About this church
The church was built in 1290 by John De Kirkeby, Bishop of Ely. It is here that Shakespeare has John O’Gaunt making one of the finest speeches in the English language; ‘This blessed plot, this Earth, this realm, this England’.
After the Reformation, Henry VIII’s Act of Supremacy declared him Supreme Head of the Church of England. Refusal to take an oath of allegiance was treason and many Catholics were arrested and executed. Thomas More was imprisoned in the church tower, the cell remains as it was 400 years ago.
After Henry’s death the men behind the throne set about destroying Catholic belief and practices. The mass was abolished, replaced by the Book of Common Prayer.
In 1620, the Spanish Ambassador moved into Ely Place. An ambassadors residence is part of the country they represent. To hear mass was punishable by death for English Catholics but they flocked to St Etheldreda’s.
In 1666 the Great Fire of London swept through the city, destroying everything in its path until it reached St Etheldreda’s. The wind changed and the ancient church was saved.
In 1829, the Catholic Emancipation Act was passed and it was no longer illegal to say mass. For Charles Dickens, the slums surrounding St Etheldreda’s became his own. It was to Saffron Hill that the Artful Dodger took Oliver Twist and to Ely Place that David Copperfield went to visit Agnes.
In December 1873 the chapel was bought by the Rosminians, and Father Lockhart launched a restoration appeal. As part of work in the crypt 18 burials were found, bodies from the Fatal Vespers of 1623.
The church was restored with the splendour intended by its medieval builders. The ceiling was removed to reveal the medieval roof intact.
St Etheldreda’s is a busy parish. It is part of our national heritage and is used daily for the purpose for which it was built over 700 years ago.