Religion loves a good virgin. Take St Etheldreda. She lived in 7th Century England and was the daughter of a regional king called King Anna, who presumably was a big masculine chieftan with no forewarning of how his name would sound 1400 years on. Etheldreda was married young to a local prince called Tondbert, but only after having solemnly made a vow of perpetual virginity - not usually a very promising start to a marriage. History doesn't record whether Tondbert studied himself in the mirror, asking "Is it me?", but the poor fellow died just a couple of years later. Off the hook, Etheldreda no doubt sighed, but soon found herself set up in another marriage, this time with Ecgfrith, the King of Northumbria. He may or may not have heard the rumours beforehand, but he had to endure twelve years of Etheldreda shaking her head. His frustration reached the point where he even asked the Bishop of Northumbria to intervene, and persuade his wife to consumate their marriage - but no luck.
Eventually, Ecgfrith gave up, and let Etheldreda do what she'd been wanting for all these years - to be a nun. As part of the wedding gifts from her first husband, Etheldreda had received an island surrounded by marshlands filled with eels, called straightforwardly the Isle of Ely ("island of eels"). Centuries later, in 1086, these eels were notable enough to appear in the Domesday Survey, which included the charming little touch of mentioning the community's fishery, which produced 3750 eels. But this was ahead, and Etheldreda wasn't there for the eels, she was there for the island, which was a safe retreat away from the troubles of the world. There she set up a monastery, for both monks and nuns, and became the Abbess of Ely. She died of plague a few years after, but by then her legacy was assured. A contemporary history, the Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum by the Venerable Bede describes her, with perhaps just a little relish, as “the virgin mother of very many virgins dedicated to God.” Her coffin was placed inside the church, and started producing miracles, such as healing, and the pilgrims flocked. Sainthood followed, and Ely became a well-regarded pilgrimage hotspot - and a good little earner for the church. Centuries later (about the same time the Domesday Book was earnestly counting its eels), England caught the cathedral-building bug from France. The Abbey of Ely was a prime candidate. Around the bones of Etheldreda, Ely Cathedral was built.
The huge Ely Cathedral sits today in the small town of Ely, population 15,000. The marshes were drained in the 17th Century and I'm sorry to say that the eels have all gone, but the mostly-12th Century cathedral remains intact. The centuries have seen it altered, at times significantly, but the medieval pilgrim with a lend of Doc Brown's DeLorean would still recognise it easily. He might even be impressed - during the 12th Century the area would mostly have been a building site, but these days the Cathedral is in just about the finest shape of its existence after millions of pounds of renovations during the 1980s and 90s. In a big city, even a large cathedral can get swallowed up by the speed and size of modern urban life, but Ely allows its cathedral to dominate.
What the medieval pilgrim wouldn't recognise, or wouldn't find anywhere whatsoever in fact, would be the body of St Etheldreda. Cathedrals were pretty much built around relics. These holy physical remains of saints were the raison d'etre for medieval churches and cathedrals, the star attraction that brought the pilgrims in. Although pilgrims to Ely Cathedral would have been duly impressed by the huge dimensions and especially the sheer length of the building - at 163 metres, the longest cathedral in Britain, and back in the 12th Century surely the longest building - they weren't there for the architecture. They were there for the relics, and Ely had several. Not just Etheldreda, but from the same era, her sister Sexburga (appropriately not a virgin - she had four children), Sexburga's daughter Ermenilda, and a third sister, Withburga. They had all been early Abbesses of Ely, all had miraculous bodies, and were now part of a super-collection of relics that brought about healing and other kinds of miracles for the desperate pilgrim. But in the 16th Century - the relics were destroyed.
Like any grand building that survives the ages, Ely Cathedral encapsulates snapshots of its nation's history. It began life in the late 11th Century following William the Conqueror's takeover of England after 1066. Already the Duke of Normandy, northern France, William brought with him a Norman style of architecture and set off a wave for large-scale ecclesiastical buildings in this style. Ely Cathedral was part of this wave. But we fast forward some centuries to the mid-16th Century, and another dominant king - Henry VIII. For various reasons, but largely to get an easy divorce of his first wife, he'd had enough of Catholicism, and thus of cathedrals. This was the Reformation in England, and Henry VIII's Dissolution of the Monasteries, a bad time for Catholics in general, and in 1539 Ely's monastery was dissolved. The prior and the monks of Ely had to surrender everything to royalty. Ely Cathedral got off lightly, and only suffered some of its riches being stripped and minor damage; by 1541 it was refounded and back up and running. But with one big loss - its relics had gone. The Bishop of Ely at the time had got a little carried away with the general theft and destruction of the times, and by his orders the shrines of Etheldreda and co were destroyed. The fate of the bodies are unknown - possibly torn to pieces by pilgrims eager to have a piece of saintly miracle in their homes - and no trace is now left. Thus, the Cathedral now lacks what it was built to contain, and originally made it famous.
To be honest though, I'm not a pilgrim, and believe more in aspirin than the power of God, so the lack of some becoffined bodies won't inhibit my appreciation of the cathedral. It's a great loss for Ely's spiritual history, but doesn't take the visual appeal of the cathedral away. Still in essence a grand Norman cathedral of the 12th Century, it has had a few significant alterations and changes, mostly for the best. An attractive porch in the Gothic style was added to the west tower (the big, prominent one) in the early 13th Century, and the interior was made more spacious around the same time. Significantly, the Cathedral used to have a tower in the middle, but it wasn't built very well, with the pillars filled with rubble. In the 14th Century it collapsed. This could have been disastrous, but Ely was fortunate to have the inspiration of a man called Alan of Walsingham. He innovatively reconstructed the space into one of Ely Cathedral's most celebrated features - the Octagon. A marvel of medieval engineering, supported by eight massive oak beams, this creates a spacious and light centre for the cathedral, by virtue of a lantern (a lantern is a rooftop architectural element, with windows allowing light to flood in).
Why then, why I have I chosen Ely Cathedral over many others? Isn't it just another cathedral? I have no good answer. It's an English cathedral, Norman-Romanesque style, so is distinct from the great Gothic ones of France and Europe. English cathedrals might not be as high as the French, but they tend to be longer. What impresses more - high or long? Arguably England has other more famous cathedrals: why not them? Well, quite simply, Ely caught my eye. Perhaps it can be seen as the English cathedral representative for my Wonder list, although that's not my design. As I've stated before, given the time and money, I'd love to add more cathedrals to my list: they are a fantastic type of building but there are simply so many that I have to be tough. I don't personally expect Ely to be in my top 7, but if I'm wrong and it blows me away, then I'll very happily add Winchester, Lincoln, Durham, Canterbury, and whatever other English cathedrals are out there to my list; but if Ely turns out to be as I expect - gorgeous, grand, atmospheric, and with a touch of the mystical, but in the end just another cathedral then I think I can be excused for not making my Wonder list dominated by the one type of building. I'm looking for a top 7, not a top 100.
Let none of this make it sounds as though I'm pre-judging Ely Cathedral. I am greatly looking forward to it, and really don't know what to expect. I'm now fairly used to the grand facades of the Gothic cathedral, so the elongated and slightly asymmetrical look of Ely Cathedral, placed in a small town, with or without eels, will be a pleasing diversion of the familiar, yet slightly different. Like going to see a football game played by monkeys. Or something like that.
I hope to be visiting Ely Cathedral some time this year, and will give a fuller account of it and its history, as well as my own impressions, then.