Jun 162018
 

Today is a good day to celebrate Chichester in Sussex, because it is the saint’s day of Richard of Chichester (patron saint of Sussex), and because of this fact, today has been designated as Sussex Day: http://www.bookofdaystales.com/sussex-day/ I spent my early childhood in Eastbourne on the south coast of Sussex, and, even though I do not in any sense think of Eastbourne as where I “come from” (i.e. my “home”), it still resonates with me. It was my mother’s and her parents’ home, and I still have old school friends living there whom I visit once in a while.   Richard’s original feast day was 3rd April (his date of death), but, because it often got mixed up with Easter was moved to today, the date of the translation of his relics to a shrine in Chichester cathedral, that for many years was an important pilgrimage destination. We can turn the tables, and switch Sussex day back into a celebration of Richard and of Chichester. Before I get too detailed, let’s begin with the name – Chichester. If you are from the region you will pronounce it, not how it looks, but something like “Chittistah.” That pronunciation will mark you as a native of Sussex. Even if you only “come from” Sussex in a vague way – as I do – you’ll use the local pronunciation.

Richard was born in Burford, near the town of Wyche (modern Droitwich, Worcestershire) and was an orphan member of a landed family. He attended the university of Oxford, and taught there before going to Paris and then Bologna, where he distinguished himself in canon law. On returning to England in 1235, Richard was elected Oxford’s chancellor.

Richard’s former tutor, Edmund of Abingdon, had become archbishop of Canterbury, and Richard shared Edmund’s ideals of clerical reform and supported papal rights even against the king (a sore spot in the history of English monarchs down to Henry VIII).  In 1237, Archbishop Edmund appointed Richard chancellor of the diocese of Canterbury. Richard joined the archbishop during his exile at Pontigny, and was with him when the archbishop died circa 1240. Richard then decided to become a priest and studied theology for two years with the Dominicans at Orléans Upon returning to England, Richard became the parish priest at Charing and at Deal, but soon was reappointed chancellor of Canterbury by the new archbishop Boniface of Savoy.

In 1244 Richard was elected bishop of Chichester. Henry III and a segment of the chapter refused to accept him, the king favoring the candidature of Robert Passelewe (d. 1252). Archbishop Boniface refused to confirm Passelew, so both sides appealed to the pope. The king confiscated the see’s properties and revenues, but Innocent IV confirmed Richard’s election and consecrated him bishop at Lyons in March 1245. Richard then returned to Chichester, but the king refused to restore the see’s properties for two years, and then did so only after being threatened with excommunication. Meanwhile, Henry III forbade anyone to house or feed Richard. At first, Richard lived at Tarring in the house of his friend Simon, the parish priest of Tarring, visited his entire diocese on foot, and cultivated figs in his spare time.

Richard’s private life displayed rigid frugality and temperance. Richard was an ascetic who wore a hair-shirt and refused to eat off silver. He kept his diet simple and rigorously excluded animal flesh; having been a vegetarian since his days at Oxford. Richard was merciless to usurers, corrupt clergy, and priests who mumbled the Mass. He was also a stickler for clerical privilege. Richard’s episcopate was marked by the favor which he showed to the Dominicans, a house of this order at Orléans having sheltered him during his stay in France, and by his earnestness in preaching a crusade. After dedicating St Edmund’s Chapel at Dover, he died aged 56 at the Maison Dieu in Dover at midnight on 3rd April 1253, where the Pope had ordered him to preach a crusade. His internal organs were removed and placed in that chapel’s altar. Richard’s body was then carried to Chichester and buried, according to his wishes, in the chapel on the north side of the nave, dedicated to his patron St. Edmund. His remains were translated to a new shrine on this date in 1276.

The area around Chichester is believed to have played significant part during the Roman Invasion of 43 C.E., as confirmed by evidence of military storage structures in the area of the nearby Fishbourne Roman Palace. The city center stands on the foundations of the Romano-British city of Noviomagus Reginorum, capital of the Civitas Reginorum. The Roman road of Stane Street, connecting the city with London, started at the east gate, while the Chichester to Silchester road started from the north gate. The plan of the city is inherited from the Romans: the North, South, East and West shopping streets radiate from the central market cross dating from medieval times. The original Roman city wall was over 6½ feet thick with a steep ditch (which was later used to divert the River Lavant). It survived for over one and a half thousand years but was then replaced by a thinner Georgian wall. The city was also home to some Roman baths, found down Tower Street when preparation for a new car park was under way. A museum, The Novium, preserving the baths was opened on 8 July 2012. An amphitheater was built outside the city walls, close to the East Gate, in around 80 C.E. The area is now a park, but the site of the amphitheater is discernible as a gentle bank approximately oval in shape.

According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Chichester was captured towards the close of the 5th century, by Ælle, king of the south Saxons, who led an invading army against the Britons. Supposedly he renamed the town after his son, Cissa (that is, Cissa’s ceaster (fort) ). This is not at all certain, however. It was the chief city of the kingdom of Sussex. The cathedral for the South Saxons was originally founded in 681 at Selsey, but the seat of the bishopric was moved to Chichester in Norman times in 1075. Chichester was one of the burhs (fortified towns) established by Alfred the Great, probably in 878-9, making use of the remaining Roman walls. According to the Burghal Hidage, a list written in the early 10th century, it was one of the biggest of Alfred’s burhs, supported by 1500 hides, units of land required to supply one soldier each for the garrison in time of emergency. The system was supported by a communication network based on hilltop beacons to provide early warning. It has been suggested that one such link ran from Chichester to London.

When the Domesday Book was compiled, Cicestre (Chichester) consisted of 300 dwellings which held a population of 1,500 people. There was a mill named Kings Mill that would have been rented to local slaves and villeins. After the Battle of Hastings the township of Chichester was handed to Roger de Mongomerie, 1st Earl of Shrewsbury, for courageous efforts in the battle, but it was forfeited in 1104 by the 3rd Earl. Shortly after 1066 Chichester Castle was built by Roger de Mongomerie to consolidate Norman power. In around 1143, Richard’s time, the title Earl of Arundel (also known as the Earl of Sussex until that title fell out of use) was created and became the dominant local landowner.

  

If you want to honor Richard of Chichester on this day you could do something with fresh figs, since he is known to have cultivated fig trees. But if you know anything at all about Chichester, you’ll know it is the home of Shippam’s pastes. If you have a drop of English blood in you – and are of a certain age – you will remember eating Shippam’s paste on toast at tea time. The company was founded in Chichester in 1750 by Shipston Shippam, and remained an independent family firm until the 1970s. Although now part of Prince’s, Shippam’s Pastes are still produced in Chichester and the former factory’s distinctive façade and famous clock and wishbone can still be seen in East Street.

 

 

 

May 092017
 

On this date in 1092 Lincoln Cathedral or the Cathedral Church of the Blessed Virgin Mary of Lincoln, and sometimes St. Mary’s Cathedral in Lincoln was consecrated. Building commenced in 1088 and continued in several phases throughout the medieval period.  This reminds us that for centuries until modern times (with perhaps the exception of St Patrick’s cathedral in New York) cathedrals were considered works-in-progress, or complex buildings that could be altered at will, rather than structures that were definitively “finished.” Lincoln cathedral was designated as  the tallest building in the world for 238 years (1311–1549), replacing the Great Pyramid of Giza which had held that title (in theory if not in practice) since antiquity. The central spire collapsed in 1549 and was not rebuilt – thus causing the cathedral to lose the title. The cathedral is the third largest in Britain (in floor area) after St Paul’s and York Minster. It is held in high regard by historians of architecture with John Ruskin writing: “I have always held… that the cathedral of Lincoln is out and out the most precious piece of architecture in the British Isles and roughly speaking worth any two other cathedrals we have.”

