St Etheldreda's - Ely Place
Over fourteen years ago, when I first arrived in London, I was wandering around exploring (as I still do), and found myself on a strange private road with a church that had an intriguing name. The church was called St Etheldreda's and although I had no idea where in London I was or anything about the church, found myself entering, walking along the small corridor and up the stone steps to the chapel. As I was about to enter, a wedding had evidently just finished and I had to make myself scarce as the newly married couple burst out of the chapel, pursued by a photographer and the congregation.
I've since been back on numerous occasions as like many places in London its intriguing-ness goes further than the name and reveals much about the area, a relic from a by-gone era and a story that begins 700 years ago.
The chapel of St Etheldreda's is the only surviving fragment of the medieval London palace of the Bishops of Ely, which originally encompassed vast grounds. It is apparently the oldest Catholic church in England (although of course hasn't always been Catholic) and one of only two buildings in London, remaining from the reign of Edward I. In fact, a strange London quirk, is that when you walk down Ely Place where the chapel can be found, and the tiny alley leading off that houses Ye Olde Mitre Tavern, you will officially be in Cambridge ... even today.
The first license to build a place of worship dedicated to St Etheldreda was granted back in the 13th Century to John le Francis (Bishop of Ely), and in keeping with church building of the day still featured one chapel built upon another. The palace also included a great hall, evidently a popular place for feasting, as in 1531, Henry VIII and his soon to be 'not' wife Catherine of Aragon attended a feast there that lasted for five days. It was the termination of this particular couple's marriage that had such a devastating effect on the Catholic church and their land, not just in London, but all over the country. The final nail in the coffin was dealt by Elizabeth I when she forced the land (or a great deal of it) to be handed over to a courtier she had the hots for. His name was Sir Christopher Hatton, and you'll notice the name still lingers on today in nearby Hatton Garden, London's jewellery quarter.
In the 17th Century, for a while at least, the chapel was presided over by an Anglican Bishop of Ely named Matthew Wren, perhaps now most famous for getting his nephew Christopher his first ever building commission. Christopher Wren could now easily be regarded as 'the daddy' of modern London, having spent a great deal of his life rebuilding it after the Great Fire of 1666 ... a fire which spared St Etheldreda's.
The upper chapel, although small is perhaps surprisingly more spacious than you might have guessed from outside and is dominated by an abundance of quite remarkable stained glass. The west window (above), created in 1964 is said to be the largest stained glass window in London, covering an area of over 500 square feet. The east window was installed in 1952 to replace the Victorian version destroyed in WWII. During the Victorian period incidentally, which is when the chapel reverted back to its Catholic roots, the surrounding area was a slum, and in fact Bleeding Heart Yard which you can reach by stepping through a secreted door at the far end of Ely Place is mentioned in Charles Dickens' 'Little Dorrit'.
If you do pay a visit, see if you can have a look at the crypt or undercroft, as although it's not known for certain, is thought to date back to the 6th Century. The lower part has rugged 8-feet thick walls, topped by huge darkened timbers, a simple altar, frescoes and a model of how the whole palace would have looked originally. It's perhaps not surprising that local residents took refuge in St Etheldreda's crypt during the bombing raids of WWII. Today however, it's used more frequently for wedding receptions.
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