A Brief History of Ely

A Brief History of Ely

This will outline some of the events in the history of the diocese: the story of Saint Etheldreda, the founding of the diocese in 1109, the Middle Ages, the Reformation, up to more modern times; notable bishops; its changing boundaries and subdivisions; etc.

The area of Ely was part of the patrimony of Etheldreda, and a religious house was founded there in 673. After her death in 679 she was buried outisde the church, and her remains were later reburied inside, the foundress being commemorated as a great Anglian saint.

Who was Saint Etheldreda?

Etheldreda (Æthelthryth, Ediltrudis, Audrey) (d.679), queen, foundress and abbess of Ely. She was the daughter of Anna, king of East Anglia, and was born, probably, at Exning, near Newmarket in Suffolk. At an early age she was married (c.652) to Tondberht, ealdorman of the South Gyrwas, but she remained a virgin. On his death, c.655, she retired to the Isle of Ely, her dowry. In 660, for political reasons, she was married to Egfrith, the young king of Northumbria who was then only 15 years old, and several years younger than her. He agreed that she should remain a virgin, as in her previous marriage, but 12 years later he wished their marital relationship to be normal. Etheldreda, advised and aided by Wilfred, bishop of Northumbria, refused. Egfrith offered bribes in vain. Etheldreda left him and became a nun at Coldingham under her aunt Ebbe (672) and founded a double monastery at Ely in 673.

(from FARMER, David: The Oxford Dictionary of Saints, 3rd ed. OUP, 1992.)

Etheldreda restored an old church at Ely, reputedly destroyed by Penda, pagan king of the Mercians, and built her monastery on the site of what is now Ely Cathedral. After its restoration in 970 by Ethelwold it became the richest abbey in England except for Glastonbury.

Etheldreda died c.680 from a tumour on the neck, reputedly as a divine punishment for her vanity in wearing necklaces in her younger days; in reality it was the result of the plague which also killed several of her nuns, many of whom were her sisters or nieces. At St Audrey's Fair necklaces of silk and lace were sold, often of very inferior quality, hence the derivation of the word tawdry from St Audrey.

17 years after her death her body was found to be incorrupt: Wilfred and her physician Cynefrid were among the witnesses. The tumour on her neck, cut by her doctor, was found to be healed. The linen cloths in which her body was wrapped were as fresh as the day she had been buried. Her body was placed in a stone sarcophagus of Roman origin, found at Grantchester and reburied.

Her shrine was destroyed in 1541, but some relics are alleged to be in St Etheldreda's Church, Ely Place, London (where the bishops of Ely formerly had their London residence). Her hand, which was discovered in a recusant hiding place near Arundel in 1811, is claimed by St Etheldreda's Roman Catholic church at Ely.

St Etheldreda's Feast Day is 23rd June.

Eternal God,
who bestowed such grace upon your servant Etheldreda that she gave herself wholly to the life of prayer and to the service of your true religion:
grant that we, like her, may so live our lives on earth seeking your kingdom
that by your guiding we may be joined to the glorious fellowship of your saints;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

The monastery (for men and women) was destroyed by the invading Danes, and the derelict Ely was restored only when the king Edgar returned the area to English rule. A new, Benedictine, monastery for monks only was founded in 970, and the shrine of Etheldreda and her kinswomen restored. Ely was richly endowed by Edgar, and subsequently by the bequests of Beorhtnoth (or Britnoth), an Anglo-Saxon thegn killed fighting the Danes at the Battle of Maldon in 991 and commemorated in a famous poem, only a fragment of which survives. Beorthelm had earlier received hospitality at Ely Abbey, and after the battle, his headless body was brought back to Ely for burial. Over a thousand years later his remains still lie in the Cathedral.

After the Norman Conquest, Abbot Simeon began to rebuild the Abbey church, and this work forms the transepts and nave of the current Cathedral.

At around the same time, the county of Cambridgeshire, which had been part of the large East Midland diocese (whose bishop had moved after the Norman Conquest from Dorchester on Thames to Lincoln) was separated to form a new diocese of Ely. The rest of the archdeaconry of Ely, the county of Huntingdonshire, remained in the diocese of Lincoln as the newly-created archdeaconry of Huntingdon.

The Bishop of Ely was now the Abbot of the monastery at Ely as well as the bishop of the diocese, and the vast revenues of the abbey were divided so that the bishop had his own independent income. The bishop also came to have a great jurisdiction over the northern part of Cambridgeshire, the Isle of Ely. This was a palatinate area, in which it was the bishop to whom the knights made their fealty, and the bishop in whose name the courts exercised justice. This temporal jurisdiction continued alongside the spiritual jurisdiction of the bishop in the diocese until its final abolition in the 19th century.