Remigius de Fécamp, the first Bishop of Lincoln, moved the episcopal seat some time between 1072 and 1092. Up until then St. Mary’s Church in Stow was considered to be the “mother church” of Lincolnshire (although it was not a cathedral, because the seat of the diocese was at Dorchester Abbey in Dorchester-on-Thames, Oxfordshire). However, Lincoln was more central to a diocese that stretched from the Thames to the Humber. Bishop Remigius built the first Lincoln Cathedral on the present site, finishing it in 1092 and then dying on 7 May of that year, two days before it was consecrated.

In 1141, the timber roofing was destroyed in a fire. Bishop Alexander rebuilt and expanded the cathedral, but it was mostly destroyed by an earthquake about forty years later, in 1185 (dated by the British Geological Survey as occurring 15 April 1185). The earthquake was one of the largest felt in the UK. After the earthquake, a new bishop was appointed. He was Hugh de Burgundy of Avalon who became known as St Hugh of Lincoln. He began a massive rebuilding and expansion program. Rebuilding began with the choir (St Hugh’s Choir) and the eastern transepts between 1192 and 1210. The central nave was then built in the Early English Gothic style, employing pointed arches, flying buttresses, and ribbed vaulting. This allowed support for incorporating larger windows. There are thirteen bells in the south-west tower, two in the north-west tower, and five in the central tower (including Great Tom). Accompanying the cathedral’s large bell, Great Tom of Lincoln, is a quarter-hour striking clock. The clock was installed in the early 19th century.

 

The two large stained glass rose windows, the matching Dean’s Eye and Bishop’s Eye, were added to the cathedral during the late Middle Ages. The former, the Dean’s Eye in the north transept dates from the 1192 rebuild begun by St Hugh, finally being completed in 1235. The latter, the Bishop’s eye, in the south transept was reconstructed a hundred years later in 1330. A contemporary record, “The Metrical Life of St Hugh”, refers to the meaning of these two windows (one on the dark, north, side and the other on the light, south, side of the building):

For north represents the devil, and south the Holy Spirit and it is in these directions that the two eyes look. The bishop faces the south in order to invite in and the dean the north in order to shun; the one takes care to be saved, the other takes care not to perish. With these Eyes the cathedral’s face is on watch for the candelabra of Heaven and the darkness of Lethe (oblivion).

After the additions of the Dean’s eye and other major Gothic additions it is believed some mistakes in the support of the tower occurred, for in 1237 the main tower collapsed. A new tower was soon started and in 1255 the Cathedral petitioned Henry III to allow them to take down part of the town wall to enlarge and expand the Cathedral, including the rebuilding of the central tower and spire. They replaced the small rounded chapels (built at the time of St Hugh) with a larger east end to the cathedral. This was to handle the increasing number of pilgrims to the Cathedral, who came to worship at the shrine of Hugh of Lincoln.

Between 1307 and 1311 the central tower was raised to its present height of 271 feet (83 m). The western towers and front of the cathedral were also improved and heightened. At this time, a tall lead-encased wooden spire topped the central tower but was blown down in a storm in 1549. With its spire, the tower reputedly reached a height of 525 feet (160 m).

One of the most well-known stone carvings within the cathedral is the Lincoln Imp. There are several variations of the legend surrounding the figure. According to 14th-century legend, two mischievous imps were sent by Satan to do evil work on Earth. After causing mayhem elsewhere in Northern England the two imps headed to Lincoln Cathedral, where they smashed tables and chairs and tripped up the Bishop. An angel appeared in the Angel Choir and ordered them to stop. One of the imps sat on top of a stone pillar and started throwing rocks at the angel whilst the other cowered under the broken tables and chairs. The angel turned the first imp to stone, allowing the second imp to escape.

Lincolnshire is well known for its pork products including pork pies, pork sausages, and haslet which I mention here: http://www.bookofdaystales.com/world-kindness-day/  The chief flavoring for these pork dishes that gives them a distinctively Lincolnshire air is fresh sage.  Let’s turn instead to Lincolnshire plum bread, which once was a Christmas specialty but now can be found throughout the year, and well beyond the confines of Lincolnshire. I like it served toasted with a little butter, but in Lincolnshire it is common to eat plum bread warm in slices with some sharp cheese. Cooks vary as to spices used. Some add allspice or cloves or mixed spice. It’s up to you.

Lincolnshire Plum Bread

Ingredients

2  black tea bags
½ cup dried currants
½ cup golden raisins
½ cup milk, heated to 115°
1 package active dry yeast
¼ cup sugar
1 egg, lightly beaten
2 cups flour
½ tsp ground cinnamon
½ tsp freshly grated nutmeg
½ tsp kosher salt
4 tbsp unsalted butter, softened

Instructions

Steep the tea bags in 1 ½ cups of boiling water for 10 minutes in a mixing bowl. Remove the tea bags and add the currants and raisins to the tea. Let them sit for 30 minutes, then drain and set aside.

Combine the milk and yeast in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a dough hook. Let it sit until foamy (about 5 to 10 minutes). Add the sugar and egg and beat until smooth. Add the flour, cinnamon, nutmeg, and salt, and mix on medium speed until a dough forms. Increase the speed to medium-high and knead for 4 minutes. Add the butter, 1 tablespoon at a time, mixing until the butter is incorporated after each addition, and continue kneading until the dough is smooth. Add the currants and raisins, and mix until evenly incorporated.

Transfer the dough to a 9″ x 5″ x 2½” loaf pan and cover loosely with a kitchen towel. Let the dough rise until it has doubled in size (about 1½ hours). Check after about 1 hour because the rising is affected by many variables. Use the 2 second test. Press on the dough gently. If it springs back slowly let it rise a little longer. When it springs back in 2 seconds it is ready.

Preheat the oven to 375°F.

Bake the loaf until it  is golden brown on top and a toothpick inserted into the middle comes out clean.

Let the loaf cool completely before slicing and serving.

 

Oct 242016
 

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The cathedral in Chartres was consecrated on this date in 1262. I could ramble on about its architecture, stained glass etc. but I am not going to (well — maybe a little). You can look that up for yourself, or, better yet, visit the cathedral. Instead I want to do two things. First, talk about the personal view of the cathedral by my friend and colleague Eric Carlson who taught with me at Purchase college for many years, and who wrote and lectured on the cathedral. Second, talk about the current restoration efforts which have seriously polarized opinion into haters and lovers.

When I taught Freshman Studies at Purchase college in the 1980s  we had weekly plenary lectures for the entire freshman class (around 150 students) on a variety of subjects from ancient Greece to Einstein. Eric gave a slide lecture for many years on Chartres cathedral as part of our segment on Medieval Europe. He began by talking about the cathedral from the perspective of the pilgrim journeying on foot or horseback to Chartres. For miles and miles pilgrims could navigate towards Chartres because the cathedral is visible across the plains from a great distance.

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As you get into the outskirts of the town it gets bigger and more magnificent.

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But when you get quite close, the buildings obscure it from view.

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Then suddenly you are upon it in all of its majesty.

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The pride of the cathedral is the stained glass (although, of course, there’s plenty of other features to admire, including the incredibly ornate exterior). The point about the glass is that to fit such large and complex windows, the whole architecture had to be designed to allow for such large piercings in the walls. The use of a three-part elevation with external flying buttresses allowed for far larger windows than earlier designs, particularly at the clerestory level.

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Most cathedrals of the period had a mixture of windows containing plain or grisaille glass on the one hand and windows containing dense stained glass panels on the other, with the result that the brightness of the former tended to diminish the impact of the latter. At Chartres, nearly all of the 176 windows were filled with equally dense stained glass, creating a relatively dark but richly colored interior in which the light filtering through the myriad narrative and symbolic windows was the main source of illumination, made possible because they were so large.

