A History of the County of Cambridge and the Isle of Ely: Volume 4, City of Ely; Ely, N. and S. Witchford and Wisbech Hundreds. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 2002.
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MONASTIC BUILDINGS AND PALACE
The remains of the monastic buildings are very extensive, probably the most extensive in the country if we consider not only the extent of the ground plan that is recoverable but also the large number of buildings that stand practically intact with vaulted undercroft and medieval roof.
The Cloister is on the south side of the nave. The gross measurements of the Norman cloister were 130 ft. east to west by 145 ft. north to south. It was enlarged by the rebuilding of the west pane in the 15th century about 19 ft. farther west. The window walls of the north and east panes are practically entire and date apparently from about 1510. These two panes were covered by flat roofs, as they still are in part. The northwest bay was vaulted, as was probably the whole of the west pane. (fn. 1) In the north pane, in the bay next to the north-east angle, there is an armarium recess of the 13th century, formerly rich work but now much mutilated. It takes the place of one contemporary with the wall, of which there is a fragment in place. The cloister garth now forms the deanery garden. Some of the floor joists in the Deanery are probably made up from roof timbers of the cloister. (fn. 2)
From the east pane there was originally a passage to the monks' cemetery, with a doorway into the transept. The passage was converted into a chapel of St. Catherine, and was vaulted early in the 13th century. Next to this passage was the chapter house, of which only parts of the foundations remain. Excavations in 1892 showed that it measured about 76 ft. by 34 ft. It had been demolished by 1649. (fn. 3) All the dorter range has disappeared except for one of the late-12th-century columns with the springing of the vault of the undercroft, near the north end. Of the frater only the lower part of the south wall remains. This was built in the 13th century. It contains evidence, at the east end, of the staircase up to the lectern, and there are the shafts, with foliaged capitals, of a wall arcade. The frater measured 110 by 35 ft. To the south of it there are massive remains of the Norman kitchen, consisting of about two-thirds of its south and west walls. These survived when the rest was destroyed during the Commonwealth because they had been used as end walls for the guest hall and its buttery, later part of the Deanery. The south wall contains a very large round-headed window, now blocked, and two clustered responds with cushion caps. These must have carried arches to support the roof, which may have included a stone lantern in the centre, like the one remaining at Glastonbury.
Behind the kitchen was a large guest hall, (fn. 4) 80 by 30 ft., consisting of five bays and raised on a vaulted undercroft. The undercroft is divided by a row of columns down its length and by a wall separating the western pair of bays from the others. The vaulting of the western bays, without intermediate or ridge ribs, is earlier than that of the rest, which has these features and is particularly fine. The guest hall itself has a 14thcentury open timber roof with arched principals springing from corbels with fine crouching figures. The building dates from the 13th century, and was reconstructed during the 14th. It has a porch of complicated plan, forming entry to (a) the hall itself, (b) the undercroft, (c) the prior's guest hall. The building has been cut up into several stories to form what was once the Deanery and is now the Bishop's House. On the ground floor the doorway leading to the former buttery (now the kitchen) retains its original 14th-century woodwork and ironwork. The study at the west end of the ground floor has a stone party wall, on the line of the one in the undercroft; all the other party walls are of timber. The rooms over the entrance porch were probably in monastic times the offices of certain obedientiaries; after the Dissolution they were used as an audit chamber and later by the registrar. Dean Pearce (1797-1820) replaced them by a Georgian drawing-room, whose sash windows were removed to make room for mullioned ones from Landwade Hall inserted by Dean Goodwin (1858-69). (fn. 5) The east wall of the Deanery, which was of modern brick, was rebuilt in stone between 1858 and 1862 by Styleman le Strange, who designed the north window of the drawing-room. (fn. 6)
To the south of the guest hall was the prior's house, now the Eighth Canonry. It has an early-12th-century vaulted undercroft, but the hall itself was rebuilt by Prior Crauden in the first quarter of the 14th century and the windows are later still. It has a good roof of the 14th century, over the hall, which is of 'curb' or mansard type, like those of the transepts of the cathedral. There is a fine fireplace, the only remaining fragment of the prior's study, an interesting timber building demolished in 1883 before its antiquity was realized. Portions of its screenwork are preserved in the north pane of the cloister. The most remarkable feature of the house is the chapel built by Crauden between 1321 and 1341. Raised on an undercroft to the level of the hall, it was reached by a bridge from the main building. It has been much restored, having become very much mutilated and almost ruinous since the Dissolution. The flowing tracery of the main windows is particularly fine, and there are low-side windows; also a curious contemporary tile pavement with a picture of the Fall, and faint remains of a painting of the Crucifixion. The internal arrangements of the house have been much altered, and the entrance door has been moved from the west to the east side. Some restoration seems also to have taken place in the last years of the monastery, many of the existing windows dating from the early 16th century.
