Building » Ely Place – St Etheldreda

Ely Place – St Etheldreda

Ely Place, Holborn Circus, London EC1

A rare and important survival in London of a late thirteenth-century chapel, consisting of an upper and lower church, on the model of the Ste Chapelle, Paris. The church was part of the London residence of the Bishops of Ely, all now lost apart from the church and part of the cloister. The design is notable for the great Geometrical windows at the east and west ends of the upper church. The church was adapted for Anglican use in Georgian Gothick style in the late eighteenth century, at the same time as the laying out of Ely Place. In the 1870s it was acquired and restored by the Institute of Charity (Rosminians), the first example in this country of a medieval place of worship reverting to Catholic use. J. F. Bentley designed the choir screen. The church was damaged by wartime bombing, but was subsequently restored and fitted with fine modern stained glass, notably the great east window by Joseph Nuttgens, and other furnishings of note. The church lies within the late eighteenth-century enclave of Ely Place, in the Hatton Garden Conservation Area.       

The church was built at the end of the thirteenth century as the town chapel of the Bishops of Ely. It was dedicated to St Etheldreda, a seventh-century East Anglian princess, who founded a convent and future cathedral at Ely. There is a model in the crypt (photo bottom right) showing the chapel and palace at the peak of its medieval development, when the estate extended to fifty eight acres.  The gardens were famous for their saffron and strawberries, as referred to in Shakespeare’s Richard III, when the Duke of Gloucester says to the Bishop of Ely: ‘When I was last in Holborn, I saw good strawberries in your garden there. I do beseech you send for some of them’.

Upon becoming Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Arundel let Ely House to John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, after the latter’s palace at the Savoy was burnt and looted by Wat Tyler’s mob during the peasants’ revolt of 1381.

With the Henrician Reformation, the first Bishop of Ely under the new order was Thomas Goodrich, who destroyed the shrine of St Etheldreda at Ely Cathedral. He also built the Mitre tavern nearby, in 1546.

In the reign of Elizabeth I, Sir Christopher Hatton, the Queen’s favourite, took an interest in the palace and surrounding land, wanting to build a palace of his own. Bishop Cox of Ely resisted this, prompting the Queen to write to him: ‘Proud Prelate, I understand that you are backward in complying but I would have you understand that I who made you what you are can unmake you. And if you do not faithfully fulfill your engagement, by God, I will immediately unfrock you’. The bishop complied and in 1576 granted a lease to Sir Christopher, who built Hatton House over part of the bishop’s land and gardens.

Local Catholics martyred during the times of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I are commemorated in windows and statues in the present church. These include John Houghton and Priors Webster and Lawrence from the nearby Charterhouse, executed under Henry VIII, and the Elizabethan martyrs Swithin Wells and Margaret Ward.

In 1620 the Mass returned to Ely Place, when it became the residence of the Spanish ambassador. This arrangement ceased after the failure of James I’s attempts to marry his son off to the Spanish Infanta, and in 1642, during the Civil War, Ely House and chapel were requisitioned by Parliament to serve as a prison and hospital.

In the 1650s Lord Christopher Hatton inherited Hatton House. Facing financial difficulties, he resolved to develop the estate, demolishing the house in 1659 and laying out streets over the former gardens.  This is the area now known as Hatton Garden.

The following century was a period of gradual decline in the fortunes of Ely House and chapel (see figures 1 and 2). Finally in 1772, an Act of Parliament enabled Bishop Keene to sell the property to the Crown, and to take up residence in a more fashionable house in the West End (Sir Robert Taylor’s Ely House in Dover Street, 1772-76). The Crown sold the old Ely House freehold to the builder and surveyor Charles Cole, who with the bricklayer John Gorham, laid out the ‘handsome and uniform’ development of Ely Place (the subject of unfavourable comment in Pugin’s Contrasts).  The chapel was retained to serve as an Anglican place of worship for the new residents, modernised in Georgian Gothick style (figure 3) – the east elevation was rendered and the two corner turrets (visible in figure 2) removed; while two new entrance doors with four-centred arches were formed below the east window, approached from the street by a stone stair with railings. Inside, a new plaster ceiling concealing the old roof and a central pulpit and box pews were introduced.

