Church architecture in Hertfordshire and elsewhere, art, books, and whatever crosses my path

Sunday 13 February 2022

Ely octagon: seven hundred years after the fall of the tower

In the early hours of February 13th, 1322 - that is, exactly seven hundred years ago today - the Norman central tower of Ely Cathedral collapsed.* Such events weren't unknown as the ambition of Norman architects did sometimes exceed their abilities; the central tower of St David's Cathedral, Pembrokeshire, had fallen a century earlier in 1220, for example. It seems that the monks were aware that something was wrong (which brings to mind the unbearably tense 'singing pillars' incident in William Golding's novel The Spire) and had moved their services from the crossing to the west end of the nave. Nevertheless, when it actually happened their hearts must have been as devastated as their architecture.

No record survives of the tower, though we can have a pretty good idea of what it might have looked like from extant Norman towers (that of Tewkesbury Abbey, for example). But its destruction is more than adequately compensated for by its replacement, the octagon, surely one of Europe's greatest Gothic marvels. When such a collapse happened anywhere else the rubble was cleared and another (preferably sturdier) tower was built in its place. But at Ely another approach entirely was taken. Not only was the rubble cleared, but the remains of the four piers on which the tower had stood were swept away entirely, never to be replaced, creating a large central space at the crossing.

So there was a vast gaping roofless hole in the middle of the cathedral. At this stage probably no one had any idea how such a wide space was going to be covered without a central support or supports, or, indeed, if such a thing were even possible. The driving force behind the rebuilding was the sacrist, Alan of Walsingham (1290s - c.1364); to what extent he was also the designer or architect of the new work is unknown. It is certain that William Hurley (worked 1319-54), the King's master carpenter, was brought in to roof the newly constructed stone octagon, which he did by building a kind of wooden dome with a large lantern in the centre. The western bays of the choir had also been destroyed by the fall of the tower and had to be rebuilt, but the whole job was finished by c.1335, that is in only thirteen years. The result is unlike anything else in the country. There are a few parallels in the rest of Europe, such as the hexagonal crossing of Siena, but Ely with its lantern suspended over a hundred feet in midair outdoes them all.

I'm not going to write in any detail about the octagon; another time, perhaps. I'll let some photographs stand in for my putative and inevitably inadequate words. But I will point out that thanks to the rare survival of the cathedral's accounts for the period we know how much the octagon cost: £2406 6s 11d. (Though it's hard to be sure if this figure is comprehensive.) Comparing prices over such a long period is almost meaningless, but according to the Bank of England's inflation calculator this is the equivalent of about £3,452,922 now. This seems absurdly small. According to Rightmove there are currently 2124 houses in London priced at three million or more, some of them entirely unremarkable except for their location. And yet seven centuries ago three and a half million quid could buy you this:

James Essex (1722-84) restored the octagon in 1757-72; he changed its outward appearance for reasons that remain unknown and hard to fathom, but it is beyond dispute that he did a superb job structurally, adding many necessary timber beams (usually hidden from view) that ensured the building's safety four centuries after it originally been erected. Sir George Gilbert Scott (1811-78), working 1847-78, returned the exterior view to something like its medieval original. The interior was painted by Thomas Gambier Parry (1816-88), who had in 1862-4 completed the painting of the nave ceiling begun by his friend, the splendidly named Henry L'Estrange Styleman Le Strange (1815-62). This must have required formidable scaffolding and a head for heights to reach the central figure of Christ, 141'/43m above the floor. (I've never seen any photographs of the painting in progress; surely some must exist?) Today there are tours of the octagon four times a day, six days a week, that enable the visitor to look down into the cathedral from above the vaulting, and walk on the lead roof around the lantern.

The climb involves ascending a wide and gentle spiral stair to clerestory level and onto the roof of the north transept. From here we can look down onto the Lady Chapel and the eastern arm of the Cathedral:

Then there's another climb up a narrower, steeper spiral stair. I really don't like spiral stairs, especially when there's not a proper handrail; the thought of corkscrewing head over heels to the bottom should you lose your footing has to be consciously ignored. Fortunately, the reward at the top keeps me focused. The interior of the octagon is for me the highlight of the visit. All (or nearly all) of the original woodwork is in situ, and it's easy enough to distinguish it from the newer beams because, unsurprisingly, it looks old, and the new work (mostly Essex's) equally unsurprisingly looks new:

The paintings of angels on the vertical panels at the bottom of the lantern, above the vaulting, are hinged and can be opened to afford spectacular views down into the body of the cathedral:

View into south transept

View into choir and south transept

View into choir

View into nave

View into nave

View into south transept

The high vault with central boss of Christ

View into choir

View into south transept

Close up of the vaulting, clearly showing that it is wood, not stone

Up an even narrower, even more precarious-feeling spiral stair, and you reach the open air. You are face to face with the windows at the top of the lantern. Or not quite at the top, because there is a belfry stage above the windows. This isn't accessible to the public and apparently involves a tricky climb up a ladder, with very little room to manoeuvre. The bells have long been removed (the west tower is the home of the bells heard now) because their movement was proving to be a danger to the stability of the lantern. The views over the fens are prodigious, but I find that they can't compete with the chance to wander around and see details (many of them due to Scott) in close up. Approach the big windows and there is just a thin, fragile barrier between you and a fall of over a hundred feet down to the pavement below, which is another thought that has to be deliberately suppressed:

Looking west with the west tower in the background

A typically semi-competent engraving by Daniel King from William Dugdale's Monasticon Anglicanum (1655), giving an impression of what the octagon might have looked like at the time:

Engravings from James Bentham's The History and Antiquities of the Conventual and Cathedral Church of Ely (1771), sometimes thought of as the first attempt to make a scholarly study of a medieval church:

There are eight corbels from c.1325 depicting the story of the life of St Ethedreda, who founded the monastery at Ely in 673. She remained a virgin despite being married twice (if her sister's name is anything to go by they were unlike in this respect, as she was called Sexburga, which is nearly as good a name as Henry L'Estrange Styleman Le Strange). Her first husband respected her vow of perpetual virginity, as did her second, Ecgfrith, King of Northumbria - at first. However, he changed his mind and she ran away to Ely, which she had inherited from her father, King Anna of East Anglia. Thus the cathedral owes its existence to a royal squabble over conjugal rights:

* Various dates are given by different authorities, most commonly the 12th. Pevsner gives the 22nd (perhaps an attempt to compensate for the fact that the Julian rather than the Gregorian calendat was in use at the time.) However, I'm persuaded by Michael White (in A Promise of Beauty: The Octagon Tower and Lantern at Ely (2007)) who points out that a near-contemporary account, possibly written by the sacrist Alan of Walsingham himself, says that the collapse happened after Matins on the eve of St Ermentilda's Day. Her feast day is February 13th, so the eve of that would be the 12th. But Matins were celebrated at about 2am, and it would seem natural that that time, being long before sunrise, would be considered the eve of the day, and that therefore the tower fell at about 4 or 5am on the 13th.

Another complication concerning the date is that probably it was still 1321 in the estimation of the inhabitants of England, as the New Year didn't begin until March 25th. See here.