City of London

St. Etheldreda Ely, City of London

This unusual church is the oldest surviving Catholic Church in England and one of only two buildings in London dating from Edward I’s reign.

The church began life modestly sometime between 1250 and 1290 as the London chapel for the Bishops of Ely. It was part of Ely Palace, their London residence.

In 1302 John, Earl of Warenne swore allegiance to Eward II here and then in 1381 John of Gaunt came to live in the Palace after his own Savoy Palace was destroyed in the Peasants’ Revolt.

In 1534 Henry VIII outlawed Catholic masses from being performed in England and the Chapel became disused. This stayed the same until the Palace and Chapel were granted for use to the Spanish Ambassador, Count Gondomar, in 1620. Although Catholic mass was still illegal, the Chapel became Spanish soil with this diplomatic grant and for two years mass was said here once again.

In 1642 parliament seized the Palace and Chapel for use as a prison and hospital during the Civil War. Cromwell had the Palace destroyed during the Commonwealth and only the little Chapel, now effectively a church in its own right survived. It also managed to survive the Great Fire in 1666.

The church then had an ignominious history for two hundred years and being sold from one party to another with no one really showing any interest. Finally, in auction in 1873, it was purchased by Father William Lockhart who began work on repairing the church and crypt for religious use. A piece of St. Etheldreda’s hand was donated to the church as a relic and mass was celebrated in 1878 being the church full circle as a Catholic institution once more.

A bomb hit the church in World War II and destroyed the roof and glass and it took seven years before the church was in operation once more.

Photo - Andrew J. Müller

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