The space between the prior's house and the guest hall was filled by the prior's kitchen. There are remains of two of its three large fireplaces; the third is intact but blocked. From the east side of the kitchen there ran a large hall, about 75 ft. by 37 ft., on the ground story, of the side walls of which there are remains. This seems to have been at the same time the prior's great hall and the misericord, there being entrances on both sides, on the north for the monks and on the south for the laity. The porches of these entrances are the chief architectural remains of this hall; the one on the south has several square-headed windows with cusped sub-arches, probably late 13th century, and an early-16th-century fireplace in cut brickwork on its upper floor. The hall may almost certainly be identified with the 'Bougre', a name peculiar to Ely. Attached to it was the' knights' lodging', the sleeping chamber of the prior's squires or knights, who dined in the great hall; it probably stood over the gateway leading to the cloister. (fn. 7)
West of the prior's house and formerly connected with it by a bridge stands the 'Queen's hall', built by Crauden for the reception of Queen Philippa about 1330. (fn. 8) It still stands almost perfect, on a vaulted undercroft, but has been cut up internally to make a house for the headmaster of the King's School. The undercroft is in two parts. The northern, of three bays, has very thick walls, but the upper stories have been destroyed. The southern part, of four bays, supports the hall itself, which was 47 ft. long by 20 ft. wide, and, with a height of about 22 ft. to the tie-beam, unusually lofty. Its fireplace, on the west side, is blocked, but the corbelling of the chimney-stack may still be seen on the former outside wall. The great south window, and two on the east side, survive, with attractive tracery. The corbels of the low-pitched roof are similar to those of the guest hall (Deanery) roof; subsequent to the Reformation the original leaded roof was replaced by a tiled one of high pitch, providing an extra story. Attached to the south end of the Queen's hall is a long range of 12th-century granaries and storehouses, now used by the school. This was converted in the 14th century into a two-storied building by the introduction of vaulting, the upper floor forming chambers for guests, and about the same time it was prolonged southwards. It has been mutilated in detail but not radically altered. Traces of the original round-headed lancets, cut across by the 14th-century vaulting, exist in the east wall of the northern half, and the 14th-century windows to both floors remain on the west (street) side. The 14th-century extension to the south has also been much altered by modern windows on the east side, but retains its original covered outside staircase to the upper floor. The internal arrangements are probably entirely modern. (fn. 9)
To the east of the cloister are the extensive remains of the large infirmary, now forming, with some additions, the Second, Third, Fifth, and Sixth Canonries, and a Minor Canon's House. The infirmary was approached through the undercroft of the dorter, and thence through a long vaulted passage of the 13th century called the 'Dark Cloister', of which the south wall still stands. This exhibits good mid-13th-century work, but the vaulting and upper story have entirely disappeared. The Norman infirmary consisted of a large nave with aisles, forming the hall, and an aisled chapel with a vaulted chancel, the whole being about 175 ft. long. The nave is now roofless and forms a blind lane between houses, in the walls of which can be seen the blocked arcades of the 12th-century hall. These are elaborate work, with fine enrichments on the arches and interesting scalloped capitals; they date from about 1175. The walls which block the arcades are medieval, for during the 14th century the aisles were cut off from the nave and divided into two stories and into separate rooms.
At the south-west corner of the hall there stands a projecting wing, now the Sixth Canonry House, consisting of a 12th-century building of two stories. The lower one, with a barrel vault, was probably the infirmary kitchen, the whole building being known as the 'cellarer's lodging'. Large modern additions have been made to the house on the south and west, but there remains a 16th-century fireplace in the east wall of the first floor, and the roof is probably medieval. As in so many cases at Ely it has been ceiled underneath and attics introduced.
