Ely Cathedral from the south-east. First completed, 1189; extensively restored by George Gilbert Scott, 1847 onwards. Ely, Cambridgeshire. Photograph and text by Jacqueline Banerjee. 2008. [You may use this image without prior permission for any scholarly or educational purpose as long as you (1) credit the photographer and (2) link your document to this URL in a web document or cite the Victorian Web in a print one.]

Built on higher ground in very flat fenland countryside, Ely Cathedral can be seen for miles around. It gives the appearance of great length. Measurements provided by different sources vary: for example, according to the 1880 edition of the Handbook, its nave is 203' long (35), while according to M. S. Carey's more recent guide, it is 248' long (13). Nikolaus Pevsner sets the length of the cathedral as a whole at 537' (348). Because of the lie of the land here, and the building's proportions, and no doubt also because the surrounding fenland was only drained in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the cathedral is sometimes affectionately referred to as "The Ship of the Fens."

In Victorian times, George Gilbert Scott not only made "elaborate repairs" to the West Tower (Carey 16), and extensive internal restorations, but enhanced the cathedral's exterior. When he restored the "extremely pretty timber lantern" of the distinctive octagon above the transept, he added "the spirelets of the stone pinnacles, the whole pinnacles in the central sides of the Octagon, the crestings of stone and timber, and the four-light timber windows" (Pevsner 347n). Victorian church and cathedral restorations are often criticised, but, as Michael W. Brooks comments: "Someday a long and scholarly book will appear showing how much posterity owes Scott" (269).

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Related Material


Brooks, Michael W. John Ruskin and Victorian Architecture. London: Thames and Hudson, 1989.

Carey, M. S. Ely Cathedral. Crawley: Pitkin, 1973.

Handbook to the Cathedral Church, with Some Account of ther Monastic Buildings, &c. at Ely. Ely: T. A. Hills and Son, 11th ed. 1880. Available here.

Pevsner, Nikolaus. The Buildings of England: Cambridgeshire. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 2nd ed. 1970.

Last modified 29 July 2008