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Cathedral studies reveal earthquake date

PUBLISHED: 13:22 07 June 2006 | UPDATED: 10:58 22 October 2010

It has been an established and hallowed focal point of the East Anglian landscape for nearly a millennium.

But specialist studies have now brought a greater understanding of a violent episode in the history of Ely Cathedral – and a new dating for the oldest parts of the building.

It has been an established and hallowed focal point of the East Anglian landscape for nearly a millennium.

But specialist studies have now brought a greater understanding of a violent episode in the history of Ely Cathedral - and a new dating for the oldest parts of the building.

The study of timber tree rings, known as dendrochronology, has revealed that repairs were carried out in the south transept in 1425/26, with the cause of damage likely to have been a documented, yet previously undated, earthquake which destroyed part of the cathedral.

The research by experts from Nottingham University also revealed that the oldest known timbers in the “Ship of the Fens”, in the west tower turrets, date back almost 1000 years to 1043-1068.

The team has been collecting samples of oak timbers from the cathedral and monastic buildings on the site for nearly two decades.

An initial programme of sampling was undertaken between 1989 and 1996, funded jointly by the cathedral and English Heritage.

In 2001, English Heritage financed a further study with a viewing to dating structures which had previously not been assessed.

Derek Hamilton, scientific dating specialist at English Heritage, said: “During the 1980s and 1990s, when recording work started, we realised that Ely Cathedral was one of the best-preserved monastic complexes in the country.

“We then commissioned this more comprehensive study, which has not only enhanced our overall understanding of these buildings, but has ultimately provided important evidence for the likely timing of the 15th century earthquake.”

It has also been discovered that timbers from the cathedral, Prior's Complex and Infirmary Complex range in date from the 11th century through to the late 18th century, with the research also providing evidence of where the wood originated.

Jane Kennedy, surveyor of the fabric for the cathedral, said: “From the smallest details discovered, we can start to build up a picture of the development of this vast and well-preserved site.

“The reports on the cathedral and monastic buildings have also enhanced our understanding of the timber trade, showing that the requirements for boards were such that timbers were procured from increasingly distant sources during the 14th and 15th centuries.

“For example, the very thin timbers, used for boarding, were imported mostly likely from the Baltic states, which provides information about the timber trade and the role of King's Lynn as an important port.

“Huge amounts of timber were needed in the construction of these magnificent buildings, and with very little available in the surrounding fens which were still flood plains, it all had to be sourced from outside the local area.”

The original monastery at Ely was founded by St Etheldreda in 673.


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