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The Story of Ely

Ely Cathedral has origins dating back to AD 672 when St Etheldreda built an Abbey Church. The present building dates back to 1083, and was granted Cathedral status in 1109.

Etheldreda restored an old church and built her monastery on the site of what is now Ely Cathedral. However the original buildings were reputedly destroyed by Penda, pagan King of the Mercians. Following its restoration by Ethelwold, Bishop of Winchester from 963 to 984 and one of the leaders of the tenth-century monastic reform movement, Ely was refounded as a Benedictine community and became the richest abbey in England except for Glastonbury.


Work on the present Cathedral began in the 11th century under the leadership of Abbot Simeon, and the monastic church became a cathedral in 1109 with the Diocese of Ely. The Cathedral is built from stone quarried from Barnack in Northamptonshire purchased for 8000 eels a year and transported along the river. Several decorative elements are carved from Purbeck marbel from Dorset and a local limestone, clunch. As with all Cathedrals, the plan of the building is cruciform (cross-shaped). The building work took years to complete and it is rumoured that 365 men died during the construction.

The monastery at Ely was dissolved by Henry VIII in 1539. Ely suffered less than many other monasteries, but even so, statues were destroyed together with carvings and stained glass. Much of this destruction is in evidence today. St Etheldreda's Shrine was also destroyed.

The Cathedral was refounded three years later in 1541 with a Chapter of eight canons as was the Kings School.

Ely's Historical Timeline

673 St Etheldreda founds a monastery for monks and nun at Ely

970 Re-founded as a Benedictine monastery by St Ethelwold and St Dunstan. Becomes one of wealthiest monasteries in England

1081 Current building started by Abbot Simeon, following the Norman Conquest. Completion takes 100 years

1109 Becomes a Cathedral – Abbot Hervey appointed first Bishop of Ely

1252 New Presbytery finished – King Henry III attends dedication service

1322 Central tower collapses – building of Octagon tower begins

1349 Ely's stunning Lady Chapel is completed

1539 The Monastery is closed

1541 The Cathedral re-founded under King Henry VIII, with the last Prior, Robert Steward, became the first Dean of Ely

1540s St.Etheldreda's shrine, stained glass windows and statues destroyed amidst Protestant religious reform

1750s-70s Restoration of Cathedral by James Essex

1830s-1870s Restoration of Cathedral by George Gilbert Scott

1980s-2000 Major restoration project. Processional Way built to join the Cathedral and the Lady Chapel.