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Ely in 1837

ELY, a city in the Isle of Ely in the northern part of the county of Cambridge, 16 miles N.N.E. from Cambridge and 67 N by E. from London.

According to Bede, the word Ely, which was given to a large district of fens in which the city is situated as well as to the city itself, is derived from Elge or Elig, an ‘eel,’ and consequently has reference to the abundance of eels in the neighbourhood. But most antiquarians derive the appellation from Helig, a British name for the willow, which grows in great quantities in the isle. Etheldreda, daughter of Anna king of East Anglia, and wife of Oswy king of Northumberland, preferring cloistered seclusion to courtly splendour, retired here about the year 670, and soon after founded a monastery, which was dedicated to the Virgin Mary, and of which she became the abbess. In 870 the whole abbey was pillaged and destroyed by the Danes, and all its revenues annexed to the crown, which retained them till the reign of Edgar. In 970 that king granted the isle with all its appurtenances, privileges, &c., to Ethelwold, bishop of Winchester, who rebuilt the monastery, and provided it with monks The charter of Edgar was confirmed by Canute and Edward the Confessor, and subsequently by the Pope. The isle was gallantly defended against William the Conqueror, but after repeated attacks the inhabitants were obliged to surrender, many of them were put to the sword, and most of the valuable furniture and jewels of the monastery were seized, but through the firmness of Theodwin, who had been made abbot, the property was restored. In 1107 Ely was erected into a bishopric by Henry I and Hervey, bishop of Bangor, was appointed to the see. The lands of the monastery were divided between the bishopric and the monks, and the monastery was governed by the prior, who was called the Lord Prior. After the surrender of the monastery to Henry VIII, he granted a charter to convert the conventual church into a cathedral by the title of the Cathedral Church of the Undivided Trinity. The cathedral of Ely is the workmanship of many different periods, and displays a singular mixture of various styles of architecture, but taken as a whole it is a noble structure. The most ancient part is the transept, which was erected in the reigns of William Rufus and Henry I. The nave and great western tower were built in 1174, and the other parts of the edifice, which consists of a nave, transept, an octagon tower, choir, antichoir, Trinity chapel, Galilee porch, &c., were erected at different periods between that time and the year 1534.

The interior is exceedingly beautiful ; the nave is supported by lofty columns, almost without ornament, which perhaps adds to the imposing effect. The octagon tower combines solidity with gracefulness probably more than any other building of the kind in Great Britain ; and the choir is a perfect specimen of the early English style of pointed architecture. The stalls are beautiful specimens of wood carving. The whole length of the edifice, including the Galilee porch, is 517 feet ; and the western tower, which is of exquisite workmanship, is 270 feet high.

There are many interesting monuments, among which are the tomb and effigies of Bishop Alcock, and that of Tiptoft, earl of Worcester. The bishops of Ely, like those of Durham, formerly possessed, by grant of Henry I., Jura regalia, appointed their own chief justice, chief bailiff, &c., but their secular jurisdiction is taken away by the 6th and 7th William IV, c. 87, and vested in the king, who is empowered to appoint a Custos Rotulorum for the isle. The gaol is abolished, and committals are made to the county gaol at Cambridge. The quarter sessions are still held by the justices of' the peace of the isle, but the assizes are now held by her majesty's judges who join the Norfolk circuit.

The bishop has considerable patronage at Cambridge ; he is visitor of four colleges, appoints absolutely to the mastership and one fellowship of Jesus College chooses one out of two nominated by the society to be master of St. Peter's college, and has besides nearly 100 livings in his gift.

The city is situated on a considerable eminence near the river Ouse, which is navigable for barges from Lynn to Ely. It consists principally of one long street partially paved ; in the centre of the town is a spacious market-place. The soil in the vicinity is exceedingly fertile, and supplies great quantities of fruit, vegetables, and butter to the London market. There is a considerable manufactory for earthenware and tobacco-pipes, and there are several mills in the isle for the preparation of oil from flax, hemp, and cole-seed. The market is on Thursday for corn and cattle. The fairs are on Ascension-day and the eight following days and October 29th for horses, cattle, hops, and Cottenham cheese. The population of the city is 6,189, of whom 3,152 are females. There were in 1831 1,246 inhabited houses, and 718 families employed in trade and agriculture. The isle of Ely contains a population of 47,152.

The city, exclusively of the liberty of the college, which is extra-parochial, comprises the parishes of St. Mary and the Holy Trinity, in the peculiar jurisdiction and patronage of the dean and chapter. The living of St. Mary's is a perpetual curacy of the clear yearly value of £94. The church is a handsome building, partly in the Norman and partly in the early English style of architecture. The Church of the Holy Trinity is attached to the cathedral, and is what formerly was the Lady Chapel. It was; commenced in the reign of Edward II, and is one of the most perfect buildings of that age. It is 200 feet in length, 46 in breadth, and 60 in height ; it has neither pillars nor side-aisles, but is supported by strong spiring buttresses, surmounted with pinnacles. The living is of the yearly value of £116,. There are places of worship for Baptists, Independents, and Wesleyan Methodists. The grammar-school, founded by Henry VIII in 1541 is under the control of the dean and chapter, who appoint the master. There is also a national school for boys and girls supported by voluntary contributions. A charity school was founded in 1730 by Mrs. Catherine Needham, who endowed it with lands worth nearly £400 per annum for the instruction and clothing of thirty boys, with each of whom an apprentice fee of £20 is given, issuing out of lands bequeathed by Bishop Lancy for that purpose. James Bentham, whose history of Ely is not only interesting as a local history, but valuable for the observations which it contains on the Saxon, Norman, and Gothic styles of architecture, was educated at the grammar-school of this City.