Another wing to the east of the above and parallel with it was added early in the 13th century for the accommodation of visiting monks from other Benedictine houses. Hence it was called the 'Black Hostry'; it is now the Third Canonry House. It also is of two stories, the lower one subdivided and vaulted; the upper story, forming a hall, has its original open-timber roof. The vaulted lower floor retains two original windows on the east side, of two lights with plate tracery. In the southern of the two dividing walls is an ingenious threeway serving-hatch of medieval date. The upper story is timber-framed on the east and south sides. The present oriel window near the north-east corner is modern, but probably reproduces a medieval feature. There is a very fine 15th-century brick chimney-stack, with three octagonal chimney shafts, at the south end. The chimneystacks at the north end of the main block of this house, and on the east wing, are probably 17th century, with blind arches in moulded brickwork. This latter wing forms part of the south aisle of the infirmary hall and chapel. It was converted in the 15th century into two sets of rooms, the lower being occupied at the Dissolution by the cellarer. (fn. 10) The windows are modern but a 15th-century fireplace remains on the first floor.
The Fifth Canonry House is largely modern, but incorporates the chancel of the infirmary chapel, which has a vault and other excellent late 12th-century details, and a house of uncertain medieval date which stood south of the chancel and was in 1541 occupied by the sub-prior.
The north aisle of the infirmary was taken down, probably about 1320, and replaced by a wider building of two stories, each containing several rooms. The use of these rooms is not known, but many persons, including the convent's physician, (fn. 11) were lodged in and about the infirmary. In the 19th century this wing was called the 'blood-letting house', (fn. 12) but that seems to have been south of the infirmary chapel and detached. All the windows of the north aisle have been altered, but fragments of the original are preserved in each case, so that 'the whole design can be recovered. A timber-framed top story was added, probably early in the 16th century, making a three-story building-an unusual feature at Ely. It retains its original roof, and some exposed beams on the north side. This building is now the house of one of the minor canons.
About 1335 Alan of Walsingham, then sacrist, built a wing extending northwards from the north-east corner of the infirmary hall; this is now the Second Canonry House. It is of two stories, the lower one vaulted. Walsingham stipulated that he was to have the use of it for life, but the house, or at least the ground floor, was also to be a place where the brethren might see their women relatives. It was called the 'painted chamber'. The building still stands almost complete, but has been a good deal restored, not always correctly. The almost flat roof, if original, is somewhat unusual for its date. The buttresses, which splay outwards to meet the wall at an oblique angle, are of an exceptional form.
A little distance to the south of the infirmary was the chamberlain's checker, of which building only two fragments remain, embedded in the garden walls of the Third Canonry House. It contained store-rooms for clothing and the laundry; in close connexion with it was the bath house.
To the east of the church stood the outer hostelry, the foundations of which may be traced on the turf in a dry summer. It was a self-contained establishment with its own chapel, and was perhaps used chiefly by the commercial classes, standing as it did fairly near the river, which in the Middle Ages carried a good deal of traffic between Cambridge and Lynn. A wall running from the south-east angle of the church, which existed until the present pathway was made round the east end of the cathedral about 1854, was probably connected with the ostium versus cimeterium monachorum, a gate near the outer hostelry dividing the more public part of the monastery from the monks' own quarters. (fn. 13)
Along the High Street, to the north of the monastery, was another range of buildings. The easternmost was the almonry, still intact though much altered internally and with modern windows on the north towards the street. The lower story has vaulting dating from the end of the 12th century. The blocked lancet windows in the east wall suggest that the almonry chapel, which was dedicated to St. Martin, was at this end. (fn. 14) The almonry included a school for the boys who took part in the Lady Chapel services. To the east or the west of it was a gateway, now destroyed, referred to as porta monachorum.
