Ely Cathedral, formally the Cathedral Church of the Holy and Undivided Trinity, is an Anglican cathedral in the city of Ely, Cambridgeshire, England. The cathedral has its origins in AD 672 when St Etheldreda built an abbey church. The present building dates back to 1083, and it was granted cathedral status in 1109. Age isn’t the only amazing feature the church boasts: Architecturally, its crown jewel is the central octagonal tower known, perhaps unoriginally, as the Octagon.
The present building of Ely Cathedral dates back to 1083, and it was granted cathedral status in 1109
In the 11th century, the monks of Ely paid 8,000 eels a year for the barnack limestone to build the remarkable cathedral we see today. It took years to complete and it is rumored that around 365 men died during the construction. The grandeur of the cathedral itself was also not to last. In 1539 King Henry VIII dissolved the monastery with The Reformation that had been on site for 600 years.
Ely Cathedral, like nearly all medieval English cathedrals, saw many different phases of construction. Major building projects in the Middle Ages were both expensive and time-consuming, so renovations and additions were made piecemeal rather than all at once. The long period of time means that by looking at Ely, we can get a sense of each of the most important medieval English architectural styles, all in one building: Romanesque (in the nave), Early English (in the presbytery), Decorated (in the tower and Lady Chapel), and Perpendicular (in the eastern chantry chapels).
Ely Cathedral is the third longest medieval cathedral in England, at 161m (537’)
The gorgeous octagon tower was actually born from tragedy rather than practicality
The Octagon, with its enormous internal open space and very unusual wooden “lantern” above it, came about after a 14th-century disaster. On the night of February 12, 1322—possibly as a result of digging foundations for the nearby Lady Chapel—the central crossing tower collapsed. Instead of being simply restored to its original size and shape, the space at the center of the cathedral was enlarged to form an octagon far larger than the square base of the first tower. The resulting octagonal stone tower has eight internal arches and supports an amazing timber fan-vaulted roof. The roof, and the lantern which seems to sit precariously upon it, are actually held up by a very complex wooden structure above the vaulting. Some say this structure couldn’t be built in this way today because there are no trees big enough.