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Before our visit to St Ethelreda’s, Ely Place it is good to get a little picture of this unique church. St Etheldreda’s Church was the town chapel of the Bishops of Ely from about 1250 to 1570. St Ethelreda’s is the oldest Catholic church in England and one of only two remaining buildings in London from the reign of Edward I.
St Ethelreda’s was like an independent state, with palace and vast grounds. Ely Place in London (The Bishop of Ely’s place) and its chapel took its name from one of England’s most popular saints of the day, Etheldreda. St. Ethelreda’s is the only pre-reformation church in Catholic hands dating back to the 13th century and boasting some of the best stained glass in London.
Princess Etheldreda, daughter of King Anna, was born in 630. She wanted to be a nun but agreed to a political marriage with a neighbouring King, Egfrith, on condition that she could remain a virgin. When the King tried to break the agreement, she fled back to Ely, where, as well as founding a religious community, she also built a magnificent church on the ruins of one founded by the efforts of St Augustine himself but laid waste by war.
Etheldreda was quite a revolutionary. She set free all the bondsmen on her lands and for seven years led a life of exemplary austerity. After her death in 679, devotion to her spread rapidly, as people received help and favours through what they were convinced was her powerful intercession in Heaven. And when, through popular demand, it was decided to remove her to a more fitting tomb, it was found that even after 15 years in wet earth her body was still in a perfect state of preservation. When the Normans began building the present Cathedral at Ely and moved her body in 1106, it was again reported to be still incorrupt. That was nearly 450 years after her death.