Ely was as much a holy island as Lindisfarne or Iona in Saxon times. To this day the cathedral stands on its little hill above the flat black fens, but since the meres and marshes were drained, on an island no more!
I had come to Ely in search of St. Withburg. In the 10th century monks stole her body from Dereham churchyard and enshrined her relics in the abbey church next to those of her royal and saintly sisters – Etheldreda and Sexburgh . Etheldreda founded the monastery in the 7th century and when she died Sexburgh became abbess.
The tides of time have washed away most traces of the holy sisters. HenryVIII’s commissioners made a thorough job of destroying their shrines. And, with the passing of the monasteries, the abbey church became the Cathedral for the Diocese of Ely.
I did find one direct link to the foundation years, parts of a memorial that once marked the grave of Ovin, Etheldreda’s steward. Dug up by chance in the 19th century, Ovin’s Stone now stands in the south aisle of the nave.
I was disappointed to find no trace of the St.Withburg but the memory of St Etheldreda has been revived in recent years A plaque marks the place of her shrine in front of the high altar and there is a modern statue in a side chapel.
Ely Cathedral is full of light and life. After more than 1300 the site remains a vibrant focus of pilgrimage and prayer. Among the signs of the liveliness are exciting pieces of modern art dotted around the building.
I liked David Wynne’s (1967) Easter morn sculpture of Jesus and Mary in the south transept and was disturbed by his blond, bimbo (?) Mary in the Lady Chapel! Best of all I loved Jonathan Clark’s (2001) massive Way of Life that greets visitors as they enter through the west door. It set me to pondering about centuries of Christian life and faith in East Anglia.
St. Felix and St. Fursey began the Christian mission at the invitation of King Anna who was father of the three sisters. He and their brother Jurmin both died in battle against the pagan Mercians. They took up the torch of faith and passed the flame on . Several generations later, in this Olympic year, the responsibility of living this Way of Life and passing on the light falls to us.