St. Mary`s Church

St. Mary`s Church
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The Building of St. Mary`s Church

Bishop Eustace, who held the see from 1197 till 1215, is known to have rebuilt St, Mary's Church, which stands a few hundred yards to the west of the Cathedral...



This is the only indication that there was previous church on the site, so it is impossible to guess at the date or appearance of the earlier church. The present church suffers from being so close to such an important building as the Cathedral; if it were the chief church of the town it would receive more attention from visitors and no doubt it would contain more monuments of interest. However, anyone who takes the trouble to examine the building will find it a good example of its period.

The principal entrance is now by the north door, which displays all the usual features of late Norman or Transitional work. It is thought that the south door was originally the principal entrance, as more houses lay on that side of the church in early times. The chief features of the interior are the columns, which are taller and more slender than the earlier Norman style, though still plain and round. They support pointed arches, with very little decoration and stand on rough square bases. From their appearance it has been thought that at some time the level of the floor has been lowered in order to give an effect of greater height to the interior of the building.

The church consists of a nave with aisles, a side chapel on the south side, a chancel at a higher level, tower with spire, and modern vestry. The chancel has lancet windows at the sides and a east window of a later date. The proportions of this window are not pleasing as they give the effect of its being the upper part of a taller one. It is filled with modern stained glass depicting the adoration of the shepherds.

The tower and spire are of the Decorated period, later than the remainder of the church There is a peal of eight bells which were re-hung in 1939. In the following year, the side chapel, which for many years had been filled with pews facing the body of the church was cleared, re-furnished. and restored to its original use. In the east wall of this chapel there is a modern stained-glass window showing scenes connected with the history of Ely and including a view of the Cathedral.
In different parts of the building there are a number of memorial tablets bearing the names of well-known Ely families, but they are of comparatively recent date, belonging mostly to the 18th and 19th centuries.

Outside the church is one of the best kept churchyards in the district, surrounded by old houses, mostly of the timber framed type and probably three or four hundred years old. Reference to old pictures will show, however, that some of them have changed in appearance in recent years, becoming more picturesque in the process. In the churchyard, to the south of the church, are the remains of an old Norman font, and a small stone coffin. The font bears an inscription in Latin to the effect that in future it shall receive only the water from Heaven.

On the south wall of the tower is a tablet recording the names of five men who were executed for robbery during the Littleport Riots in 1816.

In 1985 a hexagonal church room was built in the churchyard south of the church and connected with it by a passage. It cannot be seen from the road and consequently the appearance of the church and its flanking buildings has not changed.
In monastic times St. Mary's Church, and the other churches and religious houses in the city, came under the jurisdiction of the Sacrist of the Monastery. He was the rector and was responsible for the curates who actually conducted the services. Since the Reformation, St. Mary's Church has been served by a vicar who is nominated by the Dean and Chapter of Ely, the successors to the Abbot and monks. Until recently there were two parishes in Ely: Holy Trinity, which had the Lady Chapel of the Cathedral as its parish church, and St. Mary`s. Early in this century the two parishes were given into the charge of one vicar, and in 1938 they were united into one benefice and the Lady Chapel handed back to the Dean and Chapter of the Cathedral.

The origin of the use of the Lady Chapel as a parish church is curious. From very early times the nave of the cathedral served as the church of one of the parishes of Ely, but the arrangement was not very satisfactory. In 1315, during the reign of Edward the Second, the monks were ordered by the Archbishop to build a separate church for the parishioners, but did not do so till after 1362, when they built a lean-to building against the outside of the wall of the north aisle of the nave. This church was known as St. Cross, and continued to be used until 1566, when it was pulled down because the parishioners complained that it was "dark and noysome for lack of thurrowe air." It was then that they were given the use of the Lady Chapel to take its place.

Some other Ely buildings, which date from the 13th century, are situated about a quarter of a mile to the west of St, Mary's Church. They are the remains of two small religious houses or hospitals, as they were called. They are at present known as St. John's Farm and St. Mary's Barn. Both stand at the bottom of St. John's Road, which used to be the main road from Cambridge and Witchford. St, Mary's Barn is a plain building with pointed arches and looks as if it might once have been a chapel. There is a carved stone of Saxon workmanship, built into the wall over a blocked-up doorway, which, from its design, is judged by experts to date from the end of the 7th century, or roughly from the time of St. Etheldreda.

The chief building of St. John's Farm, which was the larger of these two religious houses, presents a picturesque appearance with its crow-step gables. Close examination has led to the belief that it is part of the nave of a church, the aisles having been removed and the spaces between the pillars filled with masonry. The alterations may have been made when the establishment was dissolved and converted to lay purposes in 1561. It is interesting to note that St. John's Barn is oriented an the same line as St, Mary's Church, and St. Mary's Hospital on the same line as the Cathedral. Most churches are built approximately east and west with the altar at the east end, but there are exceptions and in the case of Ely Cathedral the direction is a good deal south of east. This may be due to a custom which arose of making the "east" window face the rising sun on the feast of the patron saint; but there is no proof of this.

A hospital at Ely is mentioned in 1109, and in 1240 Bishop Northwold amalgamated the two hospitals and put them under the jurisdiction of the Sacrist of the Monastery. The combined establishment escaped the dissolution of the smaller monasteries until 1561, when it was given to Clare College, Cambridge, who continued to own the property until this century.

It was during the 13th century that Ely once again became the haven of those who went in fear of their lives. Many of the barons came here who could not pay the fines demanded to recover their estates after the Barons' War of 1264-1265, led by Simon de Montfort against Henry Ill, and were not finally dislodged till 1267. The approaches to Ely were still few and difficult, just as they had been in the time of Hereward, and the monks had neglected to keep them in repair, probably as a protection against attack during the troubles.

Another event of importance during the 13th century was the founding of Peterhouse, Cambridge, by Bishop Hugh de Balsham in the year 1280. This was the first of the Cambridge colleges; the first Oxford college, Merton, was founded six years previously, thus making Oxford the senior university. The link between the Cathedral and the University has been maintained to the present day. The Ely Professor of Divinity at the University is also, by virtue of his office, a Canon of the Cathedral, as was the Regius Professor of Hebrew followed by the Regius Professor of Divinity until about 1940. Another Cambridge college, namely Jesus College, owes its foundation to Bishop Alcock, who suppressed the Nunnery of St. Radegund and converted it into a college in 1496 in the reign of Henry VII. Bishops and Deans of Ely have often been great scholars. For the past two hundred and fifty years it has been an unwritten law that the Bishop should be a member of Cambridge University.

Taken from "The Story of Ely and Its Cathedral" by Bernard E. Dorman.

Situated to the right of Oliver Cromwell's House, St. Mary`s Church was built in the 13th century by Bishop Eustace, with the tower and spire added in the 14th century. In 1638 Cromwell's youngest daughter was baptised in this church. In 1816 a famine caused riots in Littleport and Ely, resulting in transportation or imprisonment for some, whilst others were hung. A tablet on the tower wall commemorates their part in the riots, and burial place. Walking towards the Cathedral you pass the Old Fire Engine House on your left, a restaurant specialising in traditional English food and with an interesting art gallery. The building once housed the local fire engine.