‘The whole city trembled’ - 700 years since Ely Cathedral's tower collapsed

February 13 2022 marked 700 years since Ely Museum's bell tower collapsed.

February 13 2022 marked 700 years since Ely Museum's bell tower collapsed. The octagon tower was created following the disaster (inset). - Credit: Archant / Ely Museum

A museum is marking the anniversary of the collapse of Ely Cathedral’s bell tower, which ‘made the whole city tremble’ 700 years ago. 

The central Norman tower fell at around 4:30am on February 13 1322, just after the monks had finished the service of matins. 

It left a hole 70ft wide through the middle of the cathedral. 

Records say it collapsed with such a crash it ‘caused the men to think that an earthquake had taken place’. 

Ely Museum reflected on the day by posting details of the event on its Facebook page for those interested to find out more about what happened all those years ago. 

As an experienced architect and sacrist at Ely Cathedral, Alan of Walsingham was responsible for the physical building there. 

When hearing about the collapsed tower, he was said to be “deeply shocked, grieving vehemently and overcome with sorrow”. 

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Monks at the cathedral also said of Walsingham’s reaction to this disaster, that “he knew not which way to turn himself or what to do for the reparation of such a ruin”. 

Fortunately, though, “no one was hurt or crushed in the ruin of the tower”. 

February 13 2022 marked 700 years since Ely Cathedral's bell tower collapsed. Pictured is the octagonal hall in the cathedral

February 13 2022 marked 700 years since Ely Cathedral's bell tower collapsed. Pictured is the octagonal hall in the cathedral. - Credit: Facebook / Ely Museum

A spokesperson for Ely Museum said: “While there are several theories as to why the tower may have collapsed on this day, the disaster was perhaps not entirely unexpected. 

“The monks are said to have also avoided using this part of the cathedral for worship for some time prior to the collapse.

"It is possible that the disaster was caused by the changes as a result of building work taking place in the Lady Chapel".

Alan of Walsingham was called upon to create a plan to rebuild Ely Cathedral. 

He was joined by Prior Crauden, who was good at extracting money from royalty and aristocrats, and Ely’s Bishop Hotham, who spent a lot of his own money on the rebuild. 

Instead of rebuilding the four piers which carried the square Norman tower, Alan advanced the supports, finding firmer foundations by extending by one bay into each arm of the cross. 

“In doing so, he was able to distribute the weight across eight piers instead of four, and created the ‘magnificent’ octagonal hall, topped with the lantern roof we recognise today,” said the spokesperson. 

The 74ft span, 142ft height of the tower and weight of over 400 tonnes was too large to support a stone vault, so one built of wood and covered in lead was used instead. 

The tower was built in Gothic style with strong pointed arches and elaborate decoration and cost £2,406 6sh 11d – equivalent to about £3.5m in today’s money. 

The girls choir from Ely Cathedral enjoying an outside rehearsal on the Octagon roof in preparation

February 13 2022 marked 700 years since Ely Cathedral's bell tower collapsed. This photo shows Ely Cathedral's girls choir performing high up on the roof of the Gothic cathedral next to the octagon tower. - Credit: Geoff Robinson

The octagon tour at Ely Cathedral takes you behind the scenes of the lantern and opens up the angel

February 13 2022 marked 700 years since Ely Museum's bell tower collapsed. The octagon tower was created following the disaster (inset). - Credit: Nicky Still

According to the records, the first phase of the work was completed in 1328 with the timber lantern having been designed by William Hurley, the King’s (Edward III) carpenter, and eight other master carpenters. 

Since the Victorian era, it has been believed the lantern part of the design is framed by eight 60ft vertical oak posts.  

The wood used to create these came from oak trees at Chicksands Priory in Bedfordshire. 

The spokesperson said: “Due to each beam weighing in at over 10 tonnes each, the bridges on the route from the priory to Ely had to be reinforced to take the weight of these great oaks! 

“The stonework for this structure took over six years to complete and the total project took almost 14 years in total.” 

Ely Museum’s Facebook post has attracted several individuals. There’s been a number of likes, shares and comments. 

February 13 2022 marked 700 years since Ely Cathedral bell tower collapsed. Pictured is the octagonal hall in the cathedral.

February 13 2022 marked 700 years since Ely Cathedral's bell tower collapsed. Pictured is the octagonal hall in the cathedral. Picture: Timothy Selvage - Credit: Archant

Lesley said: “Well, that is so interesting, however not sure I’d trust old Alan of Walsingham to put up the replacement but he did a wonderful job. 

“It’s really stunning”. 

Julie added: “Amazing piece of architecture. 200 tonnes of wood and glass suspended in space”. 

Maureen said: “Also, the design was ‘borrowed’ by Sir Christopher Wren for St Pauls to carry a load bearing area!” 

Ely Cathedral (pictured) has been listed amongst the top 25 in Europe in 'Europe's 100 Best Cathedra

February 13 2022 marked 700 years since Ely Cathedral's bell tower collapsed. The octagon tower that replaced the bell towed is pictured to the right of this photo. - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

The octagon tour at Ely Cathedral takes you behind the scenes of the lantern and opens up the angel

February 13 2022 marked 700 years since Ely Museum's bell tower collapsed. The octagon tower that replaced the bell tower is pictured. - Credit: Nicky Still