Soon after the Conquest, many of the English nobility, unable to brook the tyranny of William, retired in 1071 to this place, whence, at the instigation of Edwin, Earl of Chester, and Egelwyn, Bishop of Durham, they ravaged the adjacent country, headed by Hereward, an English nobleman, who built a castle of wood in the marshes, and made a vigorous stand against the monarch. William besieged the Island, constructed roads through the marshes, built bridges over the streams, and erected a castle at Wiseberum (Wisbech); by which means he ultimately compelled his opponents, with the exception of Hereward and that leader's immediate followers, to submit to his authority. The camp occupied by William upon this occasion, and which Dr. Stukeley affirms to have been a Roman camp repaired by his engineers, is still visible in a field at Aldreth, which, in some records of the time of Henry III., is called Belasis, probably from one of William's generals, who was quartered on the monastery. On his conquest of the Isle, the king took possession of the abbey, but suffered the monks to remain, with certain restrictions, under an abbot of his own appointment, at whose intercession he subsequently restored the privileges they had previously enjoyed. Richard, the tenth and last abbot, a short time prior to his death, obtained from Henry I. permission to establish a see at Ely, which in 1107 was carried into effect, and Hervey, who had been driven by the Welsh from his see at Bangor, was made first bishop. To him and his successors Henry gave for a diocese the whole county of Cambridge, which had belonged to the Bishop of Lincoln, and they were invested with sovereign powers in the Isle. On the accession of Hervey, who superseded the abbot, a new division of lands belonging to the abbey took place, between the bishop and the prior and monks; the bishop's share was, in the 26th of Henry VIII., valued at £2134. 18. 6., and that of the prior and monks at £1301. 8. 2. A castle was built here by Bishop Nigel in the reign of Stephen, of which there are no remains, its probable site being only distinguishable by a mount to the south of the church. In 1216, William Bunk and a party of Brabanters, together with the Earl of Salisbury and others, taking advantage of a frost, entered the Isle of Ely, plundered the churches, and committed dreadful ravages, compelling the inhabitants to pay large sums of money for the ransom of their lives, and the prior 200 marks to save the cathedral from being burnt.
The city stands on elevated ground nearly at the southern extremity of the Isle, and on the river Ouse, which is navigable from Lynn; it consists of one long street, with smaller streets diverging from it, both in the upper and lower parts of the town, in the centre of which is a spacious market-place. With the exception of the cathedral and ecclesiastical buildings, the town has few claims to architectural notice; but it has rapidly improved of late years, and is now well paved, and lighted with gas. The ground in the vicinity, though flat and low, is extremely fertile, producing excellent herbage, and a considerable portion of it is cultivated by market-gardeners, who supply the neighbouring towns with vegetables: great quantities of fruit and remarkably fine asparagus are sent to the London market. From the improvement in the drainage of the Fens, the air of the city, and indeed of the whole Isle, has become as salubrious as that of any part of the county. The trade has very much improved of late: vessels now come up to the town; and a dock has been constructed, capable of accommodating 18 or 20 vessels of 70 or 80 tons' burthen, and which has been sold to the Eastern Counties Railway Company. The line of railway from London to Brandon runs by the town; and there are three other lines, namely, those from Ely to Downham and Lynn, to March and Peterborough, and to St. Ives and Huntingdon. Here is a manufactory for earthenware and tobacco-pipes. There is a good market on Thursday; and fairs are held on Ascension-day and Oct. 29th, for horses, cattle, hops, and Cottenham cheese, each lasting for eight days.
Under the Charter of privileges granted to the monastery by Edgar in the 13th of his reign, enlarged and confirmed by Edward the Confessor and William the Conqueror, the abbot continued to exercise temporal jurisdiction from the time of the re-establishment of the monastery till the erection of the see, from which period it became vested in, and was exercised by, the bishops of the diocese. The bishops had additional powers; and the royal franchise of Ely, in several statutes, was designated the County Palatine of Ely, till the 27th of Henry VIII., when, by act of parliament, the justices of oyer and terminer and gaol delivery, and justices of the peace for the Isle of Ely, were ordered to be appointed by letters-patent under the great seal, and all writs to be issued in the king's name. Certain jurisdiction, both in civil and criminal matters, was still vested in the bishops, who with their "temporal steward" of the Isle, were by the same act to be justices of the peace; and a general assize of oyer and terminer and gaol delivery was to be holden twice in the year, and a court of pleas for the trial of civil actions to any amount; also quarterly courts of session alternately at Ely and Wisbech. The bishop was likewise Custos Rotulorum of the Isle, which includes the three hundreds of Ely, Wisbech, and Witchford. All this temporal jurisdiction has, however, by a late statute, been abolished; and the Custos Rotulorum is now appointed by the crown, as are the magistrates, who hold their quarter-sessions alternately at Ely and Wisbech, as heretofore, though the assizes have been transferred to Cambridge. The bishop had also the appointment of the two coroners for the franchise, but these are, by the above statute, to be in future elected by the freeholders of the Isle. The powers of the county debt-court of Ely, established in 1847, extend over the registration-district of Ely. The court-house, erected in 1821, is a handsome and commodious building, with a portico of four columns, and two wings, of which the north is an infirmary, and the south a chapel. The house of correction is situated behind the court-house, and was erected at the same time.
