Ely's name is derived from 'Eel District', a creature plentiful in the area and an important part of the Saxon diet. At one stage Wisbech paid its rent to Ely at the rate of 14,000 eels per year! In the writing of Bede in the 8th century it is specificaly referred to as an insulae or island. On rising ground in the midst of the wet fenlands, it finally ceased to be an island when Vermuyden and others undertook their drainage schemes for the 1600s onwards.
The present magnificent cathedral stands on the site of a seventh century abbey. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle says that it was established by Etheldra in 673, with a house for monks and a house for nuns, Etheldra becoming the first abbess of the latter. Later the marauding Norsemen, the Vikings would sacked all the fenland abbeys - Crowland, Peterborough and Ely - and killed the last East Anglian king, Edmund.
It would be during the bishoprics of Ethelwold and Oswald that many of the early abbeys were restored, including that at Ely, with the Benedictines bringing their rule to Ely about 970. In 1083 the current building was commenced, originally as a the church for the Benedictine monks, before becoming a cathedral when the bishopric was established in 1108.
The see of Ely became very rich. Monks and their labourers tended vineyards in the town. Inlets or hithes led off the river to enable trade along the Great Ouse to King's Lynn and much further afield around the coast and to the continent. Merchants' houses and offices - 'counting houses' - were established, and some of Ely's buildings today have survived from those times. One of the most popular of Ely's exports was its ale, from a substantial brewing industry down by the river.
The nave of the Norman cathedral used to lead to a chancel below a central tower.The collapse of this tower in 1322 gave the opportunity to Alan de Walsingham to design and build the octagonal tower which we see today. The tower or lantern is described as one of the finest engineering feats of the Middle Ages. The Ely Porta, the three storeyed gatehouse, is another of the features we can continue to enjoy.
St Audrey's fair at Ely was one of the great English fairs in medieval times - though those selling at today's Ely fairs may not wish to recall the derivation of the word 'tawdry' coming from the sales of tinsely wares at St Audrey's fair.
The nature of the Isle of Ely made it possible for Hereward the Wake to maintain Saxon resistance to the Normans in the 11th century, and later the baron Geoffrey de Mandeville could operate his rule of terror from there, in opposition to King Stephen. A weak king, after several decades of stability, had left England open to many rebellions, and de Mandeville's was one of the most vicious. At Ely 'They put men in prison for their gold and silver, they hung them up by the feet and smoked them with foul smoke...' and several other unpleasant tortures we won't quote here! A line of castles was established along the fen edge to try and contain de Mandeville; he would meet his death whilst attacking the castle at Burwell.
The monastery of Ely was surrendered to Henry VIII at the time of the dissolution of the monasteries in 1539, but fortunately he did re-establish the church, within the site of the dissolved monastery, thus preserving some of buildings through to the present day.
Another building from past times to be visited both for itself and for further information about Ely is Oliver Cromwell's house. He had inherited lands in the area from his mother's brother, Sir Thomas Steward, and his family settled in Ely for eleven years. Today Ely Tourist Information Centre is housed in Cromwell's house.
The status of the town was further enhanced with the coming of the Eastern Counties Railway in 1845, and the line was then incorporated in the Great Eastern Railway. It became familiar not only to travellers on the north-south journey, but was and is a frequent stopping place for trains making the cross country journey from East Anglia to the midlands and north.
Today Ely is a city, though in terms of size of population one might think of it as a large town. It was the county town of the Isle of Ely, an adminstrative county in its own right until the boundary changes of 1974. Recent regeneration projects have enhanced the town, provided improved control of traffic and opened up new park areas by the river.
There is much to enjoy on a visit to Ely. Both the cathedral itself and the associated outbuildings can be visited, with a formal tour if that's your preference. There is a stained glass museum and brass rubbing is possible. Ely Museum is a centre to interpret both the Isle of Ely and the Fens. The ancient fairs follow through to the general market every Thursday, the craft and collectables fairs on Saturdays and the Farmers' Markets on the second and fourth Saturdays.
A cannon from the time of the Crimean war stands guard before the great tower of the cathedral
The Tourist Information Centre is housed in the Cromwell family house
A new park area - with fountain - has been established down by the river
Just one example of elegant tracery work in a window of the Romanesque cathedral
Alan de Walsingham's octagonal lantern now tops the cathedral