The fair of Ely, commencing on the 29th of October, used to exhibit a picturesque kind of memorial of the Saint to whom the day had been originally dedicated, and from whom the Isle has derived, in a great measure, its importance; we refer to the ribbons of various colours then offered for sale—no ordinary merchandise, for they had touched the shrine of St. Etheldreda, more popularly known as St. Audrey, and were thence called St. Audrey’s ribbons. Put this, like so many of our other interesting customs, has shared the fate of the views and sentiments that first gave them birth, and disappeared, and we must now look to the dusty records of our local antiquaries for any tokens of remembrance of the pious lady to whom we owe the foundation of the great religious establishment on the Isle, and therefore remotely of the Cathedral itself, which was connected with it. Yet the history of Etheldreda was one calculated to live in the popular recollection. She was the daughter of Anna, King of East Anglia, who gave her the Isle of Ely as a part of her dowry on her marriage with Tonbert, a nobleman of the same kingdom. After Tonbert’s death she married Egfrid, King of Northumberland; but from a very early period all her affections and desires seem to have been placed on a monastic life— we are informed she lived with both husbands in a state of virginity —and so she finally obtained the unwilling consent of the king to her retirement to the cloister, and took the veil at Coldingham. Egfrid, however, who was passionately attached to her, withdrew this permission, and brought her home. Determined to fulfil what she conceived to be her mission, she again left him, secretly, and fled to the Isle of Ely, where she began the erection of the monastery, assisted by her brother, then King of the East Angles. Egfrid, still persevering in his endeavours to compel her to live with him, was (so the monastic writers tell us) warned to desist, by a miracle. As he pursued her with a body of knights, the rock on which she happened at the time to be standing, accompanied by her maidens, was suddenly surrounded by water. After that Etheldreda was allowed to pursue her own way in peace. And then the new monastery was finished, dedicated to the Virgin Mary, and the foundress appointed its first Abbess. Bede has given us a striking view of her domestic life in this high office. It appears she never wore any linen, but only woollen garments, ate only once a day, except during sickness, or on occasions of great festivals, and never, except when her ill-health rendered indulgence necessary, returned to bed after matins, which were held in the church at midnight, but made it her custom to continue there at prayers till day-break. The fame of all this sanctity and discipline gained many and distinguished converts. Persons of the noblest family, matrons of the highest rank, we are told, devoted themselves to religion under her guidance; even some of royal state joined her, resigning all the comforts and luxuries to which they had been accustomed, for the hard fare and severe monotony of a monastic life; such were Etheldreda’s own relatives—Sexburga, her sister, Queen of Kent; Ermenilda, Sexburga’s daughter; and Wurburga, the daughter of Ermenilda, who succeeded each in turn to the Abbacy. Etheldreda died, as she had foretold, of a contagious disorder, and was buried, as she had directed, in a wooden coffin, in the common cemetery of the nuns. The chief events of her life, as here narrated, and others to which we have not thought it necessary to refer, are shown in a series of sculptures which decorate some of the pillars in the Cathedral.

In 870 the Abbey thus erected was pillaged and destroyed by the Danes, and all its revenues seized for the use of the crown. Put King Edgar, in 970, regranted the whole to Ethelwold, Bishop of Winchester, who rebuilt the monastery, and placed a number of monks in it. It was no doubt after this complete restoration that the Bishop invited Ethelred, brother of the reigning monarch, Edward the Martyr, to visit Ely, who came with his mother and some of the nobility, and went in solemn procession to the shrine of St. Etheldreda; where the young prince, whose heart seems to have been filled with veneration for the memory of the virgin-wife, promised to become her devoted servant. This was the prince for whom that mother, then present, afterwards murdered her elder born Edward; Ethelred then ascended the throne, and subsequently evidenced in various ways that he had not forgotten his visit to Ely. As to his mother, Elfrida, the annals of Ely tell of another murder committed by her, only less atrocious than that which has made her memory for ever infamous. Desiring to get rid of Abbot Brithnoth, she is said to have resorted to her usual mode of solving such difficulties—a violent death—and which was thus accomplished. Her servants having heated sharp-pointed irons in the fire, thrust them into the Abbot’s body beneath the arm-pits; Elfrida considering, probably, that with a little management, as to the display and care of the corpse, she would thus be able to avoid discovery. And, if such was her hope, she was gratified; for the cause of Brithnoth’s death appears to have remained unknown till remorse for the murder of her son made Elfrida herself confess this murder too.

