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.

Jun 232015
 

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Today is the feast day of Æthelthryth (or Æþelðryþe) an Anglo-Saxon saint also known, particularly in a religious context, as Etheldreda or Audrey. She was an East Anglian princess, a Fenland and Northumbrian queen and Abbess of Ely. Æthelthryth was probably born in Exning, near Newmarket in Suffolk. She was one of the four saintly daughters of Anna of East Anglia, all of whom eventually retired from secular life and founded abbeys.

Æthelthryth made an early first marriage in around 652 to Tondberct, chief or prince of the South Gyrwe. She managed to persuade her husband to respect her vow of perpetual virginity that she had made prior to their marriage. Upon his death in 655, she retired to the Isle of Ely, which she had received from Tondberct as a morning gift.

Æthelthryth was subsequently remarried for political reasons in 660, this time to Ecgfrith of Northumbria. Shortly after his accession to the throne in 670, Æthelthryth became a nun. This step possibly led to Ecgfrith’s long quarrel with Wilfrid, bishop of York. One account relates that while Ecgfrith initially agreed that Æthelthryth should continue to remain a virgin, in about 672 he wished to consummate their marriage and even attempted to bribe Wilfrid to use his influence on the queen to convince her. This tactic failed and the king tried to take his queen from the cloister by force. Æthelthryth then fled back to Ely with two faithful nuns and managed to evade capture, thanks in part to the miraculous rising of the tide. Another version of the legend says that she halted on the journey at ‘Stow’ and sheltered under a miraculously growing ash tree which came from her staff planted in the ground. Stow came to be known as ‘St Etheldred’s Stow’, when a church was built to commemorate this event. It is likely that this ‘Stow’ refers to a village near Threekingham. Ecgfrith later married Eormenburg and expelled Wilfrid from his kingdom in 678. According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Æthelthryth founded a double monastery at Ely in 673, which was later destroyed in the Danish invasion of 870.

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Bede told how after her death, Æthelthryth’s bones were disinterred by her sister and successor, Seaxburh and that her uncorrupted body was later buried in a white, marble coffin. In 695, Seaxburh translated the remains of her sister Æthelthryth, who had been dead for sixteen years, from a common grave to the new church at Ely. The Liber Eliensis describes these events in detail. When her grave was opened, Æthelthryth’s body was discovered to be uncorrupted and her coffin and clothes were said to possess miraculous powers. A sarcophagus made of white marble was taken from the Roman ruins at Grantchester, which was found to be the right fit for Æthelthryth. Seaxburh supervised the preparation of her sister’s body, which was washed and wrapped in new robes before being reburied. She apparently oversaw the translation of her sister’s remains without the supervision of her bishop, using her knowledge of procedures gained from her family’s links with the Faremoutiers Abbey as a basis for the ceremony.

After Seaxburh, Æthelthryth’s niece and her great-niece, both of whom were royal princesses, succeeded her as abbess of Ely.

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St Etheldreda’s Church in Ely Place in Holborn is dedicated to the saint. It was originally part of the palace of the bishops of Ely. After the English Reformation, the palace was used by the Spanish ambassadors, enabling Roman Catholic worship to continue in the church.

St Etheldreda’s is a Roman Catholic parish church in Ely, Cambridgeshire. It is part of the Diocese of East Anglia within the Province of Westminster. The church contains the shrine and relics of Æthelthryth, including her hand.

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St. Etheldreda’s Church in White Notley, Essex, is a Church of England parish church, of Saxon construction, built on the site of a Roman temple, with a large quantity of Roman brick in its fabric. The church has a small Mediaeval English stained glass window, depicting St. Etheldreda, which is set in a stone frame made from a very early Insular Christian Roman Chi Rho grave marker.

The common version of Æthelthryth’s name was St. Audrey, which is the origin of the word “tawdry,” by a shift of the “t” from “saint” to “Audrey.” On St Audrey’s Day (‘Tawdry’s) in the Middle Ages, a fair was held in Ely where lacework was sold. In the 17th century the East Anglian Puritans considered this lacework to be cheap and immodest – hence “tawdry.”

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Ely (pronounced “Eelie”), especially Ely cathedral, is one of my favorite places in England. The name is said (possibly by folk etymology) to be derived from “Isle of Eels” from the time when it was surrounded by water and marshland and eels were plentiful. Here is Anglo-Saxon Ely showing Ely as an island in the marshes.

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Eels are still caught there in the Great River Ouse by the locally well known eel catcher, Peter Carter. Historically eels were part of the local staple diet. You can still get smoked eels at the Ely Farmers’ Market, and eel stew or eel pie at the Lamb Hotel.

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For reasons unknown eels have tended to follow me around. The fishermen of the village in the sounds and marshes of the North Carolina village where I did my Ph.D. fieldwork made a handsome profit from eel catching (in pots) – which they mostly sold to Japanese tradesmen, and outside my house on the Neversink River in Orange Co. New York there was a very successful eel trap. Some of the eels caught there were smoked for local markets.

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I’ve had elvers (baby eels) in Tokyo, and once watched a sushi chef being taught how to dissect live eels in a restaurant in the famed Tsukiji Market.

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When I was a teenager I often went to this pie and eel shop in London with friends of mine who were displaced East Enders. Originally these shops sold eel pies (and there has been a small resurgence of late), but when I went there in the 1960’s the pies were meat – although they still sold jellied eels.

Here’s a 17th century recipe for eel pie from A NEVV BOOKE Of Cookerie. “Coffins” in this context means hot water pastry pie shells.

To bake Eeles.

CUt your Eeles about the length of your finger: season them with Pepper, Salt, and Ginger, and so put them into a Coffin, with a good piece of sweet Butter. Put into your Pye great Razins of the Sunne, and an Onyon minst small, and so close it and bake it.

Here’s also a classic recipe from Mrs Beeton

EEL PIE.

253. INGREDIENTS.—1 lb. of eels, a little chopped parsley, 1 shalot; grated nutmeg; pepper and salt to taste; the juice of 1/2 a lemon, small quantity of forcemeat, 1/4 pint of béchamel (see Sauces); puff paste.

 Mode.—Skin and wash the eels, cut them into pieces 2 inches long, and line the bottom of the pie-dish with forcemeat. Put in the eels, and sprinkle them with the parsley, shalots, nutmeg, seasoning, and lemon-juice, and cover with puff-paste. Bake for 1 hour, or rather more; make the béchamel hot, and pour it into the pie.

Time.—Rather more than 1 hour.

Seasonable from August to March.