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The majority of the windows now visible at Chartres were made and installed between 1205 and 1240, but four lancets preserve panels of Romanesque glass from the 12th century which survived a fire in 1195. Three of these are located beneath the rose in the west façade: the Passion window to the south, the Infancy of Christ in the center and a Tree of Jesse to the north. All three of these windows were originally made around 1145 but were restored in the early 13th century and again in the 19th.

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The other 12th-century window, perhaps the most famous at Chartres, is the so-called « Notre-Dame de la Belle-Verrière », found in the first bay of the choir after the south transept. This window is actually a composite; the upper part, showing the Virgin and child surrounded by adoring angels, dates from around 1180 and was probably positioned at the centre of the apse in the earlier building. The Virgin is depicted wearing a blue robe and sitting in a frontal pose on a throne, with the Christ Child seated on her lap raising his hand in blessing. This composition, known as the Sedes sapientia (‘Throne of Wisdom’), which also appears on the Portail royal, is based on the famous cult figure kept in the crypt. The lower part of the window, showing scenes from the Infancy of Christ, dates from the main glazing campaign around 1225.

Each bay of the aisles and the choir ambulatory contains one large lancet window, most of them roughly 8.1m high by 2.2m wide. The subjects depicted in these windows, made between 1205 and 1235, include stories from the Old and New Testament and the Lives of the Saints as well as typological cycles and symbolic images such as the signs of the zodiac and labors of the months, or the Good Samaritan parable. Most windows are made up of around 25–30 individual panels showing distinct episodes within the narrative; only « Notre-Dame de la Belle-Verrière » includes a larger image made up of multiple panels.

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Several of the windows at Chartres include images of local tradesmen or laborers in the lowest two or three panels, often with details of their equipment and working methods. Traditionally it was claimed that these images represented the guilds of the donors who paid for the windows. In recent years however this view has largely been discounted, not least because each window would have cost around as much as a large mansion house to make – while most of the laborers depicted would have been subsistence workers with little or no disposable income. Furthermore, although they became powerful and wealthy organizations in the later medieval period, none of these trade guilds had actually been founded when the glass was being made in the early 13th century. A more likely explanation is that the Cathedral clergy wanted to emphasize the universal reach of the Church, particularly at a time when their relationship with the local community was often a troubled one.

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Because of their greater distance from the viewer, the windows in the clerestory generally adopt simpler, bolder designs. Most feature the standing figure of a saint or Apostle in the upper two-thirds, often with one or two simplified narrative scenes in the lower part, either to help identify the figure or else to remind the viewer of some key event in their life. Whereas the lower windows in the nave arcades and the ambulatory consist of one simple lancet per bay, the clerestory windows are each made up of a pair of lancets with a plate-traceried rose window above. The nave and transept clerestory windows mainly depict saints and Old Testament prophets. Those in the choir depict the kings of France and Castille and members of the local nobility in the straight bays, while the windows in the apse hemicycle show those Old Testament prophets who foresaw the virgin birth, flanking scenes of the Annunciation, Visitation and Nativity in the axial window.

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The cathedral has three large rose windows. The western rose, made c.1215 and 12 m in diameter shows the Last Judgement – a traditional theme for west façades. A central oculus showing Christ as the Judge is surrounded by an inner ring of 12 paired roundels containing angels and the Elders of the Apocalypse and an outer ring of 12 roundels showing the dead emerging from their tombs and the angels blowing trumpets to summon them to judgment.

Enough about windows. Eric went on about them for a long time. They are magnificent but slides do not do them justice. Before electric lighting, the windows and candles were the sole source of illumination. Now there is electric lighting everywhere. Despite the stained glass, the interior can seem gloomy to the modern eye.  The question arose several years ago whether this gloominess was appropriate both architecturally and spiritually. Surely in the 13th century when it was built Chartres was a testament to light?

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In 2009 the Monuments Historiques division of the French Ministry of Culture began a 18.5 million dollar program of works at the cathedral, described as a “restoration project.” Part of the project involved painting the interior masonry creamy-white, with trompe l’oeil marbling and gilded detailing. The restoration architect in charge of this painting is Frédéric Didier. The goal of the project, which is due for completion in 2017, is to make the cathedral look as it would have done when finished in the 13th century.

The goal of the project and its results has been widely condemned. Architectural critic Alexander Gorlin described the goal as a “great lie,” writing that the “idea that the 13th century interior of Chartres can be recreated is so totally absurd as to be laughable” and that it is “against every single cultural trend today that values the patina of age and the mark of time rather than the shiny bling of cheap jewelry and faux finishes.” Alasdair Palmer called the project an “ill-conceived makeover.” Architectural historian Martin Filler described the work as a “scandalous desecration of a cultural holy place”, an “unfolding cultural disaster,” and stated that it violates international conservation protocols, in particular the 1964 Charter of Venice of which France is a signatory.

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The restoration has however received almost universal backing from French experts and from the general public. Malcolm Miller, author of a number of books on the cathedral and widely considered one of its greatest expert, dismissed the objections: “They talk about the patina of the centuries. Nonsense. Rubbish. This is not the patina of the centuries. It is the rotting remains of a whitewash from the 18th century. The people who built this cathedral intended that its interior should be light. There was nothing natural about its darkness. It was nothing to do with ageing of the stone. It was caused, first of all, by centuries of candle smoke and then by a stupid decision to install oil-fired central heating in the 1950s. More recently, there was smoke damage from a couple of fires.”

So . . . which side are you on? Do you like art and architecture as it is now after centuries of change, or do you like it restored to its original state? Obviously with Chartres there are some practical considerations. We don’t know exactly what the interior looked like. There are only the most vagrant historical clues as to the original surfacing of the walls to go on. There is no question that in one sense the modern restoration is a “lie.” But is it a “great” lie, or just a little white lie?

In the art world in general, restoration of paintings and frescoes has been both reviled and praised. When the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel was brightened up some people were exalted, others alarmed. There is always going to be a group of people who likes the “patina of age.” I wonder whether Michelangelo would have liked the patina. It is not his doing. It is the doing of centuries of candle soot. When I was a student at Oxford in the 1960s and ‘70s the buildings were all scarred with a century of black soot from industry and cars. Then the colleges set to work cleaning the exteriors. Reclamation or ruination? When Rembrandt’s paintings were cleaned up they were completely changed. Obscured features emerged and the whole sensibility changed. His “Night Watch” was so called because it seemed to depict a night scene. But this was due to varnish that had darkened over time making it look like night. When it was removed in the 1940s a completely different – brighter – scene emerged, much closer to Rembrandt’s vision. How about you? Are you a “patina of the ages” type or not. I’m not. I’ll ask Eric what he thinks after I have posted this.

Here’s a recipe for souris d’agneau that is popular in the region of Chartres. “Souris” is the French for “mouse” but there are no mice involved. Souris d’agneau means lamb shank in English, one of my favorite cuts of meat (if cooked right). To do this properly you need lots of rock salt and duck fat (when you roast duck or goose ALWAYS save the fat). Traditionally cooks use a cocotte, a style of covered Dutch oven.

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Souris d’agneau

Ingredients

4 lamb shanks
8 tbsp duck fat (or olive oil)
6 tbsp honey
4 tbsp fresh herbs, chopped (thyme, rosemary, parsley)
1 head garlic

Instructions

Cover the shanks completely with rock salt (I mean bury them) and refrigerate overnight if you are squeamish.

Preheat your oven to 180°C/350°F.