The next event in the history of the monastery is connected with one of those struggles against the Normans, that have peculiarly attracted the popular attention. It was in the Isle of Ely that Hereward, “England’s darling,” as his countrymen affectionately and admiringly called him, held out for a considerable period against all the forces of the Conqueror, causing him a great amount of loss, anxiety, and undissembled rage and mortification; and it was in the famous monastery of the Isle, that the patriots appear to have found at first their warmest religious supporters. And although there were some recreant few of the monks, who, having made a profession of fasting up to a certain point, were so utterly averse to going beyond it, that when provisions grew scarce, they treacherously showed the Normans a way into the Isle, and thus caused Hereward to be at last driven from it; yet the history of William’s conduct towards the Abbey seems to show that the monks generally had been actuated by nobler principles, and had really given all possible aid to the brave Hereward; on the reduction of the Isle, the furniture and precious jewels of the monastery were seized, and its lands were divided among the Norman chieftains. The firmness of a Norman ecclesiastic alone prevented the ruin that thus seemed to threaten the establishment. Theodwin having been named Abbot by William, refused to enter upon the duties of his Abbacy till all the property of the monastery had been restored to it; and so the restoration was made.

A pleasant evidence of the amiable character of the monks of Ely is furnished by an incident that is supposed to have occurred during the time that Theodwin’s friend, Godfrey, held the office of Procurator, there having been a temporary vacancy of the Abbacy after Theodwin’s death. The story also gives a curious illustration of the uses to which our Kings were sometimes accustomed to turn the religious establishments of England. Certain knights and gentlemen, who are understood to have belonged for the most part to the best families of the country, and who were officers in the King’s army, were sent down by the King to be quartered for a time in the monastery, until he could better provide for them, or until he needed their services. The monks received them well, admitted them to dine with themselves in the common hall or refectory, and at last grew so much attached to them, that when they were called away to go into Normandy, to repress the insurrection of Robert, the King’s son, the monks conducted them a portion of the way with solemn procession, and singing, and only parted with them at Hadenham, after mutual expressions of deep regret and respect. We need only add to the foregoing historical notices, that Ely was raised into a bishopric by the King, Henry I., in 1107, who thus expected to decrease the political importance of the Isle, by dividing the ecclesiastical lands and authority; and that after the dissolution of monasteries, Henry VIII. raised the church to the rank of a Cathedral—dedicated to the Undivided Trinity.

A glance at our engraving (Fig. 661) will show that this building is at once noble and remarkable. The elegant lantern-like character of the towers in particular arrests our attention, and we are further surprised to find that the shorter of the two occupies the position generally assigned to the main tower, namely the centre of the structure, whilst the larger forms a portion of the Western front. The interior of the octagon tower presents a no less interesting peculiarity of rich architectural effect. In looking at the date of the different parts of the Cathedral, we are naturally curious to know first if there be any remains of Etheldreda’s work, and we are answered in the affirmative, and referred to the various antique specimens of masonry now enclosed within, or forming parts of the walk of the neighbouring prebendal houses. Of the Cathedral itself, the oldest portion is the transept, which appears to be of the style prevalent in the early part of the twelfth century, and was therefore, in all likelihood, built when the erection of the bishopric gave a new dignity to the church, and demanded, as may have been thought, a more magnificent structure. The transept therefore is Norman, with circular arches and heavy pillars; and the nave, which was erected in the same century, does not materially differ from it. Between 1174 and 1189, however, the great western tower was erected by Bishop Rydel, and afforded a noble example of the mighty architectural changes which a single century had brought forth; elegance and beauty were fast growing upon the solid foundation that had been laid for them. Before the close of the same century the Galilee Chapel was built. The Presbytery, now used as the Choir, was the work of half a century later, when pointed architecture had attained a state of essential perfection; if we contrast the choir of Ely with the choirs of other Cathedrals more distinguished for their exquisite architecture, we find that it is mere elaborateness of decoration that makes the difference. And it is no slight merit in the builders of our Cathedrals that they knew how to go on elaborating without losing in the process all the more valuable qualities of their productions; it is something to be able to say, after looking at the exquisite purity of the Choir of Ely, that the Octagon Tower is the most beautiful part of the whole building, simply because it is the latest.

The height of this tower is one hundred and seventy feet. The dimensions of the other parts of the Cathedral are, the West Tower two hundred and seventy feet, Transept one hundred and ninety feet, entire length five hundred and thirty-five feet. The monuments present some superb specimens of sculpture—such are the tombs of Bishops Alcott and West,—and some memorials of still higher interest than art can give, though not altogether disconnected with art; we allude more particularly to the tomb of Tiptoft, the ill-fated Earl of Worcester, the patron of Caxton, and a man of such universal accomplishments that, when he was executed at Tower Hill, in 1470, it was said, “The axe then did at one blow cut off more learning than was left in the heads of all the surviving nobility.