The day the cathedral music died

PUBLISHED: 16:15 14 December 2006 | UPDATED: 13:39 04 May 2010

CROMWELL arrived back in Ely during the summer of 1643 as Governor of the Isle. As a Puritan, Cromwell had issues with the cathedral services over the use of the choir and organ music. He did not personally object to music or singing outside of a church s

CROMWELL arrived back in Ely during the summer of 1643 as Governor of the Isle. As a Puritan, Cromwell had issues with the cathedral services over the use of the choir and organ music. He did not personally object to music or singing outside of a church setting, and was himself passionately fond of music, installing an organ at Hampton Court when he became Lord Protector. Puritan objections were to services that seemed Popish and they found the practice of a choir service "unedifying and offensive".

In the short-term, Cromwell did little to change the services in the cathedral. Having established a garrison at Ely, he and his men were far too busy ensuring that the Isle was well defended from Royalist attack. A fort was built at Horsey Hill, one of the approaches to Ely on the Fen Causeway, between Whittlesey and Peterborough. A permanent garrison was established at Whittlesey and a defensive position established at Stanground sluice. Smaller positions were built on the road between Chatteris and Mepal at Chatteris Ferry, at Witcham and on the southern approaches to the Isle, at Willingham, Aldreth High Bridge and Elford Closes, Stretham.

With the Isle now more secure, Cromwell turned his attention to the cathedral. On January 10, 1644, Cromwell wrote to the vicar choral and precentor, William Hitch, who was responsible for the daily order of services. Cromwell warned the Rev Hitch that "least the soldiers should in any tumultuarie or disorderly way attempt the Reformation of your cathedral church" he was to cease having a choir service. If Hitch failed to take heed and above all, give any more subversive sermons, then on his own head be it.

But Hitch ignored the warning. In response, Cromwell, with his hat on, marched into the cathedral in the middle of a choir-service and said to Hitch: "I am a man under authority and am commanded to dismiss this assembly." The precentor was either very stubborn or very silly, because he continued saying the prayers. Not only ignoring Cromwell's interruption, but the fact that the Governor of had entered Ely Cathedral with about 40 soldiers, or more, armed with swords and guns, and a numerous rabble of disaffected people.

Cromwell and his men marched towards the communion table while Hitch went on saying the prayers. By this time Cromwell was in a rage and, laying his hand on his sword, told Hitch to: "Leave off your fooling, and come down". With this, Hitch and the rest of the congregation were driven out of the cathedral. From this point services in the cathedral were Puritan in style, concentrating on sermons. By the time that deans, chapters and cathedrals were abolished by Parliament in May 1649, Ely Cathedral had witnessed a gradual disintegration. The last recorded chapter meeting was held on January 2, 1644.

Bishop Wren was in the Tower of London and Dean Fuller departed for Durham, at the King's request, in March 1646. Those left were minor officers who simply had no where else to go.

What of the Rev Hitch? The Lady Chapel continued as the parish church of Holy Trinity in the 1640s and '50s and William Hitch was the minister until his death in 1658.

I rather admire Hitch and would love to have seen Cromwell's face as this defiant preacher stood up to him.

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