Pour the oil and honey in your cocotte or Dutch oven. Heat on the stove over low heat, and stir to  combine. Add the herbs. It doesn’t hurt to bruise them a little in a mortar and pestle first. If you have to use dried herbs, halve the quantity.  Add the shanks and roll them around in the oil/honey mix to coat. Break apart the head of garlic and toss in the cloves skin and all.

Cover the pot and put in the center of your oven. Check after about an hour and a half. That’s usually enough for me. The shanks should be browned and nicely falling apart. Longer usually causes the pot to dry out. Serve on a heated serving dish with the sauce poured over the shanks. Rice or potatoes and a green salad make a good accompaniment.

 

Feb 132016
 

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Today is a significant day for the city of Ely in the fens in Cambridgeshire for two reasons. First it is the feast day of St Ermenilda of Ely, and, second, because on this date in 1322 the main tower of Ely cathedral collapsed leading to the building of one of the most spectacular cathedral towers in Europe. I thought I would take the opportunity to give an account of the history of Ely cathedral (with a nod to Ermenilda) to demonstrate how, like many of the great cathedrals of Europe, it took shape over centuries and, in a way, is still a work in progress. Ely cathedral is not a finished “thing” to just go and stare at. It is a living, evolving form with a long history that is entangled with major events in the history of England. Ely Cathedral is the physical result and manifestation of the complex interaction over time of human foible, ingenuity, and ambition, warfare, politics, geology, and artistry. An anthropologist’s dream and joy. Pardon my excesses here. If it all wearies you, skip to my little discourse on cooking elvers – taking in the images on the way.

Ely Abbey was founded in 672, by Æthelthryth (St Etheldreda), daughter of the East Anglian King Anna http://www.bookofdaystales.com/aethelthryth/ It was a mixed community of men and women. Later accounts suggest her three successor abbesses were also members of the East Anglian Royal family (including Ermenilda). In later centuries the depredations of Viking raids may have resulted in its destruction, or at least the loss of all records. It is possible that some monks provided a continuity through to its refoundation in 970, under a Benedictine rule. The precise site of Æthelthryth’s original monastery is not known. The presence of her relics, bolstered by the growing body of literature on her life and miracles, was a major driving force in the success of the refounded abbey. The church building of 970 was within or near the nave of the present building, and was progressively demolished from 1102 alongside the construction of the Norman church. Ermenilda of Ely was abbess here after her husband, Wulfhere of Mercia, died in 675.

St Ermenilda

St Ermenilda

The cathedral is built from stone quarried from Barnack in Northamptonshire (bought from Peterborough Abbey, whose lands included the quarries, for 8000 eels a year), with decorative elements carved from Purbeck Marble and local clunch. The plan of the building is cruciform (cross-shaped), with an additional transept at the western end. The total length is 537 feet (163.7 m), and the nave at over 75 m long (250 ft) remains one of the longest in Britain. The west tower is 66m high (215 ft). The unique Octagon ‘Lantern Tower’ is 23 m (74 ft) wide and is 52 m (170 ft) high. Internally, from the floor to the central roof boss the lantern is 43 m (142 ft) high.

Having a pre-Norman history spanning 400 years and a re-foundation in 970, Ely over the course of the next hundred years had become one of England’s most successful Benedictine abbeys, with lands exceeded only by Glastonbury, a famous saint, treasures, library and book production of the highest order. However the imposition of Norman rule was particularly problematic at Ely. Newly arrived Normans such as Picot of Cambridge took possession of abbey lands, there was appropriation of daughter monasteries such as Eynesbury by French monks, and interference by the Bishop of Lincoln was undermining its status. All this was exacerbated when, in 1071, Ely became a focus of English resistance to the Norman Conquest, through such people as Hereward the Wake, culminating in the Siege of Ely, for which the abbey suffered substantial fines.

Under the Normans almost every English cathedral and major abbey was rebuilt from the 1070s onwards. If Ely was to maintain its status then it had to initiate its own building work, and the task fell to Abbot Simeon. He was the brother of Walkelin, the Bishop of Winchester, who had been prior at Winchester Cathedral when the rebuilding began there in 1079. In 1083, a year after Simeon’s appointment as abbot of Ely, and when he was 90 years old, building work began. The years since the conquest had been turbulent for the Abbey, but the unlikely person of an aged Norman outsider effectively took the parts of the Ely monks, reversed the decline in the abbey’s fortunes, and found the resources, administrative capacity, identity and purpose to begin a grand new building.

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The design had many similarities to Winchester, a cruciform plan with central crossing tower, aisled transepts, a three storey elevation and a semi-circular apse at the east end. It was one of the largest buildings under construction north of the Alps at the time. The first phase of construction took in the eastern arm of the church, and the north and south transepts. However a significant break in the way the masonry is laid indicates that, with the transepts still unfinished, there was an unplanned halt to construction that lasted several years. It would appear that when Abbott Simeon died in 1093, an extended interregnum caused all work to cease. The administration of Ranulf Flambard may have been to blame. He illegally kept various posts unfilled, including that of Abbot of Ely, so he could appropriate the income. In 1099 he got himself appointed Bishop of Durham, in 1100 Abbot Richard was appointed to Ely and building work resumed. It is Abbot Richard who asserted Ely’s independence from the Diocese of Lincoln, and pressed for it to be made a diocese in its own right, with the Abbey Church as its Cathedral. Although Abbot Richard died in 1107, his successor Hervey le Breton was able to achieve this and become the first Bishop of Ely in 1109. This period at the start of the 12th century was when Ely re-affirmed its link with its Anglo-Saxon past. The struggle for independence coincided with the period when resumption of building work required the removal of the shrines from the old building and the translation of the relics into the new church. This appears to have allowed, in the midst of a Norman-French hierarchy, an unexpectedly enthusiastic development of the cult of these Anglo-Saxon saints and benefactors.

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The Norman east end and the whole of the central area of the crossing are now entirely gone, but the architecture of the transepts survives in a virtually complete state, to give a good impression of how it would have looked. Massive walls pierced by Romanesque arches would have formed aisles running around all sides of the choir and transepts. Three tiers of archways rise from the arcaded aisles. Galleries with walkways could be used for liturgical processions, and above that is the Clerestory with a passage within the width of the wall.

Construction of the nave was underway from around 1115, and roof timbers dating to 1120 suggest that at least the eastern portion of the nave roof was in place by then. The great length of the nave required that it was tackled in phases and after completing four bays, sufficient to securely buttress the crossing tower and transepts, there was a planned pause in construction. By 1140 the nave had been completed together with the western transepts and west tower up to triforium level, in the fairly plain early Romanesque style of the earlier work. Another pause now occurred, for over 30 years, and when it resumed, the new mason found ways to integrate the earlier architectural elements with the new ideas and richer decorations of early Gothic.

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The half-built west tower and upper parts of the two western transepts were completed under Bishop Geoffrey Ridel (1174–89), to create an elaborate west front, richly decorated with intersecting arches and complex mouldings. The new architectural details were used systematically in the higher storeys of the tower and transepts. Rows of trefoil heads and use of pointed instead of semicircular arches, results in a west front with a high level of uniformity. Originally the west front had transepts running symmetrically either side of the west tower. Stonework details on the tower show that an octagonal tower was part of the original design, although the current western octagonal tower was not installed until 1400. Numerous attempts were made, during all phases of its construction to correct problems from subsidence in areas of soft ground at the western end of the cathedral. In 1405-7, to cope with the extra weight from the octagonal tower, four new arches were added at the west crossing to strengthen the tower. The extra weight of these works may have added to the problem, as at the end of the fifteenth century the north-west transept collapsed. A great sloping mass of masonry was built to buttress the remaining walls, which remain in their broken-off state on the north side of the tower.

