Cambridge academic has new theory on how Ely got its name

A CAMBRIDGE University academic has come up with a surprising new theory about how Ely got his its name, and it’s nothing to do with eels!

Mac Dowdy, an emeritus fellow and historian at Wolfson College, believes the name Ely came from the Latin word for paradise, Elysium, and, initially, had little to do with the abundant eel population.

Mr Dowdy, who lives in Downham Road, Ely, explained: “In the 7th Century, when the settlement that became Ely was first created, none of the people who had occupied Britain before or since the 2,000BC Bronze Age had had the word eel in their vocabulary. It is even doubtful that the word existed in the 12th Century.

“It does not even appear in the Norman Domesday Book, commissioned 1085, in which eels play an important part as taxes.

“Until the 1300s eels are known in written form in Latin as anguilla, anguilles in Franco-Norman, or as schlippen-fisch or aal in Scandia-Old German.”

So how did Ely get its name?

Mr Dowdy says that, drawing on several historical resources, the origin of the name can be traced to the 7th Century when Queen Etheldreda returned to her home at Cratendune, near Stretham, to establish a monastery.

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She was persuaded however, by Wilfred the Archbishop of York, to establish her monastery a few miles north on the higher, more protected ground.

Mr Dowdy explains: “Wilfed persuaded Etheldreda to build her religious house on the more protected high ground a distance to the north east. He asked Ovin, her chamberlain, who was from the district, the name of the place.

“Ovin described it as an ancient place of great spiritual importance to the people of the region, a paradise. Now Ovin only ever spoke in the regional dialects of the Anglo-Saxons and as his companions had been conversing in Latin, Wilfred, asked Eddius (his chronicler) to translate.

“His chronicler described Ovin’s story of high ground using the Latin term for paradise, which could also mean holy land..Elysium.”

Mr Dowdy explained that the Archbishop was delighted with the name and, when he visited Pope Agotha in Rome, he gave it his full support, with the papal accounts in Library of the Vatican recording the event.

The historian added that in medieval times, it was common practice to abbreviate nouns and Elysium would almost certainly have been shortened to Ely.

Mr Dowdy said: “This Elysium story is supported by documentary fact and I would be pleased to receive any further evidence that supports and extends, or even counters it.”

Contact Mr Dowdy on 01223 335900 or 01353 665491.