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Ely Cathedral's 900 year history
Ely Cathedral
Ely Cathedral is known as the Ship of the Fens

Ely Cathedral was built in 1109 but much happened before, and has happened since, on the site where it now stands.

The building is 900 years old but took 300 years to fully construct and has seen sections collapse, defaced and replaced.

In fact the location has been a place of worship since 673 and has continued to hold spiritual significance.

With this in mind the Diocese of Ely has created Ely 900, a celebration with events and services.

Life of worship

Back in the seventh century Britain had many kings who ruled all over the land.

From 635 until 654 East Anglia was ruled by King Anna who had been converted to Christianity four years before becoming the sovereign.

It was one if his daughters, Etheldreda, who laid the foundations for the current site of the cathedral.

Her first husband was King Tondbert of South Gyrwe, an East Anglian subkingdom in the Fens, and he bestowed upon her the estate of Elge, which would become the city we now know as Ely.

Ely Cathedral octagonal tower
AD 673 founded as a monastery
165m long
288 steps up the West Tower
250,000 visitors a year

After the death of her first husband, and fleeing her second, Etheldreda decided to commit herself to a life of worship in Ely where she built a double monastery in 673.

Collapsed tower

Many aspects of her story are the legend of a saintly figure shrouded in mythology, but it is widely accepted she laid the foundations for the cathedral we know today.

Her legacy was defaced by the Danes in the 870s but was rebuilt by Anglo-Saxons only to become an all-male monastery in the 10th century.

The building was deemed a cathedral in 1109 through Norman church reforms and you can see Etheldreda depicted in the lantern columns to this day.

The architecture has changed frequently over the last 900 years. A central tower collapsed in 1322 instigating the construction of the current octagonal tower.

Public generosity

Aspects were also lost in 1539 through Henry VIII's dissolution of the monasteries, including Etheldreda's shrine.

The King did re-establish the church on the same site with some of the building intact.

James Essex would oversee the first major restoration in the 18th century and the church underwent a second in 1839.

In 1986 the people of Cambridgeshire helped the cathedral raise £4m to secure its future with work completed in 2000.

With elements of the building becoming unsafe it was a stunning show of public generosity which prevented it becoming desolate.

Ely Cathedral will bring its year of celebration to a close with a special service on 21 November 1400 GMT.

If you would like more information about the history of the Diocese of Ely there is a booklet available, produced by the cathedral here.

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