St Etheldreda's Church

Coordinates: 51°31′07″N 00°06′27″W / 51.51861°N 0.1075°W / 51.51861; -0.1075

St Etheldreda's Church is located in Ely Place, off Charterhouse Street, Holborn, London. It is dedicated to Æthelthryth, or Etheldreda, an Anglo-Saxon saint who founded the monastery at Ely in 673. The building was the chapel of the London residence of the Bishops of Ely.

The chapel was purchased in 1873 and opened as a Roman Catholic church in 1878. It is one of the oldest Roman Catholic church buildings in England, and one of only two surviving buildings in London dating from Edward I's reign. It consists of a chapel, or Upper Church, and a crypt, or undercroft.

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.

The Catholic chapel at the United States Military Academy, West Point 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 Palace or Ely House, their London 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 Palace was destroyed during the Peasants' Revolt.

16th century

In 1534, Catholic masses were outlawed in England. The Bishops of Ely continued to oversee the chapel which was used for Church of England worship after the Reformation.

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. During his tenancy, the crypt was used as a tavern.

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

17th century

In 1620, the Upper Church was granted to Count Gondomar, 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 England, was allowed in the church. Two years later, during a diplomatic dispute between England and Spain, Gondomar was recalled to Spain and use of the chapel was not given to his successor.

Matthew Wren, Bishop of Ely and 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.

18th century

In 1772, an Act of Parliament let the Bishops of Ely sell the property to the Crown. The site, including the chapel, was then sold on to Charles Cole, a surveyor and architect. He demolished all the buildings on the site apart from the chapel and built Ely Place. The chapel was extensively refurbished in the Georgian style of the time before it re-opened in 1786.

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.

In 1836, Ely Chapel was reopened by the Reverend Alexander D'Arblay (son of Fanny Burney) as a place of Anglican worship but he died the following year. In 1843, the church was taken over by Welsh Anglicans with services celebrated in the Welsh language. The chapel was put up for auction in 1873 and purchased for £5,400 by the Roman Catholic convert 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 to the cloister. 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 a Roman Catholic 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).

For many years, St Etheldreda's church was the oldest Roman Catholic church building in England. However, the oldest building is now the church of Ss Leonard & Mary in Malton, North Yorkshire. That church, built in about 1180 as a chapel of ease of the Gilbertine Priory in Old Malton, was gifted to the Roman Catholic Church in 1971.

20th century

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.

21st century

The Roman Catholic Church has proposed that St Anne's Church, Laxton Place be used as the principal church of the Personal Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham. Damian Thompson, the religious affairs commentator for the Daily Telegraph and a prominent supporter of the ordinariate, has called for St Etheldreda's to be used by the ordinariate, claiming that the church suffered a decline, both liturgically and as a parish community, in the early years of the 21st century.

Father Kit Cunningham, for some 30 years the rector of St Etheldreda’s, was awarded the MBE in 1998. Cunningham returned the MBE before his death in 2010. It was subsequently revealed in June 2011 that Cunningham had been a paedophile at a school in Tanzania.

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