St. Etheldreda's Chapel
St. Etheldreda’s Chapel is a one-story, Gothic-style Catholic church located on the private road of Ely Place in London. The church was built in circa 1290 as a chapel, part of a larger estate belonging to the Bishops of Ely just outside the city limits in the ancient hundred of Ossulstone. It follows a rectangular design, constructed on top of an underground crypt with ragstone and dressed in limestone. The church entrance is accessible from the east side, and features a large, five-light traceried Geometrical window above by two narrow Geometrical windows leading to the crypt. The interior connects a stone hallway between the crypt and inner chapel, which is adorned with stained glass windows depicting scenes from the Old and New Testament. Also inside are narrow arcades with statues of martyrs, and a church balcony. The current incarnation of the chapel was refurbished in the Georgian style of the late eighteenth century after much of the estate was demolished during Oliver Cromwell’s tenure. The east window and roof were also damaged by German bombings in 1941 and were replaced.
A member of the diocese of the Bishops of Ely purchased the estate upon which the chapel was built in the thirteenth century and, once Parliament was called in the middle of the thirteenth century, the Bishops paid for the construction of a residence in London. John De Kirkeby was the Bishop of Ely at the time, as well as treasurer under King Edward I, and built the original Ely Palace in 1290. The property was outside of the control of the City of London, as many ecclesiastical estates were, and in the fourteenth century the Bishops added a gardens, orchards, vineyards, and ploughlands to this estate, which amounted to a total of 58 acres.
In medieval London, the Bishops of Ely were well acquainted with the royal court and positions of power; in the St. Etheldreda’s Chapel is the coat of arms of Simon Langham, who served as Abbot of Westminster and Archbishop of Canterbury, in addition to his role as Bishop of Ely. Another, Thomas Arundel, was also promoted to Archbishop of Canterbury, Primate of England. In 1357, Edward the “Black Prince” held the Feast of Trinity in St. Etheldreda’s Chapel. During the Peasant’s revolt of 1381, rebels led by Wat Tyler protesting the poll tax burned and looted the Savoy Palace, prompting Arundel to house King Edward’s son John of Gaunt at Ely Palace. It is here at Ely Palace that serves as the backdrop for John of Gaunt’s famous oration in William Shakespeare’s Richard II. After the Reformation, the Bishops of Ely oversaw the Anglican worship in the chapel until it was re-opened as a Roman Catholic Church in 1878.
In medieval London, up to 400 poor people per day were fed at St. Etheldreda’s under the patronage of the Bishops of Ely. There also is mention of the cloisters and gardens of St. Etheldreda’s Chapel in medieval chronicles, in particular its cultivated fields of saffron and strawberries. St. Etheldreda was popular in medieval England, the patron saint of chastity and also invoked to help against infections of the throat and neck. Pilgrims voyaged to pray at her shrine in the chapel, and even this day, the annual Blessing of the Throats is performed. In the Middle Ages, the chapel also had octagonal turrets at its four corners, but they were temporarily confiscated during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, and not replaced until the town house was demolished and the chapel refurbished.
- Hans Lueders