The Galilee porch is now the principal entrance into the Cathedral for visitors. Its original liturgical functions are unclear, but its location at the west end meant it may have been used as a chapel for penitents, a place where liturgical processions could gather, or somewhere the monks could hold business meetings with women, who were not permitted into the abbey. It also has a structural role in buttressing the west tower. The walls stretch over two storeys, but the upper storey now has no roof, it having been removed early in the nineteenth century. Its construction dating is also uncertain. Records suggest it was initiated by Bishop Eustace (1197–1215), and it is a notable example of Early English Gothic style. But there are doubts about just how early, especially as Eustace had taken refuge in France in 1208, and had no access to his funds for the next 3 years. George Gilbert Scott argued that details of its decoration, particularly the ‘syncopated arches’ and the use of Purbeck marble shafts, bear comparison with St Hugh’s Choir, Lincoln Cathedral, and the west porch at St Albans, which both predate Eustace, whereas the foliage carvings and other details offer a date after 1220, suggesting it could be a project taken up, or re-worked by Bishop Northwold.

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The first major reworking of an element of the Norman building was undertaken by Bishop Northwold (bishop 1229–54). The eastern arm had been only four bays, running from the choir (then located at the crossing itself) to the high altar and the shrine to Etheldreda. In 1234 Bishop Northwold began an eastward addition of six further bays, which were built over 17 years, in a richly ornamented style with extensive use of Purbeck marble pillars and foliage carvings. It was built using the same bay dimensions, wall thicknesses and elevations as the Norman parts of the nave, but with an Early English Gothic style that makes it ‘the most refined and richly decorated English building of its period’. St Etheldreda’s remains were translated to a new shrine immediately east of the high altar within the new structure, and on completion of these works in 1252 the cathedral was reconsecrated in the presence of King Henry III and Prince Edward. As well as a greatly expanded presbytery, the new east end had the effect of inflating still further the significance of St Etheldreda’s shrine. Surviving fragments of the shrine pedestal suggest its decoration was similar to the interior walls of the Galilee porch. The relics of the saints Wihtburh, Seaxburh (sisters of St Etheldreda) and Eormenhild (daughter of Seaxburh) would also have been accommodated, and the new building provided much more space for pilgrims to visit the shrines, via a door in the North Transept. The presbytery has subsequently been used for the burials and memorials of over 100 individuals connected with the abbey and cathedral.

In 1321, under the sacrist Alan of Walsingham work began on a large free-standing Lady Chapel, linked to the north aisle of the chancel by a covered walkway. The Chapel is 100 feet (30 m) long and 46 feet (14 m) wide, and was built in an elaborate Decorated Gothic style over the course of the next 30 years. Masons and finances were unexpectedly required for the main church from 1322, which must have slowed the progress of the Chapel. The north and south wall each have five bays, comprising large tracery windows separated by pillars each of which has eight substantial niches and canopies which once held statues. Below the window line, and running round three sides of the Chapel is an arcade of richly decorated ‘nodding ogees’, with Purbeck marble pillars, creating scooped out seating booths. There are three arches per bay plus a grander one for each main pillar, each with a projecting pointed arch covering a subdividing column topped by a statue of a bishop or king. Above each arch is a pair of spandrels containing carved scenes which create a cycle of 93 carved relief sculptures of the life and miracles of the Virgin Mary. The carvings and sculptures would all have been painted. The window glass would all have been brightly colored with major schemes perhaps of biblical narratives, of which a few small sections have survived. At the Reformation, the edict to remove images from the cathedral was carried out very thoroughly by Bishop Goodrich. The larger statues have gone. The relief scenes were built into the wall, so each face or statue was individually hacked off, but leaving many finely carved details, and numerous puzzles as to what the original scenes showed. After the Reformation it was redeployed as the Parish Church for the town, a situation which continued up to 1938.

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The central octagonal tower, with its vast internal open space and its pinnacles and lantern above, forms the most distinctive and celebrated feature of the cathedral. However, what has been described as Ely’s ‘greatest individual achievement of architectural genius’ came about through a disaster at the center of the Cathedral. On the night of 12–13 February 1322, possibly as a result of digging foundations for the Lady Chapel, the Norman central crossing tower collapsed. Work on the Lady Chapel was suspended as attention transferred to dealing with this disaster. Instead of being replaced by a new tower on the same ground plan, the crossing was enlarged to an octagon, removing all four of the original tower piers and absorbing the adjoining bays of the nave, chancel and transepts to define an open area far larger than the square base of the original tower. The construction of this unique and distinctive feature was overseen by Alan of Walsingham. The extent of his influence on the design continues to be a matter of debate, as are the reasons such a radical step was taken. Mistrust of the soft ground under the failed tower piers may have been a major factor in moving all the weight of the new tower further out. The large stone octagonal tower, with its eight internal archways, leads up to spectacular timber fan-vaulting that appears to allow the large glazed timber lantern to balance on their slender struts. The roof and lantern are actually held up by a complex timber structure above the vaulting which could not be built in this way today because there are no trees big enough any more. The central lantern, also octagonal in form, but with angles offset from the great Octagon, has panels showing pictures of musical angels, which can be opened, with access from the Octagon roof-space, so that real choristers can sing from on high. More wooden vaulting forms the lantern roof. At the centre is a wooden boss carved from a single piece of oak, showing Christ in Majesty. The elaborate joinery and timberwork was done by William Hurley, master carpenter in the royal service.

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It is unclear what damage was caused to the Norman chancel by the fall of the tower, but the three remaining bays were reconstructed under Bishop John Hotham (1316-1337) in an ornate Decorated style with flowing tracery. Structural evidence shows that this work was a remodeling rather than a total rebuilding. New choir stalls with carved misericords and canopy work were installed beneath the octagon, in a similar position to their predecessors. Work was resumed on the Lady Chapel, and the two westernmost bays of Northwold’s presbytery were adapted by unroofing the triforia so as to enhance the lighting of Etheldreda’s shrine. Starting at about the same time the remaining lancet windows of the aisles and triforia of the presbytery were gradually replaced by broad windows with flowing tracery. At the same period extensive work took place on the monastic buildings, including the construction of the elegant chapel of Prior Crauden.

In the late 15th and early 16th centuries elaborate chantry chapels were inserted in the easternmost bays of the presbytery aisles, on the north for Bishop John Alcock (1486-1500) and on the south for Bishop Nicholas West (1515–33). Alcock was appointed Bishop of Ely in 1486. The resources Ely put at his disposal allowed him found Jesus College, Cambridge and build his own fabulous chantry chapel in an ornate style. The statue niches with their architectural canopies are crammed so chaotically together that some of the statues never got finished as they were so far out of sight. Others, although completed, were overlooked by the destructions of the reformation, and survived when all the others were destroyed. The extent that the chapel is squashed in, despite cutting back parts of the Norman walls, raises the possibility that the design, and perhaps even some of the stonework, was done with a more spacious bay at Worcester in mind. On his death in 1500 he was buried within his chapel.

Nicholas West had studied at Cambridge, Oxford, and Bologna, had been a diplomat in the service of Henry VII and Henry VIII, and became Bishop of Ely in 1515 where he lived in opulence with over 100 servants. He was able to build the magnificent Chantry chapel at the south-east corner of the presbytery, paneled with niches for statues (which were destroyed or disfigured just a few years later during the Reformation), and with fan tracery forming the ceiling, and West’s tomb on the south side.

