Ely: Ship of the Fens

Ely is one of the treasures of the Fens. With a cathedral dating back to the 11th century and deep ties to the Lord Protector of England, it is an absolute delight for anyone interested in history. I’ve visited three times now, and I’m sure I haven’t unearthed all it has to discover.

Built on the highest land in the Fens, the city was once known as the ‘Isle of Ely’. There is some debate over the origins of the name. Some signs in the city link it to the eels which are synonymous with the Fenlands, whilst Mac Dowdy has argued it instead references the word ‘Elysium’. Either way, the term ‘isle’ is also not entirely accurate. Islands in the Fens are actually hills that remained dry as the lowlands around them flooded. The area was drained in the 17th century (and repeatedly so), but until then, the city was accessible only by boat.

Ely first began as a Christian community founded by Saint Etheldreda in 673 A.D. She was the daughter of an Anglo-Saxon king, and, despite being married twice, decided to remain a virgin. After her second husband later objected to this, Etheldreda left and became a nun. She then founded the religious settlement at Ely, which was intended for both monks and nuns. By the time of the Domesday Book it was the second-richest monastery in England. There is no surviving trace of the Anglo-Saxon church today, but in its place stands the spectacular Ely Cathedral – the Ship of the Fens.

Ely Cathedral with Cannon donated by Queen Victoria.
Ely Cathedral and the Cannon donated by Queen Victoria.

Construction on the cathedral began in 1083 and lasted nearly three centuries. In 1109, the building was granted cathedral status. It is an awe-inspiring structure. The name ‘Ship of the Fens’ refers to how the cathedral dominated its surroundings – seemingly floating above the low-lying fenland. However, in 1539 the Dissolution of the Monasteries saw the Anglo-Saxon shrines (including that of Etheldreda) destroyed and many of the statues defaced. Fortunately, the monastery was not as severely affected as others in the country, and the cathedral was refounded in 1541. As you enjoy its dominance over the city, it is also worth exploring the Cathedral Close, which is the largest collection of domestic monastic buildings in England. All of this is easily enough to fill a day, but Ely has other surprises to offer.

Ely Cathedral.
Ely Cathedral.

Just a short walk from the cathedral is the house of Oliver Cromwell, the Lord Protector of England and a central figure in the English Civil Wars. As someone who adores the 17th century, this is perhaps the most exciting feature of Ely for me. The house is now a museum dedicated to the Cromwell family, detailing their life in Ely and the role Oliver Cromwell played in British history. It is the only residence of Cromwell other than Hampton Court Palace to survive to this day.

Cromwell inherited a local estate in 1636 from his uncle. As a result, he became the tax collector for two of Ely’s parishes. This gave him a prominent status within the community. It was also a fortunate inheritance. Cromwell had a small income with which to support his family, and had previously been forced to sell his holdings in Huntingdon. Cromwell did not remain in Ely for long; he was recalled to the Short and Long Parliaments in 1640 as MP for Cambridge, before becoming a key figure in the political crisis that engulfed the nation. His signature can be found in Ely Museum, situated in the city’s 13th-century gaol.

Oliver Cromwell's house.
The house of Oliver Cromwell.

My day in Ely was somewhat cut short by a thunderstorm, but I can’t wait to go back for another visit. With three museums and a cathedral, you can be sure not to be bored. It is an absolute gem of a city, with something of interest around every corner. The cathedral is a wonder, but it is far from the only one.

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