Farther west was the sacrist's office (the building department of the monastery) greatly enlarged by Alan of Walsingham in c. 1325. (fn. 15) It also had a gateway from the street, but both range and gateway have been completely remodelled. The room over the gateway was converted into the dean and chapter muniment room under Dean Goodwin (1858-69); the muniments had previously been housed in the canons' vestry. To make the room fire-proof a stone floor and vaulted roof were inserted, heat being provided by running the flue of the porter's lodge fireplace behind the wall; 'it [i.e. this heating system] has ... turned out to be a failure'. (fn. 16)
At the west end of the sacristy range is a square building. Here the goldsmith retained by the monastery had his workshop on the ground floor and the sacrist his counting-board on the upper. It is said that the third story was added during the reign of Elizabeth, (fn. 17) when the building was converted into a bell tower for the use of the parishioners of Holy Trinity worshipping in the Lady Chapel. Beyond the goldsmith's workshop was the lay cemetery, fringed along the street with tenements belonging to the bishop. Half-way along the row was a tower gateway into the cemetery, which with two tenements on each side was the property of the prior and convent. The present gateway is of timber, and dates from the close of the Middle Ages. It has long been known as 'Stepil Gate', and from it High Street was called 'Stepil Row'. Under the gateway and the house to the east there are vaulted cellars of c. 1330. Adjoining the gateway on the south-east was a bonehouse, in which were deposited any bones disturbed in digging graves, with a chapel of St. Peter over it. The north wall of this building still stands to a considerable height and seems to date from the middle of the 14th century. If so, it replaces an earlier building, for the statutes of 1300 order that the pyx containing the Body of Christ and the oil for the dying shall be kept 'in capella nova juxta vetus campanile situata'-clearly a provision for the parishioners, for whom it would be conveniently situated. It was apparently this steeple which was taken down in 1354-5 at a cost of 7s. 8d. (fn. 18) It may be that this tower served the parish when the cathedral nave was used as the parish church, and would not be required if the new church on the north of the nave had a bell-cote. Judging by the small expense of its demolition, it was of timber. (fn. 19)
The last group of monastic buildings to be noted includes the great gateway known as Ely Porta and the two-story range running east and west along the south side of the courtyard entered through the Porta. This gateway was begun in 1397 and finished about 1405; its designer was John Mepsale or Meppushall, the then architect of the convent. (fn. 20) It is of three stories. The outside has hardly been altered, except for the substitution of a high-pitched tiled roof for a lead flat and, almost certainly, of the present low plain parapet for high battlements. (fn. 21) The chief architectural features of the simple but effective façades are the three-light traceried windows in the centre of the top floor, flanked on the west by four empty niches, and the boldly projecting square turrets at each corner. The entrance, with a large and a small arch, is flanked by rooms, formerly a porter's lodge, on the south (fn. 22) and a prison on the north. The carriage way reaches up through two floors, there being two rooms, over the porter's lodge and the prison, on the first floor, and three on the top floor, the centre one over the archway. The three top floor rooms have been thrown into one as a classroom for the King's School. The whole of the upper floors were in monastic times given over to the offices for manorial business.
The range south of the courtyard contained storerooms at the west end and granaries at the east. It dates from about 1375 and preserves most of its original features, including traces of an outside staircase on the north side. The passage through the centre, judging by the arches at its ends, dates from about 1475. The cottage south-west of this range is medieval, but all architectural features have been altered except one roof truss. It was probably occupied by the storeman; in middle of the 19th century it was called 'The Hermitage'. (fn. 23)
The monastic grange, commonly called the SEXTRY BARN, lay to the west of St. Mary's churchyard. (fn. 24) The barn was a stone building 219 ft. 6 in. long by 39 ft. 5 in. wide internally. It was divided into nave and aisles by two rows of oak posts on stone bases, ten on each side, and was covered by a continuous roof, the nave being thatched and the aisles tiled. There were two large doorways on the north side, the eastern of which had a large threshing-porch with an upper story. The building, which appears to have dated from the middle of the 13th century, was destroyed in 1842.
In front of the grange was a yard surrounded by a wall built in 1302-3 at a cost of £7 18s. 1d. In the north-east corner of the yard stood, and still stands, the house of the steward, now ST. MARY'S VICARAGE but commonly called CROMWELL HOUSE. (fn. 25) The office of tithe-collector or steward to the priory and later to the chapter became hereditary in a family which assumed the name of Steward or Styward. In their time the house was probably enlarged. The last of these Stewards was Sir Thomas (d. 1636), the maternal uncle of Oliver Cromwell. Cromwell succeeded to the titheoffice in 1636 and lived in the house for the next ten years. (fn. 26) Farmers of the capitular tithe continued to occupy the house until 1840 when the office was abolished under the Tithe Commutation Act of 1836. The house was sold by the dean and chapter in 1843. It changed hands several times, at one period being used as an inn-the Cromwell Arms. It was bought by the Revd. E. G. Punchard, D.D., Vicar of St. Mary's, in 1905 and bequeathed to the chapter for use as a vicarage.