In 1820 a lease was taken by the National Society for the Education of the Poor, and galleries were built on either side of the upper church. However, this venture did not succeed, and in 1844 the Welsh Episcopalians moved in. The building was not properly maintained, but an opportunity for its full repair and restoration did not arise until the 1870s, when the whole of Ely Place was sold to settle a legal dispute between the descendants of Charles Cole.

Cardinal Manning had asked the Rosminian order (Institute of Charity) to serve the growing number of Catholics living in the slum areas around Holborn. The Rosminians were an Italian order who had undertaken successful missionary work in the midlands and north London. Heading the north London mission was Fr William Lockhart, an Oxford convert and friend of J. H. Newman. In December 1873 Fr Lockhart acquired St Etheldreda’s at auction for £5,400, outbidding the Welsh Episcopalians.

According to Evinson, Fr Lockhart’s architect for the restoration of 1874-79 was Bernard Whelan. The list entry gives it to George Gilbert Scott junior. Bradley, however, says the architect was John Young, citing an attribution in the Transactions of the St Paul’s Ecclesiological Society, 1880-81. At first the crypt was repaired, opening on 23 June (the Feast of St Etheldreda), 1876. During the excavation of the crypt, an ancient font or holy water stoup was unearthed, as well as many bodies. In the main chapel above, the Georgian fittings were removed and the plaster removed from the walls. Tracery was reinstated in the north and south windows, copied from one remaining example. A relic of St Etheldreda (her uncorrupted hand) was placed in a jewelled reliquary casket below the new marble high altar. Stained glass was installed from designs by Hardman & Co. (west window, depicting the English Martyrs), Saunders & Co. (east window, featuring Christ the King and attendant saints and angels) and a Mr Worrall (side windows, with Old and New Testament scenes). The first solemn High Mass in the restored church was celebrated by Cardinal Manning on St Etheldreda’s Day, 1879. This was the first pre-Reformation place of worship to be returned to Catholic use.

In 1894 J. F. Bentley prepared plans for a new high altar with carved wooden reredos, along with sanctuary seating and communion rails. These were not realised. However, five years later he designed an exquisitely-traceried oak choir screen with wrought iron grilles and gates, with lateral confessionals and organ case above. This was installed towards the west end of the nave, to form a narthex. Amongst the coats of arms on the coving on the underside of the choir gallery were those of the family of Edward Bellasis, Lancaster Herald, who was the donor.

In 1935 a programme of repair was undertaken by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott. However, in 1941 the church was damaged by bombing, tearing a hole in the original roof, and blowing out the stained glass windows.  The post-war restoration was carried out between 1950 and 1952 by J. H. Greenwood of Sackville Street, W1. New stained glass repeated the iconography of the previous glass, but was modern in style. Its crowning glory is Joseph Nuttgens’s great east window (1952).   Other glass in the nave is by Charles Blakeman (Life of Our Lord on the north side, Old Testament scenes on the south, 1952-58), while Blakeman’s glass in the great west window was added in 1964. Blakeman also designed the glass and most of the fittings, including the Stations of the Cross, in the crypt (1968-70). The resin and fibreglass statues of martyrs on corbels around the walls of the upper church are by May Blakeman (1962-64).  

There was a further programme of repair in the late 1980s and 1990s, under Vernon Gibberd. The church continues to be served by the Rosminians, and there is a small convent of Rosminian sisters next door.

The church and its main furnishings are described in the list entry (below). In addition to the furnishings mentioned above, two features of note which are not mentioned are:

  • The late seventeenth-century painted oak royal arms, hanging on the wall at the top of the stairs by the main entrance to the upper church (from the      building’s time as an Anglican church).

  • In the loft over Bentley’s screen is a new organ, made by Späth Orgelbau of Switzerland and installed in 2009.

Heritage Details

Architect: John Young; J. H. Greenwood

Original Date: 1290

Conservation Area: Yes

Listed Grade: I