Ely Cathedral began life in 673AD as a church founded by St. Æthelthryth, daughter of the Anglo-Saxon king of East Anglia. She established a double monastery (a religious house of both men and women) at Ely, where she was to reside as abbess until her death in 680AD.
The church was destroyed by Danish invaders during the 9th Century, and subsequently re-founded as a Benedictine monastery in 970AD. During this period, it was one of the richest religious houses in England, second only to Glastonbury abbey.
Work on the present church began in the 1083AD. The earlier church was demolished, and a new church constructed in the Norman style. The main transepts and the nave crossing were first to be completed, and these survive as the oldest parts of the current building.
William the Conqueror had captured the isle of Ely from Saxon rebels in 1071AD, and the town was an important Norman stronghold. In 1109AD, the Diocese of Ely was created, and the abbey church was pressed into service as a cathedral, increasing the Norman dominance of the surrounding fens. The abbot became bishop of the new diocese, and the monastic community remained in residence.
Construction work on the cathedral continued throughout the 12th Century, with the original crossing tower and western transepts being completed during that period. Subsequent bishops continued to enhance and extend the cathedral, including the construction of a new eastern end in 1234AD, and the addition of a Lady Chapel off the north transept in 1321AD. In 1322AD, the crossing tower collapsed - possibly due to instabilities introduced by the digging of foundations for the Lady Chapel - causing extensive damage to the choir bays.
Work was quickly undertaken to replace the fallen tower, and a new structure was in place by 1340AD. Supported on a stone base, eight massive wooden posts (each 63ft heigh and weighing 10 tons) were crowned by a distinctive octagonal timber lantern. The innovative design allowed light to flood down into the cathedral from above. It remains Ely Cathedral's most distinctive feature, visible from miles in any direction.
In 1392AD, the west tower was expanded with the addition of an octagonal belfry. Around the same period, the north west transept collapsed. This was never replaced, causing the west front of the cathedral to appear asymmetrical to the present day.
At the time of the dissolution in 1539AD, Ely was still serving a dual purpose as home to a monastic community. This community was disbanded, but the church was saved from destruction owing to its status as a cathedral. It was not entirely immune to the ravages of the the king's men however - the chapel of St. Æthelthryth was destroyed, many statues vandalised, and decorative religious paintings removed from the walls of the church.
Following the dissolution, no further major building work was undertaken at Ely Cathedral. Over the years, it suffered from neglect, with visitors noting how the tower swayed alarmingly in the wind. The building was saved from collapse by restoration projects throughout the 18th, 19th and 20th Centuries.
Today, Ely Cathedral is a remarkable landmark, rising high above the surrounding countryside, offering a dramatic spectacle to approaching visitors. The church is well-preserved and home to a number of notable features, including the surviving carvings on the west front, the medieval carvings of the misericords, the magnificent Lady Chapel, and of course the spectacular octagonal lantern tower.