A Brief History of The Monastery and its Buildings
The Monastic Buildings
No trace now remains of the Anglo-Saxon monastery founded in 673 and refounded in 970. After the Norman Conquest in 1066, and the putting down of the local rebellion of Hereward the Wake immediately after, the first Norman Abbot began to rebuild the Abbey on a new and larger scale.
Parts of the Cathedral Church belong to these years, but the buildings
of the monastery you can now see were all additions later in the Middle Ages.
From 1109 onwards the church was also the seat of a bishop of the new bishopric of Ely.
The oldest standing buildings are the prior's house with its vaulted undercroft, and the central part of the infirmary complex, both built in the
12th centuary. The infirmary was a long rectangular building with a high roof over its central hall and an aisle on either side. The hall has lost its roof and is now a road
called Firmary Lane. Here you can see the blocked arches which led from the central hall into the side aisles. At the east end of the lane a stone wall with a 12th century
door separated the hall from the infirmary chapel, which has also now lost its roof. At the end of the lane the sanctuary of the chapel stands within the
19th century brick building which forms part of the Chapter Offices.
By the end of the 13th century the cathedral and its monastic buildings were largely complete, and included the Almonry of the east side of the north range, the Great
Guest Hall for lay visitors and the Black Hostelry for visiting Benedictine monks.
Prior Crauden's Chapel
Major works began again in 1321, with the commencement of the Lady Chapel, and accelerated after the collapse of the central tower of the cathedral in 1322. During the next
30 years the octagon was built, the Lady Chapel was finished, and some of the monastic buildings were substantially altered: it was a remarkable and expensive programme.
Prior Crauden's Chapel was finished in 1324, and the Queen's Hall in the 1330's. At the same time the Sacrist's Office was built by the Sacrist Alan of Walsingham, who was
responsible for the organizing of the building work. In the old infirmary the north aisle was demolished and replaced by a large L-shaped house, Powcher's Hall (named after
Prior William Powcher), and Alan of Walsingham's building. Most of the other surviving buildings show some signs of extension of remodeling during this period, after
which there was a clear pause in activity.
Towards the end of the 14th century we can see changes at the southern end of the site, next to the old 11th century castle mound, itself perhaps a response to Hereward's
rebellion. A monastic barn was built to store the Abbey crops, next to a new gatehouse, the Porta. Both probably replaced earlier buildings with the same purpose.
The Great Gateway
In 1539 the monastery was dissolved by Henry VIII. The bishopric remained, and the bishop continued to live in the medieval bishop's palace (now the Sue Ryder Home) until
the early 20th century. The main houses of the monks around the cloister (dormitory, refectory and chapter house) were now surplus, and have thus largely vanished. The church
required staffing, nonetheless, and so in 1541 a College of secular priests was established by Royal Charter, and the old Infirmary buildings (which already contained several
separate 14th century houses) were adapted for their occupation. The Dean, successor to the Prior and head of the new establishment, took over some of the guest halls and prior's
buildings, and so these still survive. Further work was necessary to bring the buildings up to modern standards around 1800, when Canonry House was extended by the
construction of the South Wing. Major restorations took place between 1860 and 1890, which included further building in the Infirmary Complex, and another restoration of some of
the buildings proved necessary between 1987 and 1996.