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In 1771 the chapel was also used to house the bones of seven Saxon ‘benefactors of the church’. These had been translated from the old Saxon Abbey into the Norman building, and had been placed in a wall of the choir when it stood in the Octagon. When the choir stalls were moved, their enclosing wall was demolished, and the bones of Wulfstan (died 1023), Osmund of Sweden, Athelstan of Elmham, Ælfwine of Elmham, Ælfgar of Elmham, Eadnoth of Dorchester and Byrhtnoth, eorldorman of Essex, were found, and relocated into Bishop West’s chapel.

On 18 November 1539 the royal commissioners took possession of the monastery and all its possessions, and for nearly two years its future hung in the balance as Henry VIII and his advisors considered what role, if any, cathedrals might play in the emerging Protestant church. On 10 September 1541 a new charter was granted to Ely, at which point Robert Steward, the last Prior, was re-appointed as the first Dean, who, with eight prebenderies formed the Dean and Chapter, the new governing body of the cathedral. Under Bishop Goodrich’s orders, first the shrines to the Anglo-Saxon saints were destroyed, and as iconoclasm increased, nearly all the stained glass and much of the sculpture in the Cathedral was destroyed or defaced during the 1540s. In the Lady Chapel the free-standing statues were destroyed and all 147 carved figures in the frieze of St Mary were decapitated, as were the numerous sculptures on Bishop West’s chapel. The cathedrals themselves were spared on the basis of three useful functions: propagation of “true worship” of God, educational activity, and care of the poor.

Difficult as the 16th century had been for the cathedral, it was the period of the Commonwealth that came nearest to destroying both the institution and the buildings. Throughout the 1640s, with Oliver Cromwell’s army occupying the Isle of Ely, a puritanical regime of worship was imposed. Bishop Wren was arrested in 1642 and spent the next 18 years in the Tower of London. That no significant destruction of images occurred during the Civil War and the Commonwealth would appear to be because it had been done so thoroughly 100 years before. In 1648 parliament encouraged the demolition of the buildings, so that the materials could be sold to pay for ‘relief of sick and maimed soldiers, widows and children’. That this didn’t happen, and that the building suffered nothing worse than neglect, may have been due to protection by Oliver Cromwell, although the uncertainty of the times, and apathy rather than hostility to the building may have been as big a factor.

When Charles II was invited to return to Britain, alongside the political restoration there began a process of re-establishing the Church of England. Bishop Wren, whose high church views had kept him in prison throughout the period of the Commonwealth, was able to appoint a new Cathedral Chapter. The Dean, by contrast was appointed by the crown. The three big challenges for the new hierarchy were to begin repairs on the neglected buildings, to re-establish Cathedral services, and to recover its lands, rights and incomes. The search for lost deeds and records to establish their rights took over 20 years but most of the rights to the dispersed assets appear to have been regained.

In the 1690s a number of very fine baroque furnishings were introduced, notably a marble font (now in Prickwillow church,) and an organ case mounted on the Romanesque pulpitum (the stone screen dividing the nave from the liturgical choir) with trumpeting angels and other embellishments. In 1699 the north-west corner of the north transept collapsed and had to be rebuilt. The works included the insertion of a fine classical doorway in the north face. Christopher Wren has sometimes been associated with this feature, and he may have been consulted by Robert Grumbold, the mason in charge of the project. Grumbold had worked with Wren on Trinity College Library in Cambridge a few years earlier, and Wren would have been familiar with the Cathedral through his uncle Matthew Wren, bishop from 1638 to 1667. He was certainly among the people with whom the Dean (John Lambe 1693-1708) discussed the proposed works during a visit to London. The damaged transept took from 1699 to 1702 to rebuild, and with the exception of the new doorway, the works faithfully re-instated the Romanesque walls, windows, and detailing. This was a landmark approach in the history of restoration.

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In the 18th century James Bentham and James Essex made a number of significant changes to the cathedral. James Bentham (1709 – 1794), building on the work of his father Rev. Samuel Bentham, studied the history of both the institution and architecture of the cathedral, culminating in 1771 with his publication of The History and Antiquities of the Conventual and Cathedral Church of Ely. He sought out original documents to provide definitive biographical lists of abbots, priors, deans and bishops, alongside a history of the abbey and cathedral, and was able to set out the architectural development of the building with detailed engravings and plans. These plans, elevations and sections had been surveyed by the architect James Essex (1722–1784), who by this means was able to both highlight the poor state of parts of the building, and understand its complex interdependencies. The level of expertise that Bentham and Essex brought to the situation enabled a series of repairs and sensitive improvements to be proposed that occupied much of the later 18th century. Essex identified the decay of the octagon lantern as the starting point of a major series of repairs, and was appointed in 1757 to oversee the work. 400 years of weathering and decay may have removed many of the gothic features, and shortage of funds allied to a Georgian suspicion of ornament resulted in plain and pared down timber and leadwork on the lantern. He was then able to move on to re-roof the entire eastern arm and restore the eastern gable which had been pushed outwards some 2 feet (61 cm). Bentham and Essex were both enthusiastic proponents of a longstanding plan to relocate the 14th century choir stalls from under the octagon. With the octagon and east roof dealt with, the scheme was embarked on in 1769, with Bentham, still only a minor canon, appointed as clerk of works. By moving the choir stalls to the far east end of the cathedral, the octagon became a spacious and dramatic public area for the first time, with grand vistas to east and west and spectacular views of the octagon vaulting. They also removed the Romanesque pulpitum and put in a new choir screen two bays east of the octagon, surmounted by the 1690s organ case. Despite their antiquarian interests, Bentham and Essex appear to have dismantled the choir stalls with alarming lack of care, and saw no problem in clearing away features at the east end, and removing the pulpitum and medieval walls surrounding the choir stalls. The north wall turned out to incorporate the bones of seven ‘Saxon worthies’ which would have featured on the pilgrim route into the pre-Reformation cathedral. The bones were rehoused in Bishop West’s Chapel. The choir stalls, with their misericords were however retained, and the restoration as a whole was relatively sympathetic by the standards of the period.

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The next major period of restoration began in the 1840s and much of the oversight was the responsibility of Dean George Peacock (1839–58). In conjunction with the Cambridge Professor Robert Willis, he undertook thorough investigations into the structure, archaeology and artistic elements of the building, and made a start on what became an extensive series of refurbishments by restoring the south-west transept. This had been used as a workshop, and by stripping out more recent material and restoring the Norman windows and arcading, they set a pattern that would be adopted in much of the Victorian period works. In 1845, by which time the cathedral had works underway in many areas, a visiting architect, George Basevi, who was inspecting the west tower, tripped, and fell 36 feet to his death. He was given a burial in the north choir aisle. Works at this time included cleaning back thick layers of limewash, polishing pillars of Purbeck marble, painting and gilding roof bosses and corbels in the choir, and a major opening up of the West tower. A plaster vault was removed that had been put in only 40 years before, and the clock and bells were moved higher. The addition of iron ties and supports allowed removal of vast amounts of infill that was supposed to strengthen the tower, but had simply added more weight and compounded the problems.

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George Gilbert Scott was, by 1847, emerging as a successful architect and keen exponent of the Gothic Revival. He was brought in, as a professional architect to bolster the enthusiastic amateur partnership of Peacock and Willis, initially in the re-working of the fourteenth-century choir stalls. Having been at the East end for 80 years, Scott oversaw their move back towards the Octagon, but this time remaining within the eastern arm, keeping the open space of the Octagon clear. This was Scott’s first cathedral commission. He went on to work on a new carved wooden screen and brass gates, moved the high altar two bays westwards, and installed a lavishly carved and ornamented alabaster reredos, a new font for the south-west transept, a new Organ case and later a new pulpit, replacing the neo-Norman pulpit designed by John Groves in 1803. In 1876 Scott’s designs for the octagon lantern parapet and pinnacles were implemented, returning it to a form which, to judge from pre-Essex depictions, seems to be genuinely close to the original. Various new furnishings replaced the baroque items installed in the 1690s.

