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Interior of St. Etheldreda's Upper Church, facing East towards the altar.

St. Etheldreda's Church is located in Ely Placemarker, off Charterhouse Streetmarker, Holbornmarker, Londonmarker. It is dedicated to Æthelthryth, or Etheldreda, an Anglo-Saxon saint. It consists of a chapel, or Upper Church, and a crypt, or undercroft. It is the oldest Catholic church in Englandmarker, and one of only two surviving buildings in London dating from Edward I's reign.

St. Etheldreda's is active to this day and often used for Masses, baptisms, weddings, and funerals. Six elected commissioners manage the church and area.

Because Etheldreda was often invoked for help with infections of the throat, the Blessing of the Throats is held annually at the chapel.

Ely Palace is mentioned in two of Shakespeare's plays, Richard II and Richard III.

The Catholic chapel at the United States Military Academymarker is modelled on St. Etheldreda's.


13th century

St. Etheldreda's was built some time between 1250 and 1290 as the town chapel for the Bishops of Ely. It was part of Ely Palacemarker or Ely House, their Londonmarker residence.

14th century

In 1302, John, Earl of Warenne swore his loyalty to Edward II in the chapel.

In 1381 John of Gaunt moved to the palace, after the Savoy Palacemarker was destroyed during the Peasants' Revolt.

16th century

In 1534, Catholic masses were outlawed in Englandmarker. The Bishops of Ely split from the Catholic Church but continued to oversee the chapel.

In 1576 a lease on a portion of the house and lands surrounding the chapel was granted by Richard Cox, Bishop of Ely, to Sir Christopher Hatton, a favourite of Elizabeth I. The rent was £10, ten loads of hay and one red rose per year, a small enough sum to give rise to suspicion that Elizabeth had put pressure on the bishop. Hatton borrowed extensively from the crown to pay for refurbishment and upkeep of the property, resulting in financial problems surrounding Hatton's estate which were not resolved until the sale of the chapel at auction in 1874. During his tenancy, the crypt was used as a tavern.

17th century

In 1620, the Upper Church was granted to Count Gondemar, the Spanish ambassador, to use as a private chapel. The chapel was therefore considered to be Spanish soil and Roman Catholic worship, still illegal in Englandmarker, was allowed in the church. Two years later, during a diplomatic dispute between Englandmarker and Spainmarker, Gondomar was recalled to Spain and use of the chapel was not given to his successor.

Matthew Wren, uncle of Christopher Wren, practised at St. Etheldreda's chapel for a time before his imprisonment in 1641.

In 1642, the church and surrounding palace was requisitioned by Parliament for use as a prison and hospital during the English Civil War.

During Oliver Cromwell's Commonwealth (1649-1660) most of the palace was demolished and the gardens were destroyed.

St. Etheldreda's survived the Great Fire of Londonmarker in 1666.

18th century

In 1772, an Act of Parliament let the Bishops of Ely sell the property to the Crown. It was then sold on to Mr. Charles Cole, a surveyor and architect. He demolished all the buildings on the site apart from the chapel, and built Ely Placemarker. The chapel was extensively refurbished in the Georgian style of the time.

19th century

In 1820 it was taken over by the National Society for the Education of the Poor, who hoped to convert the Catholic Irish immigrants then settling in the area. A short time later the church closed.

With the passage of the Catholic Emancipation Act of 1829, Catholic churches were once again legal, but in 1836, Ely place was re-opened by Rev. Alexander D'Arblay as a place of Episcopalian worship. After his death, the church was taken over by Welsh Episcopalians. The chapel was put up for auction in 1873, and purchased for £5,400 by Father William Lockhart of the Rosminian order.

Under Father Lockhardt's direction, the Crypt and Upper Church were restored to their original 13th century designs. John Francis Bentley designed a choir screen, incorporating a confessional, an organ, and a choir gallery. The royal coat of arms, added during the reign of Charles I was removed. The church received a relic from the Duke of Norfolk: a piece of St. Etheldreda's hand, which is now kept in a jewel cask to the right of the high altar.

The restoration work was completed in 1878, and mass was celebrated in St. Ethelreda's for the first time in over 200 years.

The Upper Church was reopened in 1879, on the Feast of St. Etheldreda (23 June), 1879.

20th century

View of stained glass in East window of the Upper Church.

War-time bomb damage repair to roof.
South facing aspect.

In 1925, the Royal Commission on Historical Monuments scheduled the chapel as an ancient monument.

In May 1941, during the Blitz, the building was hit by a bomb which tore a hole in the roof and destroyed the Victorian stained glass windows. It took seven years to repair the structural damage.

In 1952, new stained glass was installed in the East window. It features the Trinity, the evangelists Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, as well as the Virgin Mary, St. Joseph, St. Bridget of Kildare and Saint Etheldreda. The stained glass window in the south wall depicts scenes from the Old Testament, and the one in the north wall shows scenes from the New Testament.

In the 1960s, two groups of four statues of English Catholic martyrs from the time of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I were installed along the north and south walls. They include St. Edmund Gennings, St. Swithun Wells, St. Margaret Ward, Blessed John Forest, Blessed Edward Jones, Blessed John Roche, St. Anne Line, and St. John Houghton.


Further reading

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