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Diocese of Ely

Ancient diocese in England

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Ely (ELIA or ELYS), Ancient Diocese of (ELIENSIS), in England. The earliest historical notice of Ely is given by Venerable Bede who writes (Hist. Eccl., IV, xix): “Ely is in the province of the East-Angles, a country of about six hundred families, in the nature of an island, enclosed either with marshes or waters, and therefore it has its name from the great abundance of eels which are taken in those marshes.” This district was assigned in 649 to Etheldreda, or Audrey, daughter of Anna, King of the East Angles, as a dowry on her marriage with Tonbert of the South Girvii. After her second marriage to Egfrid, King of Northumbria, she became a nun, and in 673 returned to Ely and founded a monastery on the site of the present cathedral. As endowment she gave it her entire principality of the isle, from which subsequent Bishops of Ely derived their temporal power. St. Etheldreda died in 679, and her shrine became a place of pilgrimage. In 870 the monastery was destroyed by the Danes, having already given to the Church four sainted abbesses, Sts. Etheldreda, Sexburga, Ermenilda, and Werburga. Probably under their rule there was a community of monks as well as a convent of nuns, but when in 970 the monastery was restored by King Edgar and Bishop Ethelwold it was a foundation for monks only. For more than a century the monastery flourished, till about the year 1105 Abbot Richard suggested the creation of the See of Ely, to relieve the enormous Diocese of Lincoln. The pope’s brief erecting the new bishopric was issued November 21, 1108, and in October, 1109, the king granted his charter, the first bishop being Harvey, formerly Bishop of Bangor. The monastery church thus became one of the “conventual” cathedrals. Of this building the transepts and two bays of the nave already existed, and in 1170 the nave as it stands today (a complete and perfect specimen of late Norman work) was finished. As the bishops succeeded to the principality of St. Etheldreda they enjoyed palatine power and great resources.

Much of their wealth they spent on their cathedral, with the result that Ely can show beautiful examples of Gothic architecture of every period, including two unique features, the unrivalled Galilee porch (1198-1215) and the central octagon (1322-1328) which rises from the whole breadth of the building and towers up until its roof forms the only Gothic dome in existence. The western tower (215 feet) was built between 1174 and 1197, and the octagon was added to it in 1400. Of the cathedral as a whole it is true that “a more vast, magnificent and beautiful display of ecclesiastical architecture and especially of the different periods of the pointed style can scarcely be conceived” (Winkles, English Cathedrals, II, 46). It is fortunate in having perfect specimens of each of the successive styles of Gothic architecture: the Early English Galilee porch, the Decorated lady-chapel (1321-1349), and the Perpendicular chantry of Bishop Alcock (c. 1500).

The original Catholic diocese was much smaller than the present Anglican see and consisted of Cambridgeshire alone, while even of this county a small part belonged to Norwich diocese. The bishops of Ely usually held high office in the State and the roll includes many names of famous statesmen, including eight lord chancellors (marked *) and six lord treasurers (marked ‚Ć). Two bishops—John de Fontibus and Hugh Belsham—were reputed as saints, but never received formal cultus; the former was commemorated on June 19. The following is the list of bishops:

Harvey, 1109; Nigel, 1133†; Geoffrey Riddell, 1174; William Longchamp, 1189*; Eustace, 1198*; John de Fontibus, 1220†; Geoffrey de Burgh, 1225; Hugh Norwold, 1229; William de Kilkenny, 1255*; Hugh Belsham, 1257; John Kirkby, 1286†; William de Louth, 1290; Ralph Walpole, 1299; Robert Orford, 1302; John Keeton, 1310; John Hotham, 1316*†; Simon Montacute, 1337; Thomas de Lisle, 1345; Simon Langham, 1362*; John Barnet, 1366†; Thomas Fitz-Alan (or Arundel) 1374*; John Fordham, 1388; Philiph Morgan, 1426; Vacancy (Cardinal Louis of Luxemburg, administrator), 1435; Thomas Bouchier, 1444; William Gray, 1454†; John Morton, 1479*; John Alcock, founder of Jesus College, Cambridge, 1486; Richard Redman, 1501; James Stanley, 1506; Nicholas Wexst, 1515; Thomas Goodrich, 1533*; Thomas Thirlby, 1554-1559.

Bishop Goodrich showed reforming tendencies and during his pontificate the monastery with all its dependencies was suppressed. The last Catholic bishop was Thomas Thirlby, who was one of the eleven confessor-bishops imprisoned by Elizabeth and who died at Lambeth in 1570. In the diocese there were one archdeaconry and 141 parishes. The arms of the see were: gules, three ducal crowns, or.



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