One of the largest collection of monastic buildings still in daily use.
No trace now remains of the Anglo-Saxon monastery founded in 673 and re-founded in 970 as a Benedictine monastery, together with a school for boys. After the Norman Conquest in 1066, the local rebellion of Hereward the Wake, the first Norman Abbot began to rebuild the Abbey on a much grander scale. Parts of the Cathedral Church belong to these years, but the buildings of the monastery were all additions later in the Middle Ages.
12th & 13th Century
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 century. 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. The decorated rounded arches indicate that the Infirmary was built in late Norman times (1160s-1180s) and, just like the Cathedral, had three rooms – Hall, Chapel and Sanctuary which are now the Dean’s House and Chapter Offices.
By the end of the 13th century, the Cathedral and its monastic buildings were largely complete. These included The Almonry, now a restaurant and tea room, The Great Guest Hall for lay visitors and The Black Hostelry for visiting Benedictine monks, which currently houses one of the resident clergy and their family.
Major works began again in 1321 with the commencement of the Lady Chapel, and this 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 (you can see inside this Chapel for yourself on our Monastic Tour), and the Queen’s Hall, which today is used as a family home, in the 1330s. The old infirmary was demolished and replaced by a large L-shaped house, Powcher’s Hall and Alan of Walsingham’s Building, now a boarding house for the Cathedral Choristers. Most of the other surviving buildings show some signs of extension or remodelling during this period.
14th Century to present day
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 are still in daily use by the Kings School, Ely and probably replaced earlier buildings with the same purpose.
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 part of the independent coeducational school, King’s Ely) until the early 20th century. The main houses of the monks around the cloister (dormitory, refectory and chapter house) were now surplus, and have largely vanished. However, the Church required staffing and so in 1541 a College of secular priests was established as a New Foundation by Royal Charter, and the old Infirmary buildings were adapted for their occupation.
Further work was necessary to bring the buildings up to modern standards around 1800, when Canonry House, which currently houses the Girls’ Choir, 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. These restorations have meant that Ely has the oldest collection of monastic buildings still in daily use.
Monastic Buildings Timeline
673 First Monastery at Ely founded by Etheldreda.
870 All monks and nuns at Ely are killed by the Vikings and the majority of buildings destroyed.
970 Benedictine Monastery is founded with 70 men led by the Abbot, including a school and Abbey church.
1071 Normans take Ely. They destroy Abbey church and start to build a new church.
1109 The new church is designated as a Cathedral dedicated to Saints Peter, Etheldreda and Mary. The Abbot becomes the 1st Bishop.
1539 Henry VIII dissolves the Monastery and Cathedral. Most communal buildings destroyed. The scars of this period are highly visible today.
1541 Henry VIII establishes a new Foundation. The Cathedral re-opens as The Cathedral Church of the Holy and Undivided Trinity at Ely.
The school is renamed ‘The King’s School’ and the Cathedral has a choir of men and boys.
20th Century onwards Ely is established as one of the leading Cathedrals in the UK. The monastic buildings are lived in by the Dean, Resident Canons and coeducational King’s School, including housing for both the Boy and Girl Cathedral choristers.