In 1845 Edward Sparke, son of the former Bishop Sparke, and himself a canon, spearheaded a major campaign to re-glaze the Cathedral with colored glass. At that time there was hardly any medieval glass (mostly a few survivals in the Lady Chapel) and not much of post-Reformation date. An eighteenth century attempt to get James Pearson to produce a scheme of painted glass had produced only one window and some smaller fragments. With the rediscovery of staining techniques, and the renewed enthusiasm for stained glass that swept the country as the nineteenth century progressed, almost all areas of the cathedral received new glazing. Under Sparke’s oversight, money was found from donors, groups, bequests, even gifts by the artists themselves, and by Edward Sparke himself. A wide variety of designers and manufacturers were deliberately used, to help find the right firm to fill the great lancets at the east end. In the event, it was William Wailes who undertook this in 1857, having already begun the four windows of the octagon, as well as contributions to the south west transept, south aisle and north transept. Other windows were by the Gérente brothers, William Warrington, Alexander Gibbs, Clayton and Bell, Ward and Nixon, Hardman & Co., and numerous other individuals and firms from England and France.

A timber boarded ceiling was installed in the nave and painted with scenes from the Old and New Testaments, first by Henry Le Strange and then, after Le Strange’s death in 1862, completed by Thomas Gambier Parry, who also repainted the interior of the octagon.

A further major program of structural restoration took place between 1986 and 2000 under Deans William Patterson (1984–90) and Michael Higgins (1991-2003), directed by successive Surveyors to the Fabric, initially Peter Miller and from 1994 Jane Kennedy. In 2000 a Processional Way was built, restoring the direct link between the north choir aisle and the Lady Chapel.

So, yes, I’ve gone a bit overboard in this, admittedly derivative, epitome of the history of the cathedral. Much the same could be done for just about every cathedral in Europe. It amuses be to do so. As an end note I’ll point out that Ely was an island in the Fens until they were drained in the 17th century, and now – an island of sorts – still rises above vast expanses of flat land. Hence the cathedral is sometimes called the “Ship of the Fens.”

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The economy of the region is mainly agricultural. Before the fens were drained, the harvesting of osier (willow) and sedge (rush) and the extraction of peat were important activities, as were eel fishing and wild fowling. Go to the link on Æthelthryth at the beginning for my long-ish discourse on Ely and eels. Here I’ll simply give you a recipe for elvers. Eels begin life as flat and transparent larvae, or leptocephali. Eel larvae drift in the surface waters of the sea, feeding on “marine snow,” small particles that float in the water. Eel larvae then metamorphose into glass eels and then become elvers before finally seeking out their juvenile and adult habitats. They are caught in traps as they migrate upstream or sometimes fished from rivers with large nets. At one time they were cheap food, but now they are an expensive delicacy – fetching £ 3,500 per pound recently in England.

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In Spain, where I have had them, they are called angulas and are available in restaurants in Madrid. True angulas are very expensive, so portions are small. Mock angulas, commonly called gulas may be substituted. Gulas are made from cheap white fish extruded into long thin shapes like pasta. They are available in jars or cans, are a much more affordable option and have a similar flavor profile to elvers.

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You can treat elvers much like pasta, by poaching them and making a simple dressing of, say, olive oil and garlic (my favorite), or something more elaborate if you wish, such as a tomato sauce. They are delicate but can handle a rich sauce.

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The classic English way to cook elvers is to fry them in bacon fat and serve them with scrambled eggs or in an omelet. Be warned, though. You cook elvers live, so if you have trouble with boiling lobsters you may not like the process. When you buy real elvers they are silvery transparent, but turn white when they are done.  Do not overcook them.

Dec 202015
 

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On this date in 1955 Cardiff was proclaimed the capital city of Wales. Surprised that it is so recent? Wales was subsumed under English hegemony from the 13th to 19th centuries, when its distinctive culture (which was always there) was finally acknowledged politically. Until 1955 London was the de facto capital. Cardiff was a small town of little importance until the early 19th century when its prominence as a major port for the transport of coal and manufactured goods developed following the arrival of mining and attendant industries in the region.

King Edward VII granted Cardiff city status on 28 October 1905, and the city acquired a Roman Catholic Cathedral in 1916. In subsequent years an increasing number of national institutions were located in the city, including the National Museum of Wales, Welsh National War Memorial, and the University of Wales Registry Building—however, it was denied the National Library of Wales, partly because the library’s founder, Sir John Williams, considered Cardiff to have “a non-Welsh population.”

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After a brief post-war boom, Cardiff docks entered a prolonged decline in the interwar period. By 1936, their trade was less than half its value in 1913, reflecting the slump in demand for Welsh coal. Bomb damage during the Cardiff Blitz in World War II included the devastation of Llandaff Cathedral, and in the immediate postwar years the city’s link with the Bute family (of major importance in the development of modern Cardiff in the 19th century) came to an end.

The city was proclaimed capital city of Wales on 20 December 1955, through a written statement by the Home Secretary Gwilym Lloyd George. Caernarfon (rather more Welsh in culture than Cardiff), had also vied for this title. The Encyclopedia of Wales notes that the decision to recognize the city as the capital of Wales “had more to do with the fact that it contained marginal Conservative constituencies than any reasoned view of what functions a Welsh capital should have”. Although the city hosted the Commonwealth Games in 1958, Cardiff only became a center of national administration with the establishment of the Welsh Office in 1964, which later prompted the creation of various other public bodies such as the Arts Council of Wales and the Welsh Development Agency, most of which were based in Cardiff.

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Archaeological evidence from sites in and around Cardiff—the St Lythans burial chamber, near Wenvoe (about four miles (6.4 km) west, south west of Cardiff city centre), the Tinkinswood burial chamber, near St Nicholas (about six miles (10 km) west of Cardiff city centre), the Cae’rarfau Chambered Tomb, Creigiau (about six miles (10 km) north west of Cardiff city centre) and the Gwern y Cleppa Long Barrow, near Coedkernew, Newport (about eight and a quarter miles (13.5 km) north east of Cardiff city centre)—shows that people had settled in the area by at least around 6,000 BP during the early Neolithic; about 1,500 years before either Stonehenge or the Great Pyramid of Giza was completed. A group of five Bronze Age tumuli is at the summit of The Garth (Welsh: Mynydd y Garth), within the county’s northern boundary. Four Iron Age hill fort and enclosure sites have been identified within Cardiff’s present-day county boundaries, including Caerau Hillfort, an enclosed area of 5.1 hectares (51,000 m2)

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Until the Roman conquest of Britain, Cardiff was part of the territory of the Silures – a Celtic British people that flourished in the Iron Age – whose territory included the areas that would become known as Breconshire, Monmouthshire and Glamorgan. The 3.2-hectare (8-acre) fort established by the Romans near the mouth of the River Taff in 75 AD, in what would become the north western boundary of the centre of Cardiff, was built over an extensive settlement that had been established by the Silures in the 50s CE. The fort was one of a series of military outposts associated with Isca Augusta (Caerleon) that acted as border defenses. The fort may have been abandoned in the early 2nd century as the area had been subdued. However, by this time a civilian settlement, or vicus, was established. It was likely made up of traders who made a living from the fort, ex-soldiers and their families. A Roman villa has been discovered at Ely. Contemporary with the Saxon Shore Forts of the 3rd and 4th centuries, a stone fortress was established at Cardiff. Similar to the shore forts, the fortress was built to protect Britannia from raiders. Coins from the reign of Gratian indicate that Cardiff was inhabited until at least the 4th century; the fort was abandoned towards the end of the 4th century, as the last Roman legions left the province of Britannia with Magnus Maximus.