At the Reformation, the abbey was dissolved and a new College constituted in its place: the Dean and Chapter, and their officers and staff. The church was saved from destruction because it was a cathedral (though much of the mediaeval ornament was destroyed then, or later during the Civil War). Many of the monastic buildings also survived, perhaps because in rural Ely there was no great demand for the land or for the stone with which they were built.

The boundary of the diocese was unaffected by the Reformation. Bishops and dioceses were abolished during the Cromwellian period, when the Church of England became presbyterian, but with the Restoration of Charles II, episcopacy was also restored.

By the 1830s, reform was in the air, and the Church, like the State, was the subject of much renewal. There was a wholesale redrawing of the map of English dioceses, and the diocese of Ely was greatly enlarged by the addition of Bedfordshire, Huntingdonshire and the western half of Suffolk.

Through the second half of the 19th century the diocesan map was progressively revised, but the boundaries of Ely remained unchanged until the creation of a diocese for Suffolk (the see of St Edmundsbury and Ipswich) in 1914. West Suffolk became part of this diocese, and Bedfordshire was annexed to the see of St Albans. At the same time, the diocese of Norwich was relieved of its westernmost section, which became part of the diocese of Ely. With this change the diocese reached its current shape.

A list of all the Bishops of Ely from 1109 until the present day.

  1. 1109: Hervey
  2. 1133: Nigel
  3. 1174: Geoffrey Ridel
  4. 1189: William Longchamp
  5. 1198: Eustace
  6. 1220: John of Fountains
  7. 1225: Geoffrey de Burgo
  8. 1229: Hugh of Northwold
  9. 1255: William of Kilkenny
  10. 1258: Hugh of Balsham
  11. 1286: John of Kirkby
  12. 1290: William of Louth
  13. 1299: Ralph Walpole
  14. 1303: Robert Orford
  15. 1310: John Ketton
  16. 1316: John Hotham
  17. 1337: Simon Montacute
  18. 1345: Thomas de Lisle
  19. 1362: Simon Langham
  20. 1367: John Barnet
  21. 1374: Thomas Arundel
  22. 1388: John Fordham
  23. 1426: Philip Morgan
  24. 1438: Lewis of Luxembourg
  25. 1444: Thomas Bourgchier
  26. 1454: William Grey
  27. 1479: John Morton
  28. 1486: John Alcock
  29. 1501: Richard Redman
  30. 1506: James Stanley
  31. 1515: Nicholas West
  32. 1534: Thomas Goodricke
  33. 1554: Thomas Thirlby
  34. 1559: Richard Cox
  35. 1600: Martin Heton
  36. 1609: Lancelot Andrewes
  37. 1619: Nicolas Felton
  38. 1628: John Buckeridge
  39. 1631: Francis White
  40. 1638: Matthew Wren
  41. 1667: Benjamin Laney
  42. 1675: Peter Gunning
  43. 1684: Francis Turner
  44. 1691: Simon Patrick
  45. 1707: John Moore
  46. 1714: William Fleetwood
  47. 1723: Thomas Greene
  48. 1738: Robert Butts
  49. 1748: Thomas Gooch
  50. 1754: Matthias Mawson
  51. 1771: Edmund Keene
  52. 1781: James Yorke
  53. 1808: Thomas Dampier
  54. 1812: Bowyer Edward Sparke
  55. 1836: Joseph Allen
  56. 1845: Thomas Turton
  57. 1864: Edward Harold Browne
  58. 1873: James Russell Woodford
  59. 1886: Alwyne Frederick Compton
  60. 1905: Frederick Henry Chase
  61. 1924: Leonard Jauncey White-Thomson
  62. 1934: Bernard Oliver Francis Heyward
  63. 1941: Harold Edward Wynn
  64. 1957: Noel Baring Hudson
  65. 1964: Edward James Keymer Roberts
  66. 1977: Peter Knight Walker
  67. 1990: Stephen Whitefield Sykes
  68. 2000: Anthony John Russell


A note on the arms of the See of Ely

"Gules, three crowns Or", is first found being used by Bishop William of Louth (or William de Luda), the twelfth Bishop of Ely, in 1290. They are the arms attributed to Saint Etheldreda, who died long before heraldry began, and are a differenced version of the arms attributed to the Kings of East Anglia (azure three crowns Or).

 The Arms in more detail can be seen at Thomas Goodrycke Bishop of Ely.