ELY, a cathedral city and market-town, in the Newmarket parliamentary division of Cambridgeshire, England, 16 m. N.N.E. of Cambridge by the Great Eastern railway. Pop. of urban district (1901) 7713. It stands on a considerable eminence on the west (left) bank of the Ouse, in the Isle of Ely, which rises above the surrounding fens. Thus its situation, before the great drainage operations of the 17th century, was practically insular. The magnificent cathedral, towering above the town, is a landmark far over the wide surrounding level. The soil in the vicinity is fertile and market-gardening is carried on, fruit and vegetables (especially asparagus) being sent to the London markets. The town has a considerable manufacture of tobacco pipes and earthenware, and there are in the neighbourhood mills for the preparation of oil from flax, hemp and cole-seed. Besides the cathedral Ely has in St Mary's church, lying almost under the shadow of the greater building, a fine structure ranging in style from Norman to Perpendicular, but in the main Early English. The sessions house and corn exchange are the principal public buildings. The grammar school, founded by Henry VIII. in 1541, occupies (together with other buildings) the room over the gateway of the monastery, known as the Porta, and the chapel built by Prior John de Cranden (1321-1341) is restored to use as a school chapel. A theological college was founded in 1876 and opened in 1881.
The foundation of the present cathedral was laid by its first Norman abbot, Simeon, in 1083. But the reputation of Ely had been established long before Etheldreda (Æthelthryth), daughter of Anna, king of East Anglia, was married to Ecgfrith, king of Northumbria, against her will, as she had vowed herself wholly to a religious life. Her husband opposed himself to her vow, but with the help of Wilfrid, archbishop of York, she took the veil, and found refuge from her husband in the marsh-girt Isle of Ely. Here she founded a religious house, in all probability a mixed community, in 673, becoming its first abbess, and giving the whole Isle of Ely to the foundation. In 870 the monastery was destroyed by the Danes, as were also the neighbouring foundations at Soham, Thorney, Crowland and Peterborough, and it remained in ruins till 970, when Æthelwold, bishop of Winchester, founded a new Benedictine monastery here. King Edgar in 970 endowed the monks with the former possessions of the convent and also granted them the secular causes of two hundreds within and of five hundreds without the marshes, all charges belonging to the king in secular disputes in all their lands and every fourth pennyof public revenue in the province of Grantecestre. The wealth and importance of Ely rose, and its abbots held the post of chancellors of the king's court alternately with the abbots of Glastonbury and of St Augustine's, Canterbury. But Ely again became a scene of contest in the desperate final struggle against William the Conqueror of which Hereward "the Wake" was the hero. Finally, in 1071, the monks agreed to surrender the Isle of Ely to the king on condition of the confirmation of all the possessions and privileges, held by them in the time of Edward the Confessor. Abbot Simeon (1081-1094), who now began the reconstruction of the church, was related to William and brother to Walkelin, first Norman bishop of Winchester. Under Abbot Richard (1100-1107) the translation from the Saxon church of the bodies of St Etheldreda and of the two abbesses who had followed her, and their enshrinement in the new edifice, took place; and it was due to the honour in which the memory of the foundresses was held that Ely maintained the position of dignity which it kept henceforth until the dissolution of the monasteries. The feast of St Etheldreda, or St Awdrey as she was generally called, was the occasion every year for a large fair here, at which "trifling objects" were sold to pilgrims by way of souvenirs; whence the word "tawdrey," a contraction of St Awdrey. In 1109 the Isle of Ely, most of Cambridgeshire, and the abbeys of Thorney and Cetricht were separated from the diocese of Lincoln, and converted into a new diocese, Ely being the seat of the bishopric, and after the dissolution of the monasteries Henry VIII. converted the conventual church into a cathedral (1541). The diocese is extensive. It covers nearly the whole of Cambridgeshire, Huntingdonshire and Bedfordshire, part of Suffolk, and small portions of Essex, Norfolk, Northamptonshire, Hertfordshire and Buckinghamshire.
