Ely Cathedral

Ely Cathedral, Cambridgeshire (c) Dave White

Britain from the Air - Ely Cathedral

The ‘Ship of the Fens’ – a symbol of the medieval power of the church

Standing tall on the Isle of Ely in Cambridgeshire and described as the ‘Ship of the Fens’, this dramatic symbol of medieval religious power is visible for miles around. Built from stone quarried in Northamptonshire, the Cathedral was designed to inspire feelings of shock and awe, impressing upon both the congregation and community, the power of the church. 

Imagine living in a small hut in the remote, surrounding wetlands of the Fens and looking up to see such an enormous edifice on a hill high above! People across the land were required to pay a ‘tithe’, often one tenth of their income, in produce to the church. This practice was finally abolished by the Tithe Act of 1836.

Keeping the faith

50 years ago it is estimated that up to half the population attended church; today less than 10% are regular attendees. But nearly 60% of the UK population consider themselves to be Christians, while about 5% are Muslims and 1.5% are Hindus. Both the Pentecostal Church and Mosques have seen increases in their numbers of worshippers, largely driven by migrants.

Patterns of faiths in an area have also changed over time. For example, an 18th century French Protestant church located in London’s Brick Lane has evolved to meet the needs of subsequent waves of immigrant communities, acting in turn as a chapel, synagogue and mosque


Trade in wool brought huge wealth to the southern areas of East Anglia during the 14th and 15th centuries. With soils too heavy for contemporary ploughs but well drained enough for animals, sheep farming thrived and with reasonable access to London and Europe, East Anglians were well situated to export their product.

The wool trade was described as England’s ‘jewel in the crown’ and raw wool was exported to be turned into finished fine cloth across Europe. The great wool towns, such as Lavenham in Suffolk, date from this period. Today the presiding officer in the House of Lords still sits on the ‘Woolsack’- a chair stuffed with wool, a tradition that has existed since the 14th century.


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Location: Ely Cathedral, Cambridgeshire, CB7 4DH
Grid reference: TL 54100 80250

Britain from the Air - Ely Cathedral credits

Thank you to -

Dave White for aerial photography

Text researched and written by the Royal Geographical Society (with IBG)

Magnificent churches exist in quite small villages across East Anglia, often dating to the time the wool trade brought great wealth to the area.