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Online Edition - Vol. IV, No. 9: February 1999

Memories of Iconoclasm at Ely Cathedral

by Lynette Burrows

While Tony Blair is in the mood to apologize to all and sundry for atrocities committed by the State in past times, he should consider apologizing to Catholics for the dissolution of the monasteries and the suppression of the Catholic religion.

This thought struck me on a beautiful day last week, when I was shepherding a group of continental students on a day trip to see the great Cathedral at Ely. You can see it for miles as, immense and graceful, it rises above the fen landscape like a vision. No wonder, as historians tell us, people came to see it from all over Europe. It was white then, covered with statues inside and out, and with a Lady chapel "like a jewelry box", rich with color, decoration and hundreds of little statues; each illustrating a story or portraying a familiar figure from the Bible or Christian history

That was then. Now, as I stood in front of its imposing front with a Jesuit father from Italy, I heard his sharp intake of breath. Mistaking the sound for one of admiration, I contentedly turned to him and found that he was instead, frozen with dismay. "What destruction", he said. "It is the skeleton of a church!" I looked with his eyes and, for the first time noticed that, indeed it was very badly knocked about. The inside was even worse and the Lady chapel, a vast, empty room with naked walls that bore only the headless remains of a thousand beautiful pieces of work, was almost too painful to contemplate.

Flooded with an eerie white light because there was no colored glass in windows which were designed to carry the myriad colors of medieval craftsmanship, it was empty of worship and bore no single trace of the Lady who inspired its former glory.

By one of those coincidences which often seem to happen, one of my brothers called in only a week later, after having made the same trip to show friends the cathedral. He has been a born-again atheist ever since moving to Italy more than 20 years ago, so it was gratifying to hear him inveigh against the iconoclasm in exactly the same spirit. Why, he wanted to know, are we still so sensitive about it? Why does the brochure which describes the cathedral and its history not tell exactly when the worst of the destruction was wrought, and who exactly did it? It was such a big job, to destroy so much sculpture and painting, but a veil was drawn then which is only now being delicately lifted by a few dedicated historians.

In fact, it was my brother who asked when someone was going to acknowledge the destruction of Catholicism and the incredible number of people who were put to death in order to stamp it out.

According to a fascinating book by Philip Caramon he had just bought, called The Western Rising, 5,000 Devonians and Cornishmen were killed, largely by foreign mercenaries, in order to destroy the old religion. That would be an enormous total even today, but then, when the total population of England was little more than two million, it is incredible. It happened 13 years after Robert Aske's Pilgrimage of Grace in the North, which ended with similar slaughter, and represents the action of a state against its own citizenry on a Stalinist scale.

An apology and an acknowledgement would be in order. Why not? Apart from anything else, it might serve to remind those Irish who cannot forgive the English for what Cromwell did to them, that we suffered first.

Lynette Burrows wrtites for many Catholic publications in the United Kingdom. Her essay originally appeared in The Catholic Times, London, August 30, 1998, and is reprinted with permission.

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