Wednesday, 5 October 2011

Vision: Ely Cathedral

I want to tell you a story.

It begins with a woman named Ethelthryth (Etheldreda), who lived nearly fifteen hundred years ago in East Anglia.  As the daughter of the region's king (England was still four separate kingdoms back then) she was given unwillingly to a lesser king of the Fen region around Cambridge, and her husband gave her the land around what is now the town of Ely as a wedding gift.

When he died she was married again to secure an alliance with the young King of Northumbria.  Despite her status as a wife she was determined to retain her celibacy, and when her husband tried to pressure her into changing her mind she ran away to her lands at Ely.  The dangerous marshes and waterways of the Fens surrounded the land there all the way around, turning it into an island and defending it from attack far more effectively than walls or ramparts ever could.  Armies had been lost in the Fens, and her husband did not care to have her back so much that he was wiling to overcome such obstacles.  Ethelthryth settled in the small town of 600 people and began to build her dream, a monastery of which she became the abbess.  She lived there until the end of her days, on June 23rd in the year 679 AD.

Ethelthryth's vision continued to thrive for 200 years, becoming one of the most prosperous monasteries in the country.  Then the Saxons (Vikings) began to invade the British Isles from the eastern countries of what is now Norway and Denmark, in search of lands more fertile than their own and new wealth and homes for their people.  Due to the protection of the Fens Ely was late to fall but in 870 AD they penetrated the waterways and the town and monastery was destroyed.  It is generally believed that only one church survived, hanging on at the edge of a broken settlement, barely remembered.  In 970 the land in Ely was rebuilt as a new monastery, constructed over the foundations of Ethelthryth's original vision.  Someone must have remembered her, and what she had done, as  a shrine was built to her on the site of her great endeavour.

Another 200 years passed before Britain was invaded again, this time from the south.  The Normans (French) came across the Channel in their ships in the year 1066 AD and gained control of Ely, destroying the church again.  But they had a new idea.  Shortly after arriving, in 1109 AD they began to build, not a church but a cathedral.

The semi-circular arches built by the Normans
This was a task that was to take over 100 years, spanning at least three generations of builders and countless craftsmen, the passing of two architectural styles and one nearly disastrous collapse as the weight of the freshly built West Tower began to sink into the waterlogged land of the Fens.  This tower, at 215ft in height, would have been the tallest structure most of Ely's inhabitants had ever seen, dwarfing even the tallest of trees and earning the cathedral the title of 'Ship of the Fens' for that way that it's soaring height rose out over the flat expanses of the Fen marshes and was visible from miles away, guiding pilgrims to worship like a beacon across the sea.

In 1236 AD the main structure of the cathedral was finally completed, although new visionaries continued to add to and alter it over the years, including the addition of the Octagon 'Lantern Tower' an hundred years later. 

The nave from the west
Finally the cathedral was finished, although life continued around it.  The Tudor king Edward VI had it stripped of all its riches, its gold, sculptures, items of ceremony, and demanded that the head be knocked off every statue, the stained glass windows be smashed, and the gaudily painted plaster stripped from every wall, leaving only the cream-coloured sandstone behind.  Only faint remnants of these decorations remain today.

Each of these niches once held the statue of a saint

The cathedral at Ely continued to stand, little-used and in disrepair, through the Reformation, the English Civil War and various attempts to modernise it, all of which failed to bring it back into general popularity.  Then, in the early 1800s the Victorians took an interest in Ely cathedral and the first of three major renovations took place, replacing the glass, painting the Lantern and returning the building to something closer to its original splendour.  

The Victorian Angels painted on the inside of the lantern

The view down from the Lantern
And across.  Some of the angel panels can be drawn back,
allowing you to see across to the other side of the Lantern

Since then Ely cathedral has once again been a functioning place of worship, as well an astonishing historical resource if you're a nerd like me! It's is very much a part of modern life in the region as well as a link to the past, and it is the past that interests me the most.

I'd been wanting to visit it for ages so I made the most of my trip, climbing both the Octagon Tower and the West Tower, where I saw how the Romanesque semi-circular arches of the Saxon building style gave way to the pointed Gothic arches of later building.  I witnessed the shored-up spaces that support the weight of the West Tower from sinking once more into the marshes.  I found the pale stripped stone of the pillars painted with light from the coloured window panes.  I saw the etched markings of the stonemasons by which they kept their accounts of the stone riven into the hidden turns of the winding stairs, and read the more recent scrawls of schoolboys who are now long dead on the sides of the Lantern.  I walked the leaden roof and saw the distant glint of Cambridge, about 15 miles away across the Fens, marvelling at the bravery of the men who were willing to climb to a height that only birds and angels inhabited in order to complete this monument to the glory of God and the wealth of a king.  On the highest spires are the most beautiful carvings that would never be seen by anyone on the ground, only by the proud craftsmen and God in his heaven.  I found it astounding.

West Tower from the roof of the Octagon Tower
And the Octagon from the roof of the West

View from the West Tower, to the edges of Ely, and beyond

I found graffiti signed as early as 1906 on the outside of the Lantern.
The Kings School is the boys school next door to the cathedral that Henry VIII established.
It still exists today.

What struck me most is that throughout the Cathedral's history is this continuing story of vision.  It took vision for one fifth-century woman to imagine her monastery, a home for her and dozens like her.  Vision for her to run for her freedom and vision to build and lead a community on the Isle of Ely.
When her monastery was destroyed the memories of it sparked a new vision, of a continuation of the church that survived two invasions and then one hundred years of building through years of harvest and famine, and of war.
There was vision in the eyes of the architect as he drew up his plans, and in the hearts and minds of those who contributed their money and resources to the half-formed dream of what could stand on that island.
That vision had to be passed on from father to son, master to apprentice, each man putting his faith in the knowledge of something that had not yet come to pass, but that he saw growing on the distant horizon with every dawn.  Each man throwing himself into the task and pulling his weight, and then passing it to his successor to run the next leg of the race, instilling the same dreams in him.
It took vision for the Victorians too, to see what the dilapidated building had once been, and what it could become again.  To invigorate it with their own dreams of a glorious monument for the past and the future.  And we now do the same, not always with cathedrals, but with our love and our faith and our lives.

They built for a hundred years.  I can't imagine spending more than a few months on anything.  But I guess that's what a hope really is.  We imbue our beings with a vision of how things might one day be, and bend our work towards those far off dreams that may only come to pass when the world has turned, and we are long dead, and our sons and daughters finally see our visions bear fruit.

On the way home I was treated to an amazing sunset, like those that have been seen over the Fens for hundreds of years, and will be seen for hundreds of years after me.  Suddenly I felt very small, but strangely content with it all.

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