The cathedral is a cruciform structure, 537 ft. long and 190 ft. across the great transepts (exterior measurements). A relic of the Saxon foundation is preserved in the cross of St Osyth (c.670), and a pre-Norman window is kept in the triforium, having been dug up near the cathedral. Of the work of the first two Norman abbots all that remains is the early Norman lower storey of the main transept. The foundations of Abbot Simeon's apse were discovered below the present choir. The nave, which is Norman throughout, is 208 ft. in length, 72 ft. 9 in. to the top of the walls, and 77 ft. 3 in. broad, including the aisles. The upper parts of the western tower and the transept were begun by Bishop Geoffrey Ridel (d. 1189), and continued by his successor William Longchamp, chancellor of England. The tower, which is 215 ft. high, is surmounted by a Decorated octagon with partly detached side turrets, and underwent alteration and strengthening in the Perpendicular period. The north-western transept wing is in ruins; it is not known when it fell. The Galilee, or western porch, by which the cathedral is entered, is the work of Bishop Eustace (d. 1215), and is a perfect example of Early English style. In 1322 the Norman central tower, erected by Abbot Simeon, fell. Alan of Walsingham, sacrist of the church, designed its restoration in the form of the present octagon, a beautiful and unique conception. Instead of the ordinary four-arched central crossing, an octagon is formed at the crossing, the arches of the nave aisles and choir aisles being set obliquely. Both without and within, the octagon is the principal feature in the unusual general appearance of the cathedral, which gives it a peculiar eminence among English churches. The octagon was completed in 1328, and upon the ribbed vaulting of wood above it rose the lofty lantern, octagonal also, with its angles set opposite those of the octagon below. The total height of the structure is 170 ft. 7 in. Alan of Walsingham was further employed by Bishop John of Hotham (d. 1337) as architect of the Lady chapel, a beautiful example of Decorated work, which served from 1566 onward as a parish church. Of the seven bays of the choir the four easternmost, as well as the two beyond forming the retrochoir, were built by Bishop Hugh of Northwold (d. 1254). The three western bays were destroyed by the fall of the tower in 1321, and were rebuilt by Alan of Walsingham. The earlier portion is a superb example of Early English work, while the later is perhaps the best example of pure Decorated in England. The wooden canopies of the choir stalls are Decorated (1337) and very elaborate. The Perpendicular style is represented by windows and certain other details, including supporting arches to the western tower. There are also some splendid chantry chapels and tombs in this style - the chapels of Bishop John Alcock (d. 1500) and Bishop Nicolas West (d. 1534), in the north and south choir aisles respectively, are completely covered with the most delicate ornamentation; while the tomb of Bishop Richard Redman (d. 1505) has a remarkably beautiful canopy. Among earlier monuments the canopied tomb of Bishop William de Luda (1290-1298) and the finely-carved effigy of Bishop Northwold (1254) are notable. Between 1845 and 1884 the cathedral underwent restoration under the direction of Sir Gilbert Scott. The work included the erection of the modern reredos and choir-screen, both designed by Scott, and the painting of the nave roof by Styleman le Strange (d. 1862), who was succeeded by Gambier Parry. Parry also richly ornamented the octagon and lantern in the style of the 14th century.
Remains of the monastic buildings are fragmentary but numerous. Mention has been made of the Ely "Porta" or gateway (1396), which is occupied by the grammar school, and of Prior John de Cranden's beautiful little Decorated chapel. But many of the remains, the bulk of which are incorporated in the deanery and canons' and other residences to the south of the cathedral, are of much earlier date. Thus the fine early Norman undercroft of the prior's hall is probably of the time of Abbot Simeon. Another notable fragment is the transitional Norman chancel of the infirmary chapel. The remnants of the cloisters show a reconstruction in the 15th century, but the prior's and monks' doorways from the cloisters into the cathedral are highly decorated late Norman. The bishop's palace to the west of the cathedral has towers erected by Bishop Alcock at the close of the 15th century. In the muniment room of the chapter is preserved, among many ancient documents of great interest, the liber Eliensis, a history of the monastery by the monk known as Thomas of Ely (d. c.1174), of which the first part, which extends to the year 960, contains a life of St Etheldreda, while the second is continued to the year 1107.
Ely, which according to Bede (Hist. eccl. iv. 19) derives its name from the quantity of eels in the waters about it (A.S. æl, eel, -ig, island), was a borough by prescription at least as early as the reign of William the Conqueror. It owed its importance entirely to the monastery, and for a long time the abbot and afterwards the bishop had almost absolute power in the town. The bailiff who governed the town was chosen by the bishop until 1850, when a local board was appointed. Richard I. granted the bishop of Ely a fair there, and in 1319-1320 John of Hotham, a later bishop, received licence to hold a fair on the vigil and day of Ascension and for twenty days following. The markets are claimed by an undated charter by the bishop, who also continues to hold the fairs. In 1295 Ely sent two members to parliament, but has never been represented since.
See C.W. Stubbs, Ely Cathedral (London, 1897); Victoria County History, Cambridgeshire.
Note - this article incorporates content from Encyclopaedia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, (1910-1911)