Little is known about the fort and civilian settlement in the period between the Roman departure from Britain and the Norman Conquest. The settlement probably shrank in size and may even have been abandoned. In the absence of Roman rule, Wales was divided into small kingdoms; early on, Meurig ap Tewdrig emerged as the local king in Glywysing (which later became Glamorgan). The area passed through his family until the advent of the Normans in the 11th century.

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In 1081 king William I of England, began work on the castle keep within the walls of the old Roman fort. Cardiff Castle has been at the heart of the city ever since. The castle was substantially altered and extended during the Victorian period by John Crichton-Stuart, 3rd Marquess of Bute, and the architect William Burges. Original Roman work can, however, still be distinguished in the wall facings.

A small town grew up in the shadow of the castle, made up primarily of settlers from England. Cardiff had a population of between 1,500 and 2,000 in the Middle Ages, a relatively normal size for a Welsh town in this period. By the end of the 13th century, Cardiff was the only town in Wales with a population exceeding 2,000, but it was relatively small compared with most notable towns in England. In the early 12th century a wooden palisade was erected around the city to protect it. Cardiff was a busy port in the Middle Ages, and was declared a Staple port (look it up) in 1327. Henry II travelled through Cardiff on his journey to Ireland and forbade the holding of Sunday markets at St Piran’s Chapel, which stood in the middle of the road between the castle entrance and Westgate.

In 1404 Owain Glyndŵr burned Cardiff and took Cardiff Castle. As the town was still very small, most of the buildings were made of wood and the town was destroyed. However, the town was soon rebuilt and began to flourish once again.

In 1536, the Act of Union between England and Wales led to the creation of the shire of Glamorgan, and Cardiff was made the county town. It also became part of Kibbor hundred. Around this same time the Herbert family became the most powerful family in the area. In 1538, Henry VIII closed the Dominican and Franciscan friaries in Cardiff, the remains of which were used as building materials. A writer around this period described Cardiff: “The River Taff runs under the walls of his honours castle and from the north part of the town to the south part where there is a fair quay and a safe harbour for shipping.” Cardiff had become a Free Borough in 1542. In 1573, it was made a head port for collection of customs duties, and in 1581, Elizabeth I granted Cardiff its first royal charter. Pembrokeshire historian George Owen described Cardiff in 1602 as “the fayrest towne in Wales yett not the welthiest.”, and the town gained a second Royal Charter in 1608.

During the English Civil War, St Fagans just to the west of the town, played host to the Battle of St Fagans. The battle, between a Royalist rebellion and a New Model Army detachment, was a decisive victory for the Parliamentarians and allowed Oliver Cromwell to conquer Wales. It was the last major battle to occur in Wales, with about 200 (mostly Royalist) soldiers killed.

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In the ensuing century Cardiff was at peace. In 1766, John Stuart, 1st Marquess of Bute married into the Herbert family and was later created Baron Cardiff, and in 1778 he began renovations on Cardiff Castle. In the 1790s a racecourse, printing press, bank and coffee house all opened, and Cardiff gained a stagecoach service to London. Despite these improvements, Cardiff’s position in the Welsh urban hierarchy had declined over the 18th century. Iolo Morgannwg called it “an obscure and inconsiderable place”, and the 1801 census found the population to be only 1,870, making Cardiff only the 25th largest town in Wales, well behind Merthyr and Swansea.

In 1793, John Crichton-Stuart, 2nd Marquess of Bute was born. He would spend his life building the Cardiff docks and would later be called “the creator of modern Cardiff”. A twice-weekly boat service between Cardiff and Bristol was established in 1815, and in 1821, the Cardiff Gas Works was established. After the Napoleonic Wars Cardiff entered a period of social and industrial unrest, starting with the trial and hanging of Dic Penderyn in 1831.

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The town grew rapidly from the 1830s onwards, when the Marquess of Bute built a dock, which eventually linked to the Taff Vale Railway. Cardiff became the main port for exports of coal from the Cynon, Rhondda, and Rhymney valleys, and grew at a rate of nearly 80% per decade between 1840 and 1870. Much of the growth was due to migration from within and outside Wales: in 1841, a quarter of Cardiff’s population were English-born and more than 10% had been born in Ireland. By the 1881 census, Cardiff had overtaken both Merthyr and Swansea to become the largest town in Wales. Cardiff’s new status as the premier town in South Wales was confirmed when it was chosen as the site of the University College South Wales and Monmouthshire in 1893.

Cardiff faced a challenge in the 1880s when David Davies of Llandinam and the Barry Railway Company promoted the development of rival docks at Barry. Barry docks had the advantage of being accessible in all tides, and David Davies claimed that his venture would cause “grass to grow in the streets of Cardiff”. From 1901 coal exports from Barry surpassed those from Cardiff, but the administration of the coal trade remained centered on Cardiff, in particular its Coal Exchange, where the price of coal on the British market was determined and the first million-pound deal was struck in 1907. The city also strengthened its industrial base with the decision of the owners of the Dowlais Ironworks in Merthyr (who would later form part of Guest, Keen and Nettlefolds) to build a new steelworks close to the docks at East Moors, which Lord Bute opened on 4 February 1891.

Cardiff’s fortunes in the 20th century followed those of South Wales in general – growth through the 2 world wars followed by decline in the 1970s up to the turn of the century. The stereotypical 20th century image of Wales as a land of coalminers and male voice choirs is reflected in this clip from John Ford’s 1941 movie “How Green was my Valley.”

But when the BBC Dr Who spinoff, Torchwood, was first filmed in Cardiff in 2006, the city was represented as a highly modern urban center. “There’s not a male voice choir … or a miner in sight.” said BBC Wales Controller Menna Richards. Conservative MP Michael Gove described the debut of Torchwood as the moment confirming “Wales’ move from overlooked Celtic cousin to underwired erotic coquette.”

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The national symbol of Wales is the leek, and I have covered this vegetable more than enough in posts here with cock-a-leekie, leek and potato soup, and buttered leeks, plus the myriad uses of leeks in soups and stews. Right now leeks are in season in Mantua, so, having lived without them (proper ones) in Argentina and China for close on 6 years, I now use them every chance I get, and always have a plenteous stock on hand. Instead, therefore, I will turn to another Welsh staple, laver.

Laver is an edible, littoral alga (seaweed). In Wales, laver is used commonly as a vegetable of for making laverbread. It is smooth in texture and forms delicate, sheet-like thalli, often clinging to rocks. The principal variety is purple laver (Porphyra umbilicalis). Purple laver is classified as a red alga, tends to be a brownish color, but boils down to a dark green pulp when prepared. It is unusual amongst seaweeds because the fronds are only one cell thick. Laver has a high content of dietary minerals, particularly iodine and iron. The high iodine content gives the seaweed a distinctive flavor in common with olives and oysters.

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Laver cultivation as food is thought to be very ancient, though the first mention was in Camden’s in the early 17th century. It is plucked from the rocks and given a preliminary rinse in clear water. The collected laver is repeatedly washed to remove sand, and then boiled for hours until it becomes a stiff, green mush. In this state, the laver can be preserved for about a week. Typically during the 18th century, the mush was packed into a crock and sold. Nowadays you can get frozen laver mush online quite easily.

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Laver can be eaten cold as a salad with lamb or mutton, or heated with butter and the juice of a lemon or Seville orange. Commonly now it is served heated with cockles and bacon as part of a Welsh breakfast. Or you can make laverbread. Simply coat a patty of laver mush in oats and fry it in lard or bacon fat. Richard Burton has been quoted as describing laverbread as “Welshman’s caviar”.