The house has a lower story of stone and brick and a timber-framed upper story with a reed and clay filling. The roofs are tiled and the chimney-stacks are of brick. It is probably of late-15th-century origin, and was enlarged and altered about a century later. The original plan was apparently L-shaped with the main block facing north, as now, and a wing at the south-east angle. Early in the 17th century another wing was added on the south-west and a connecting gallery added at the back of the main block. Sash windows and various internal alterations were effected, probably in the 18th century. On the acquisition of the house for a vicarage a thorough restoration was effected and the sash windows replaced by leaded lights with wooden mullions; at the same time the west wing was extended and many of the minor timbers were renewed. The east wing has massive 16th-century buttresses of brick and ashlar. The tops of the chimney-stacks have been much renewed, except that of the kitchen in the east wing, which is of 16th-century date. Only one old fireplace is visible; it is in the first floor room of the west wing and has plain chamfered jambs of stone and a chamfered wooden lintel. The drawing-room at the east end of the main block has early 17th-century oak panelling, which has been partly renewed in pine. The ground floor of the west wing- has similar panelling, but less complete. The staircase retains its wooden newel post, but the treads have been renewed. At the back of the upper part of the main block is an original three-light window with wooden mullions and iron stanchions, now blocked. In the study at the west end of the main block is a plain two-light stone window, possibly medieval, which now looks into the west wing. Several of the rooms retain their oak floor boarding. At the north-west angle of the main block is the jamb of a large gateway of Barnack stone.
The BISHOP'S PALACE (fn. 27) stands quite close to the west end of the cathedral, from which it is separated by the street called the Gallery, (fn. 28) and on the south side of what was the village green of the original settlement at Ely. It consists of a three-sided court facing north, with a long gallery running west from the north-west corner of this. The building is entirely of brick. The most striking features are the two towers of four stories, terminating the wings of the courtyard. The eastern of these, that nearest the cathedral, was built by Bishop Alcock (1486-1500) as a gateway tower. In its north face was the entrance, probably a large and a small archway like Ely Porta; the large arch would have been under the group of three niches which still remain. The gateway passage, now enclosed to form a room, has a handsome vault; on the west was the porter's lodge, and in the back wall a single arch still remains.
The gateway tower was flanked on each side by a narrow wing. That on the east was short and was pierced by an archway through which the road ran. From the end of this wing a narrow raised gallery gave the bishop a private covered way to the church through a 12th-century doorway still to be seen in the south wall of the south-west transept. The gateway tower, the east wing, the covered way, and the west end of the church are shown in a painting preserved in the palace of the funeral of Bishop Cox (1581); in this picture the positions of the buildings are reversed, and it is more easily understood if looked at in a mirror. The three-storied west wing seems to have included the present western tower, and at that point to have turned south to form a wide main building containing the hall and other apartments.
An important addition was made to Alcock's palace by Bishop Goodrich (1534-54), who built a long west gallery in 1549-50. This is on the upper floor, its windows looking northwards upon the Green. It was originally carried on a loggia with open arches towards the south, but these have been blocked and the loggia converted into kitchen offices. It appears that when this gallery was built the western tower was remodelled to match Alcock's gateway tower.
The present house is principally the work of Bishop Laney (1667-75). He took down almost the whole of Alcock's work, leaving probably nothing but the two towers, and closed the gateway in the east tower. He planned his building to form a three-sided court, using the towers to terminate the wings. Along the three sides of the court was a one-story corridor, which in the 19th century received sham Tudor windows. The house itself is a fine brick building, a good example of the architecture of its time, with a high hipped roof. The interior was remodelled by Bishop Keene in 1771, when the upper story was probably added to Laney's corridor. The stable range is probably of Bishop Goodrich's time, and has reused fragments of Norman windows.
The palace is now used as a school for crippled girls. Bishop Northwold founded in 1250 a chantry of four priests to sing masses for the souls of Henry III, Queen Eleanor and their children, and of the bishops of Ely, the monks, and their benefactors. He provided for them a yearly stipend of 20 marks and a hostel in which to live, on the green at the west end of the cathedral, whence it was called the Chantry-on-the-Green. It is mentioned in the extent of 1251 and frequently in subsequent documents. (fn. 29) At the Dissolution in 1548 the value of the chantry was £21 15s. yearly. (fn. 30) The building clearly stood actually on the green and was in fact an encroachment on the common. The exact spot seems to have been the east side of the group of houses to the south of St. Mary's Street. Bishop Wren, in whose time the buildings were still in existence, (fn. 31) describes it as 'right against the gate of the demolished palace', Bentham as being on the site of 'the house of the late John Waddington Esq', and Stewart as 'on the site of a house now in occupation of J. Muriel Esq.' An 18th-century house now occupies the site.