Ely Cathedral in Cambridgeshire, England is a magnificent medieval cathedral with a number of unique characteristics. Most of the present building was completed by 1189 in the Romanesque style, with some additions made in the 13th and 14th centuries.

Ely (pronounced “eely”) was an island for most of its history, until the marshy Fens surrounding it were drained in the 18th century. The great cathedral of Ely, which still appears to float high above the flat surrounding landscape, has long been known as “the Ship of the Fens.”

Visitors to Ely Cathedral might wonder how such a small town in the countryside came to have such a large and magnificent work of architecture. The answer is St. Etherelda, who founded an abbey in Ely in 673 AD. Her monastery flourished throughout the Middle Ages and her shrine attracted many pilgrims.

Etherelda was born at Exning near Newmarket in about 630 AD. As the daughter of the king of the East Angles, she was a princess and married two successive princes. First she wed Tonbert in 652, who gave her the Isle of Ely as a dowry. After his death, Etherelda married Prince Egfrid of Northumbria, who later became king of Northumbria.

Despite her marriages, Etherelda said she retained her virginity, which was highly prized in those days. In 672, Egfrid released her to become a nun at the monastery of Coldingham near Berwick, where his aunt was abbess. But he almost immediately regretted his decision and made plans to reclaim her and consummate the marriage.

Hearing of this, the saintly Etherelda fled south and took refuge on the Isle of Ely. She founded a double monastery there for monks and nuns in 673, becoming its first abbess. She was ordained by St. Wilfred, the Archbishop of York and her long-time adviser and friend.

Etherelda died on June 23, 679, of a throat tumor caused by the bubonic plague, and was buried in the monastery grounds. Her tomb quickly became a place of devotion, and on October 17, 695, her body was brought into the abbey church. According to Bede, the Northumbrian church historian, her body was found to be remarkably well preserved, with the tumor healed.

All that survives from this early Saxon period is “Ovin’s stone,” the base of an 8th-century cross that can be seen inside the cathedral. The site of Etherelda’s shrine, which was destroyed in the Reformation, is marked by a modern stone slab in the choir.


~ by ferry1984 on July 17, 2011.

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