Act One Synopsis 679 AD
Etheldreda, the founder, and her sister Seaxburh, together with her daughter Eormenhild and grandaughter, Werburh, were all queens in Anglo-Saxon England.
Act One tells of the visit to Ely of the great Anglo-Saxon bishop, Wilfrid, where the four queens have chosen a civilising life, teaching and growing herbal medicine, establishing music in the English church and educating the young, once their wifely duties were done (excepting Etheldreda, who refused to consummate her marriage to Egfrith of Northumbria). Wilfrid introduces Caedmon's Hymn, here sung in a combination of English and Anglo-Saxon, an exact contemporary of this time. But this is also the end of Etheldreda's life, and the Act closes with her parting from first Wilfrid and then her world. Her farewell is the beautiful but enigmatic telling of the story of the sparrow in the great hall of King Edwin.
Act Two Synopsis 1069-1099 AD
Act Two opens with monks and nuns singing a prayer to St Etheldreda, which is interrupted by a furious battle between William the Conqueror and the rebel Hereward the Wake. As the sounds of battle die away, the four Anglo-Saxon queens (Etheldreda, Seaxburh, Eormenhild and Werburh) introduce themselves as protectors of the isle of Ely.
William vows revenge on Abbot Simeon and the monks for their failure to support him but his wife Matilda pleads successfully for recognition of Ely as a holy place of learning and healing. Matilda chides the abbot for his inaction and challenges him to agree to build a mighty church in honour of the four great queens.
Then a messenger brings news that both William and Matilda have passed away. The inhabitants of Ely are threatened by a gang of Norman thugs but are saved by the miraculous intervention of the four queens.
The Act ends with a joyful celebration in response to news of the capture of Jerusalem.
Act Three Synopsis 1100-1107 AD
Act Three deals with the construction of the great building of Ely Cathedral as we know it today, which took place under the inspirational drive of Abbot Richard of Bec, Henry 1 of England's choice for the task. The cantata tells of Richard’s arrival in the town, the excuses of the monks for failing to get started on such a daunting enterprise and his dream of Saint Werburh urging him on. We hear the stonemasons and the carpenters at work and meet the townspeople as they go about their daily business.
The inauguration of the Cathedral and the installation of the four Queen Saints, Etheldreda, Seaxburh, Eormenhild and Werburh, is the occasion for a solemn and joyous ceremony with triumphant paeans of praise from the massed choirs of monks, nuns and townsfolk.
Then Richard dies, comforted at the last by his patron, Saint Werburh. The task is done. The monks and nuns sing In paradisum deducant te angeli.......