At the dissolution of the monastery, which was dedicated to St. Peter and St. Ethelreda, Henry VIII. altered the ecclesiastical establishment of the See, and by charter converted the conventual into a cathedral church, which was dedicated to the Holy Trinity; he endowed it with the site and a portion of the revenue of the dissolved priory; and under his charter, remodelled by Charles II., the establishment consists of a dean, eight (to be reduced to six) canons or prebendaries, five minor canons, eight layclerks, eight choristers, a schoolmaster, usher, and twenty four king's scholars. The diocese comprises 539 benefices, of which 169 are in Suffolk, 167 in Cambridgeshire, 117 in Bedfordshire, and 86 in Huntingdonshire: the bishop has the patronage of the four archdeaconries, the chancellorship, and four canonries. The Dean and Chapter have the patronage of the minor canonries. The two first canonries that become vacant will be appropriated to the professorships of Hebrew and Greek in the University of Cambridge; and the two that next become vacant will be suppressed.
The Cathedral, begun in 1081, and not completed till 1534, is a splendid cruciform structure, displaying, through almost imperceptible gradations, the various changes which have characterised the progress of ecclesiastical architecture, from the earliest times of the Norman to the latest period of the English style. The plan differs from that of other cathedrals in the length of the nave, which is continued through an extended range of twelve arches, and in the shortness of the transepts, which have only a projection of three arches. The west front, though incomplete from the want of the south wing of the facade, is strikingly magnificent; the lower part is in the Norman style, with a handsome octagonal turret at the southern extremity, a projecting porch of early English architecture, and a lofty massive and highly-enriched tower with angular turrets, of Norman character in the lower stages, and in the upper of early English, formerly surmounted by a lofty spire, which has been taken down. From the intersection of the nave and transepts rises a noble octagonal lantern, which is considered one of the finest compositions in the decorated English style, and equally admirable for the excellence of its details and the beauty of its arrangement; it is eighty feet in diameter, and rests on piers which supported a tower that fell down in 1322. The interior of the cathedral is singularly elegant, and derives a simple grandeur of effect from the judicious arrangement by which the various styles of its architecture are made to harmonise. The nave and transepts are in the Norman style. The choir, partly in the early and partly in the decorated English style, is separated from the nave by three of the western arches, which were originally part of it, and now form an antechoir. The eastern part, or present choir, consisting of a range of six arches, is lighted by a double range of windows, and forms one of the richest specimens of the early English style extant; the roof is groined, and the intersections embellished with flowers and foliage; the east window is ornamented with a painting of St. Peter. The three western arches forming the ante-choir are of the decorated character, and assimilate with the beautiful lantern, with which the style of the nave and transepts is finely contrasted. A magnificent painted window, presented by the Rev. Edward Sparke, occupies the southeast angle of the lantern; it is forty feet in height, and is intended to commemorate the foundress of the church, St. Ethelreda. The Lady chapel is an elegant edifice, in the later decorated style; the groining of the roof, and the series of niches surrounding the interior, are of exquisite beauty. The chapels of Bishops Alcock and West are elaborately decorated with a profusion of architectural embellishments, but inferior in general effect to other portions of this beautiful structure. There are many interesting monuments, among which are, the tomb and effigy of Bishop Alcock, under an arch of stone, on the north side of his chapel: the monuments of several other bishops; and the tomb of Tiptoft, Earl of Worcester, and his two wives, erected in the time of Richard III.: a fine monument, also, has lately been erected in Bishop West's chapel, over the remains of Bishop Sparke. The length of the cathedral is 535 feet, from east to west; and the breadth 190, from the extremity of the north to that of the south transept. Extensive alterations and improvements have been made of late: since the accession of the present dean, Dr. Peacock, more than forty windows have been restored; some new painted windows have been raised, and at the west end especially, most important restorations have been effected. Of the cloisters and chapter-house there are scarcely any remains, and the refectory has been converted into a residence for the dean; but the prebendal houses retain many vestiges of ancient architecture, of which some are supposed to be of Saxon origin; and among these buildings is a chapel, erected by Prior Craunden, a curious composition in the decorated English style, of excellent design, and abounding with interest: the floor is of Mosaic pavement, still in a very perfect state, representing some of the earlier subjects of Scripture history. At some distance from the cathedral is the gate of the ancient monastery, in the later English style.
The city, exclusively of the extra-parochial liberty of the College, containing 64 residents, comprises the parish of St. Mary, which, with the chapelry of Chettisham, contains 2124; and the parish of Holy Trinity, which, with the chapelry of Stuntney, contains 4637, inhabitants. Both benefices are perpetual curacies, in the patronage of the Dean and Chapter; net income of each, £150. St. Mary's church is an interesting structure, partly Norman and partly early English, with a handsome tower surmounted by a spire: the nave is in the Norman style, with clerestory windows of later English architecture; the chancel is in the early English style, with insertions of a later date, and contains some remains of the ancient stalls: the north porch and door are early English. Holy Trinity church was formerly the Lady chapel of the cathedral, now fitted up for the parishioners. There are places of worship for Baptists, the Countess of Huntingdon's Connexion, Independents, and Wesleyans. The king's grammar school was founded in 1541, by Henry VIII., on the establishment of the cathedral, and is under the Dean and Chapter, who appoint the master: Jeremy Bentham, the late celebrated jurist and political writer, received the rudiments of his education in the school. A school was founded and endowed in 1730, by Mrs. Needham; Bishop Laney, in 1674, left lands and tenements for apprenticing boys of Ely and Soham, and there are several other charitable bequests belonging to the city. The poor law union comprises fourteen parishes or places, and contains a population of 20,077.
Transcribed from A Topographical Dictionary of England, by Samuel Lewis, seventh edition, published 1858.