and largely destroyed, but then refounded by King Edgar the Peaceable in 970 as the richest monastery in Britain. It became a cathedral as well in 1107.

Etheldreda became a saint, of course. Over the centuries the pronunciation of her name slowly changed, until in Elizabethan times it came out as Audrey. St. Audrey's Fair became notorious in those times for the tacky cloth sold there, and by 1655 the word "tawdry" had come into English as a word for ugly, brightly-colored stuff no proper person would wear. Strange are the ways of fate.

The current church has a long and complex history. The oldest parts date to the 11th century. The Norman church was less than half the size of the current one; the nave was added in the Gothic style in he 13th century. Then in 1322 the church's central spire collapsed, bringing much of the church down with it. This led to a major rebuilding. The spire was replaced by the famous octagonal lantern.

The church was largely completed by the end of the fourteenth century. It then entered a long decline. Especially after the monastery was dissolved, in 1541, the diocese did not have adequate funds to keep up the huge cathedral. Restoration work was undertaken in the eighteenth century, but the decline

Then in the 1839 a bunch of gung-ho Victorians launched a big restoration push. They set about "restoring" the cathedral to its medieval appearance, as they imagined it. Most of the original stained glass was gone, replaced by clear glass; these folks put in new stained glass. They installed the painted wood ceiling, a piece of which is shown above.

The painted all sorts of other stuff, too, like the wood of the lantern.

So what you see when you go to the cathedral is as much Victorian as medieval. On the other hand, when you go to a completely authentic medieval church, where nothing has been added, you are not seeing what medieval people saw. These chuches were originally painted, usually in bright colors, and they were full of extra stuff, from rood screens to stalls selling pardons or beer.

In that sense, what you see at Ely is less authentic than in the average cathedral, but more medieval. And there is still lots of medieval stuff, like the carvings above on the Prior's door. I didn't know any of this when I visited, 22 years ago, and at first I was disappointed by all the Victoriana. But then I decided that I just liked the church the way it is.

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