I was attracted around by the way of Ely, to see the cathedral there, instead of taking the Huntingdon route more directly to Cambridge. This was quite a loss, for Oliver Cromwell was born in Huntingdon. Hinchinhroke House, the property of his family, now belongs to the Earl of Sandwich.
But Ely Cathedral was not to be lost. It is frozen history as well as “frozen music.” I value these old structures because such wealth of English history is embodied in them; their human interest, after all, is greater than their artistic. Ely is said to be derived from “willow,” or a kind of willow or ozier island, upon which the abbey and town were built in the midst of marshes. Among these impenetrable marshes Hereward the Saxon retreated; and here, too, we have that bit of genuine antique poetry which from its simplicity must have described a true scene; and we catch a glimpse of that pleasing and soothing picture, amid those rude and bloody days, of King Canute and his knights resting for a moment upon their toiling oars to hear the vesper song of the monks.
The foundation of the cathedral was laid in 1083, and it was finished in 1534. In printed lists of its bishops, as in those of other English cathedral churches, I have noticed that they are given in their chronological succession, right on, the bishops of the Reformed Church being linked upon the Roman Catholic bishops. The bishopric of Ely was partially carved out of the bishopric of Lincoln, and comprizes Cambridge in its jurisdiction. It has, therefore, had all the riches, influence, taste, and learning of the University to bear upon the restoration of its noble old cathedral; and of all the old churches of England this one exhibits indications of the greatest modern care and thought bestowed upon it. It glows with new stained-glass windows, splendid marbles, exquisite sculptures, and bronze work. Its western tower, 266 feet in height, turreted spires, central octagon tower, flying buttresses, unequaled length of 517 feet, and its vast, irregular bulk soaring above the insignificant little town at its foot, make it a most commanding object seen from the flat plain.
What is called the octagon, which has taken the place of the central tower that had fallen, is quite an original feature of the church. Eight arches, rising from eight ponderous piers, form a windowed tower, or lantern, which lets in a flood of light upon the otherwise gloomy interior. Above the keystone of each arch is the carved figure of a saint. The new brasses of the choir are wonder-fully elaborate. The bronze scroll and vine work of the gates and lamps, for grace and Oriental luxuriance of fancy, for their arabesque and flower designs, might fitly have belonged to King Solomon’s Temple of old. The modern woodwork of the choir compares also well with the ancient wood-work carving. Gold stars on azure ground, and all vivid coloring and gilding, are freely used. The new “reredos,” or altar screen, is one marvelous crystallization of sculptures. The ancient Purbeck marble pillars have been scraped and re-polished, and form a fine contrast to the white marbles on which they are set. If, indeed, one wishes to see what modern enthusiasm, art, and lavish wealth can do for the restoration and adorning of one of these old temples, he must go to Ely Cathedral.