The Collapse of the Central Tower of Ely Cathedral
- 13th February 1322 -
The monks had just finished the service of matins, around 4.30am, in the monastery at Ely. There was a noise so loud that they believed they were suffering an earthquake. What had happened was that the central tower of the cathedral, where the nave joins the chancel with the transept going off at right angles, had collapsed. The sacrist, Alan of Walsingham, the man in charge of the building, was devastated. Another monk wrote of him, “He is deeply shocked, grieving vehemently and overcome with sorrow…He knew not which way to turn himself or what to do for the reparation of such a ruin.” No-one is entirely sure why the tower collapsed. The soft earth of the area is one theory another is the narrowness of the pillars at the time.
Ely Cathedral, a largely Romanesque structure, is the fourth longest in the country at a length of 164 metres, behind Winchester which is 165.5m. Its nave is the third longest in the country and the same length as Ely High Street. The word ‘Nave’ comes from the Latin for ship. It is the vessel that contains those who wish to travel to God. The height of the largest tower, the West, is 216feet (66m). Unusually a large town has not grown up around the cathedral which makes it dominate its setting even more than a cathedral usually does.
The first building on the site was created by Saint and Queen Etheldreda. She was the daughter of King Anna of East Anglia and married King Tondbert of South Gyrwe, an East Anglian sub-kingdom. Tondbert gave her the estate of Elge that later became known as Ely. After Tondbert died Etheldreda fled her second husband and committed herself to a life in a monastery and founded one in Ely in 673 for both men and women.
The original monastery was destroyed by Vikings in the 870s before being re-established by the Bishop of Winchester, Athelwold, in 970, this time just for men. The Normans rebuilt many cathedrals and monasteries after the invasion in 1066 mostly for political reasons – using Christianity to establish a hold over the kingdom. A number of additions were made to Ely in the 1080s by Abbot Simeon. His death, in 1093, halted proceedings until the early 1100s when the first Bishop was appointed in 1109.
The central tower was of Norman origin and when it collapsed it left a hole seventy feet wide. Alan of Walsingham had a plan. Instead of rebuilding the tower as before he was going to chop each corner into two - creating an octagon effect. The internal height would be 142feet (43m). What was to be unique about this tower would be the lantern at the top. The 70 feet span of the tower was too large to support a stone vault so one built of wood and covered in lead was used instead. The tower was built in Gothic style with stronger pointed arches and more elaborate decoration.
The Lantern, so-called because the windows at the top let the light through, was 30 feet wide. It was propped on each side by an octagonal prism with huge beams of oak – 8 great oak trees taken from the woods of Chicksands Priory, Bedfordshire. The structure, weighing 400 tons was designed by the King’s carpenter, William Hurley, and is known as one of the wonders of the medieval world.
Christopher Howse, the faith writer for the Daily Telegraph, explains how it works:
‘Imagine the lopped trunks of these eight trees standing upright in a ring (or rather, at the angles of an octagon). This served as the frame of the lantern. It was prevented from crashing down (on to the pavement 100ft below) by long oak baulks, slotting into the outer stone wall of the octagon tower and leaning inwards at a slope of 60 degrees, to be jointed into the upright tree‑trunk posts. These slanting props are known as “raking shores”.
One way of picturing the structure is as a wigwam (of raking shores) cut off at the upper end and given a new top of vertical sticks. As long as the vertical sticks are braced, so as not to tumble inwards, they will be supported by the wigwam structure below.’
The disaster of February 13th turned into a triumph for Alan of Walsingham, turning Ely into one of the most memorable and stunning cathedrals in Britain.