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History and Heritage

Ely has welcomed visitors and pilgrims for over 1300 years. The heart of a vibrant Christian community today, Ely Cathedral offers a glimpse into centuries of English heritage alongside stunningly beautiful art and architecture.

  • Ely was an island until 400 years ago, when work started to drain the Fens (freshwater marshes) surrounding the city to create the fertile farmland we see today.
  • Ely is the second smallest city in England. The small town grew up around the monastery and Cathedral which dominated the Isle of Ely for centuries.
  • Ely is the third longest medieval cathedral in England, at 161m (537’). Its graceful Norman nave is among the longest in England, with a remarkable 19th century painted ceiling.
  • The West Tower was completed c1189. It is 66m (215’) high and there are 288 steps up to the top.
  • The 14th century Octagon tower and its unique wooden lantern is considered one of the wonders of the medieval world. It took 20 years to build and cost £2,406 6s 11d.
  • Many of Ely’s medieval monastery buildings continue to be used, even today. They provide accommodation for the Cathedral’s staff and choirs, and for King’s School, Ely.
  • Ely has had a choir school for boys since the 10th century. 2006 saw the creation of a Girls’ Cathedral Choir.

Did You Know

The Cathedral is built of Barnack limestone (quarried near Peterborough). The monks paid 8000 eels a year for the stone!