Ely Cathedral is a huge building that towers above the fenland and can be seen 25 miles away, in the counties of Cambridgeshire and Norfolk. It is one of the spectacular cathedrals of Europe: magisterial from outside and beautiful within. It was built by the Normans—of whom Hilaire Belloc said,*
‘The Conquest was achieved in 1070. In that same year they pulled down the wooden shed at Bury St Edmunds, ‘unworthy,’ they said, ‘of a great saint,’ and began the great shrine of stone. Next year it was the castle at Oxford, in 1075 Monkwearmouth, Jarrow, and the church at Chester; in 1077 Rochester and St Albans; in 1079 Winchester. Ely, Worcester, Thorney, Hurley, Lincoln, followed with the next years; by 1089 they had tackled Gloucester, by 1092 Carlisle, by 1093 Lindisfarne, Christchurch, tall Durham… And this is but a short and random list of some of their greatest works in the space of one boyhood.’
But the oldest thing in Ely Cathedral is Ovin’s Stone, to be found in the south aisle. It is really St Ovin’s Cross, but the top of it had disappeared when in 1770 the historian James Bentham discovered it in the nearby village of Haddenham, where it was apparently being used as a tying post for animals. He brought it to Ely, where he was a canon, and it is preserved there; and not only preserved, but venerated, less for its antiquity—it is a Saxon artefact, dating possibly from before 700—than for whom it commemorates. Saint Ovin (modern name Owen) was the much-loved steward of Saint Etheldreda, who founded the monastery at Ely in 673, later to be destroyed by the Danes.
On St Etheldreda’s Day, the 23rd June, after Evensong, there is a procession to the Cross of St Ovin, and then is said:
V. Behold a faithful and wise steward.
R. Whom the Lord shall make ruler over his household.
After a prayer, the choir returns to the Chancel while singing the recessional Jerusalem, my happy home…
* ‘On Ely’, essay in Hills and the Sea.