This is a tale of Saxon princesses, brave resistance fighters, builders of genius, England’s Lord Protector – and the odd saint or two.

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A fine cast list...

Yet the undoubted star is the building itself. Monastery then cathedral, for more than 1,000 years it has had the ability to take the breath away, both inside and out. On its prominent position atop the Isle of Ely it stands above the surrounding flatlands, known as the Ship of the Fens for the way it seems to float. The west tower soars 66m (215ft and you can climb it). Inside, the 248ft-long Norman nave with its gorgeous Victorian ceiling paintings awes you on entry, while the innovative 14th century Octagon tower is an inspiration. Along with some gems of medieval and later architecture theres plenty of space for reflection and individual tales. The cathedral has survived Danish invaders, a collapsed tower, the Reformation, Oliver Cromwells troopers and years of wear and tear. Three times in the past three centuries it has needed renovation and emerged triumphant. Start with the Saxon princess. Etheldreda, also known as Audrey, was the daughter of the 7th century king of East Anglia. In these early Christian days, the nobility produced many devout women. Etheldreda was so determined to lead a religious life in 673 AD that she left her husband, king of Northumbria, to found a monastery and nunnery for men and women at Ely. Then it was truly an island, surrounded by watery fenland, mysterious and inaccessible. The institution thrived after Etheldredas death from a throat infection, and she was succeeded by her sister. After her death a cult grew up around Etheldreda, and a shrine was built at Ely, bringing in pilgrims and cash. The monks even stole the dead body of her equally saintly sister, Withburga, from their brethren at Dereham to add to the shrine. A yearly fair for pilgrims grew, although substandard goods were sold there. Soon her alternative name Audrey became tarnished by this tourist tat, hence the corrupted phrase tawdry.

What about the Danes?

In 869 they invaded East Anglia and sacked Ely. For a century the site was a ruin before being revived by the Benedictines in the late 10th century. It was once again a wealthy monastery by the time Hereward the Wake and his Anglo-Saxon guerilla fighters holed up at Ely, besieged by William and his Normans. After heroic defence, it was Abbot Thurstan who surrendered to avoid damage to the monastery. His reward was to be the last Saxon abbot, replaced by a Norman. The cathedral took on its modern shape. The Normans, those great builders in stone, set to work creating a monumental statement of power and wealth. Limestone was brought from Barnack near Stamford by water from 1083, but it took another century before the first phase was done. More construction followed, pilgrims still flocking to Etheldredas shrine. Then, in 1322, disaster struck.

Not the Danes again?

The central tower collapsed in a heap of rubble. Sacrist Alan de Walsingham had a cunning plan. He constructed a 74ft wide octagon tower in its place, regarded as the jewel in Elys crown. It is capped by a lantern tower, a vision of light and glass. Meanwhile a Lady Chapel, devoted to the Virgin Mary, went up at the side of the cathedral. Originally decorated with lavish colours, it was the work of John of Wisbech. He just completed it in time before dying of the Black Death in 1349. Recent scientific research indicates the cathedral was hit by an earthquake in about 1425, after which the roof of the south transept had to be repaired. Ely escaped the worst excesses of the 16th century Reformation, although Bishop Thomas Goodrich demolished Etheldredas shrine. The monks were pensioned off, but their buildings survived and the prior was converted to a dean. Next-door neighbour Oliver Cromwell had a soft spot for Ely, though in 1644 he banned the choirs offensive singing, ordering them to leaving off their fooling, and closed the cathedral for 11 years.

Apart from that, all was well?

Half a century later Daniel Defoe commented on the cathedrals decay. It was no surprise that architect James Essex had to conduct extensive restoration from 1771-73. Dean George Peacock was the driving force behind Victorian renovation which saw the superb nave ceiling paintings created by two gifted amateurs. In modern times, urgent restoration began in 1986 lasting more than a decade. As a result the cathedral charges an admission fee. Theres much to see at Ely. The tombs in the aisle make fascinating reading and English translations of Latin inscriptions are helpful. For example, theres Dean Humphry Tyndall, heir to the throne of Bohemia. In 1591 he refused his title as he would rather be Queen Elizabeths subject than a foreign prince. Then theres St Hugh of Lincoln, a kindly 12th century bishop who kept a pet swan. St Ethelwold, who rescued the monastery after the Danes had sacked it, is also remembered. Bishop Goodrich, who destroyed Etheldredas relics in 1541, is buried not far from the chapel created in her honour.

Anything else?

In quiet corners there are memorials and the names of the men of Bomber Command and the Cambridgeshire Regiment who died in the second world war, the latter listed under their towns and villages. Visitors are invited to light a candle.

What about the monastery buildings?

The area around the cathedral has one of the largest number of former monastic buildings still in use, many of them by the Kings School. The Great Hall, the brewery and the malting house survived. You only have to go to a site like Castle Acre in Norfolk to see what destruction could have been wrought had Ely not been a cathedral. The whole area is treasured today, and more popular than ever. A quarter of a million people visit each year, fitted in around regular services. Events such as the annual pet blessing keep the cathedral close to its local roots.

Website www.cathedral.ely.anglican.org

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