HRH Princess Michael of Kent
ST ETHELDREDA'S, ELY PLACE, LONDON
St Etheldreda's, Ely Place, is the only Catholic 13th-century church in London and a place of quite extraordinary beauty.
The upper church, once the private chapel of the medieval Bishops of Ely, is celebrated for the size of its east and west windows. The effect of so much stained glass and so little brickwork is to create a sensation of swimming in light. There is none of the spookiness associated with some ancient churches — far from it.
Ely Place, on the edge of the City of London, has special associations for me. When I first arrived in England in the late 1960s, my Austrian family decided that, along with a good dentist, doctor and so on, a young woman needed a good priest. I was put in touch with Fr Jean CharlesRoux, a distinguished French Rosminian who was then curate at St Etheldreda's.
I was captivated by Fr Jean's spiritual insight and charm. He now lives in retirement in Rome, in his mid-90s but with a mind sharp as a razor. His sermons made me want to immerse myself in something that, growing up in a Catholic country, I had previously taken for granted: a living faith. And its physical representation for me was St Etheldreda's.
The story of St Etheldreda herself is a sad and strange one. She was born around 636 AD, the daughter of the King of East Anglia. Despite her desire to become a nun like her sisters, she was twice married. On both occasions it was agreed that she could remain a virgin, but when her second husband, Egfrith, became King of Northumbria, he demanded his conjugal rights and Etheldreda fled to her dower land of Ely, founding a double monastery.
Here she died in 679, from a tumour on the neck, said to have been caused by wearing ribbon necklaces. (These necklaces were made of cheap material and the word "tawdry" may possibly come from the name "Audrey", today's version of Etheldreda.) Years later, when her incorrupt body was exhumed. Etheldreda's tumour was found to be healed; small wonder that she is the patron saint of throat complaints.
The church in Ely Place, just off busy Holborn Circus, is the only architectural work, other than a part of Westminster Abbey, that survives from the reign of King Edward I (1272-1307). The King's regent and financial adviser was the Bishop of Ely in Cambridgeshire. Several bishops already had houses in London, and Ely, situated in the heart of rich sheep country, qualified for a majestic palace. Its chapel dedicated to St Etheldreda is all that remains today.
The truncated cloister next to the church gives us an idea of what a beautiful and tranquil place this must have been. Yet it was possibly here that the seeds of the ruin of English Catholicism were sown.
There is a story that Henry VIII met Thomas Cranmer in the chapel cloister to discuss his divorce. The bloody results of that meeting can be witnessed in the (modern) west window, which depicts the martyrdom of three Carthusian priors who refused to sanction Henry's decision. The sinister triangular gibbet of Tyburn Tree, where up to nine people could be hanged at the same time, dominates the background — and if you look carefully you can see King Henry in disguise, gazing at the body of John Houghton, one of the first martyrs.
Catholic worship ceased at St Etheldreda's, except for a very brief interlude in the 1620s, when the Spanish ambassador was allowed to use it as his private chapel. By the time of the Commonwealth, the palace had fallen into such a state of disrepair that it was pulled down; rumour has it that the undercroft (crypt) was used to stable 50 of Cromwell's horses.
I find this undercroft an evocative place, with its heavily blackened vaulted timbers and eight-foot thick walls (perhaps dating to the sixth century). Catholics are not supposed to believe in ghosts, but merely by touching those stones I can imagine some of the distressing and moving scenes they have witnessed.
In 1623, for example, 100 Catholics were killed when the roof of the French ambassador's house collapsed during a service that has become known as the "Doleful Evensong". Shockingly, the Protestant authorities refused burial for these recusants, so 18 bodies were secretly transferred for burial in St Etheldreda's. And here they still lie — in their own way, martyrs for the faith.
Over the next centuries, a number of Protestant congregations used the chapel. In 1873, once again having fallen on hard times, it came on to the open market.
A remarkable man then entered the life of this ancient church. William Lockhart had been on the verge of following his father into the Anglican ministry when he converted to Rome. Using his own money. Fr Lockhart bought St Ethel
dreda's for the order founded by his friend, the Italian philosopher Antonio Rosmini. The first Mass for centuries was said in the crypt by Cardinal Manning in 1876.
Today, the parish priest of St Etheldreda's is a Rosminian — the warm and knowledgeable Fr Kit Cunningham, celebrated for his Christian hospitality and cheerfulness. Even though the newspapers have long since left Fleet Street, he is still the unofficial chaplain to London's Catholic journalists, and also much in demand for weddings. It was Fr Kit who
instituted the annual Strawberry Fayre, based on a line of Gloucester's from Shakespeare's Richard III: "My Lord of Ely, when I was last in Holborn, I saw good strawberries in your garden there."
Today, St Etheldreda's does not have a residential congregation; instead people come from all over London to attend its superb liturgies, which are often accompanied by a professional choir. Few churches I have visited are quite so inspiring. To attend Mass there on a sunny day, with a warm blue light streaming through the windows, is to
experience a feeling of being celestially uplifted — the nearest I have ever come to levitating.
Mass at Ely Place: Mon to Fri 8 am and / pm; Sun. 9 am and sung Latin Mass at /1 am. Old Rite Latin Mass on the first Friday of the month: sung Latin Mass at 6 pm on Holy Days of Obligation and English Mass at 8 am, 12 am, and I pm,
This is the first of an occasional series in which the Princess will visit remarkable churches all over the country.