Singing the Past at the Festival of St Etheldreda, Ely

Sunday 26th June saw our biggest event of the summer as Singing the Past came to the festival of St Etheldreda in Ely, with a series of public history talks, promotion of the project in and around the cathedral, and the performance of Cantata Dramatica‘s Cantata Eliensis in the Lady Chapel of the cathedral on Sunday evening.

leaflets nave
Promotional materials for Singing the Past and Cantata Eliensis at the entrance desk of Ely Cathedral

Aethelfryth, daughter of King Anna of East Anglia (also known as Etheldreda) founded an abbey at Ely in AD 673. The buildings and community were survived the Viking invasions of the late ninth century, but were greatly diminished until re-founded as a Benedictine monastery  in 970, under the reform programme of Bishop Ethelwold of Winchester. After the Norman Conquest, Ely provided a refuge for a resistance movement, but was eventually worn down by King William who imposed severe financial conditions on the monastic community for their part in harbouring the opposition. A new cathedral was begun in 1083. The libretto of Cantata Eliensis, written by Nick Pitts-Tucker, tells this story of Ely’s foundation and the Norman rebuilding of the cathedral through the media of music and singing.


On Saturday, I spent the day handing out leaflets in Ely for Sunday’s events, and scouting around the historic parts of the old town with Daisy the Beagle (one of the most historically-informed dogs in the country).daisy ely

On Sunday, we were joined by De Helen Foxhall-Forbes (Durham), Dr Rosalind Love (Cambridge) and Janet Fairwether (Cambridge, and resident of Ely) for a series of public lectures on the Anglo-Saxon and Norman history of Ely. Helen gave a fascinating insight into Ely’s relationship with a guild of thegns from Cambridge, before Rosalind explored the role of Ethelfrith’s sister, the little-known Queen and Abbess Seaxburgh. Janet rounded things off with an introduction to the Liber Eliensis (the ‘book of Ely’) which is a twelfth-century account of the  Ely community and its saints, on which Nick’s libretto was largely based. The lectures were well attended by a selection of local residents, visitors and history enthusiasts, and there were plenty of questions for the speakers and lively discussions from all present. We were pleased to see that many also came to the evening performance in the cathedral, especially since we planned the lectures and performance of two parts to the same programme.

Later in the evening came the set-piece performance of Cantata Eliensis, and our chance to really sing the past to life. I had heard sections of the piece before through recordings, but I was quite blown away by this full-scale performance. I was particularly struck by the power of Nick’s Queens (Seaxburgh by Rebecca Ramsey; Werburh by Lucy Cox; Eormenhild by Elaine Bishop; William I’s wife Matilda by Becca Marriott and of course Ethelfrith by Katie Slater) and especially the beginning of Act Two where all four Anglo-Saxon queens take turns to ask ‘Who am I?’ before explaining how important and powerful they are.

My next favourite section is the building section in Act Three, where the quarrymen labour to dig out the stones before the builders and carpenters bring in a flurry of activity. This section in particular really brings to life what must have been a long and arduous process, and is well worth a listen on the Cantata Dramatica website.

CE full choir

Overall, a very successful weekend of cultural engagement activities, and Singing the Past to Life. I’m personally grateful to Cantata Drmatica directors, Julia Stutfield and Nick Pitts-Tucker for inviting me to take part in a really enjoyable weekend of activities. If Cantata Eliensis serves as a useful guide to what we might hope to achieve with our new composition on St Cuthbert, then this weekend of public performances and lectures shows what we can achieve in Durham when we’re finally ready to show off what we’ve done on this project. More on the Cuthbert piece in the next blog!



Author: rozierhistorian

Lecturer in Medieval History (Normans, Anglo-Saxons, medieval uses of the past) at Durham University, UK

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