A monastery was founded at Ely in 672 by St Etheldreda. After restoration in 970, following destruction by the Vikings, it became one of the three richest abbeys of Anglo-Saxon England.
In 1081 construction of the Norman church began under Abbot Simeon and continued for some 60 years. Work began with the chancel and crossing which were consecrated in 1106 at the same time as the mortal remains of St Etheldreda were moved into the choir.
The earliest surviving parts of the Norman cathedral are the north and south transepts. In 1109 Ely was made a cathedral and construction of the nave began. It was originally of thirteen bays epitomising the English preference for an elongated western arm in major churches. Although the nave has little ornamentation, there are two richly carved doorways of c. 1120 - 40 - the Monks' Door and the Prior's Door - leading from the south aisle to the cloister.
At the west end, begun in 1170s, there is a central bell tower originally flanked by transepts, of which only the southern survives. It terminates in a turret with a small apsed chapel on its east side. Both the interior and exterior of the west front are elaborately treated with windows and blank arcading. Analysis shows that construction took place in three stages, the upper arches being pointed. In 1322 the Norman crossing tower collapsed, to be replaced by the famous octagon.
Fernie, E., 1979. 'Observations on the Norman plan of Ely cathedral', in Medieval Art and Architecture at Ely Cathedral, British Archaeological Association Conference Transactions for 1976, 1-7
Maddison, J., 2000. Ely Cathedral Design and Meaning (Ely)
Pevsner, N., 1970. The Buildings of England, Cambridgeshire (London, Penguin, 2nd edition), 339-69