I Remember, I Remember
Coming up England by a different line,
For once, early in the cold new year,
We stopped, and, watching men with number plates
Sprint down the platform to familiar gates,
'Why, Coventry!' I exclaimed. 'I was born here.'
- Philip Larkin, Poet and Coventrian
Most people's knowledge of Coventry can be summed up by conflict, cars, and nude equestrianism - Civil War, World War II, and Peugeot, Jaguar, Daimler, Morris and Godiva. Coventry is, however, far older, deeper, and stranger than that.
Certainly the Romans knew of Coventry, and on the outskirts of the city at Bagington are the remains of the only known gyrus1 in Western Europe. It has been suggested that this may have been erected to allow for the training of the vast number of partly trained horses the Roman Legion inherited after the defeat of Boudicca at Mancetter. There are documented discoveries of Roman artefacts in Coventry dating back to the late 16th Century.
People were settling in the area in greater numbers around the 8th Century, and finds relating to this era indicate that the Barrs Hill area was probably the first inhabited. People were living on the shores of Babba-lacu2, a large lake on the River Sherbourne.
It has never really been decided how Coventry got its name. The Priory charter gives the name as Couaentree which is supposed to mean 'Town on the Cune', 'Cune' being the original name of the Sherbourne. Twenty years later the spelling is recorded as Cofantreo which historians translate as Cofa's tree. This is the preferred source of the name, though as medieval chroniclers were notorious for their enlightened approach to spelling, it is also recorded as Couentre, Coventrev and Coventria. Cofa's Tree is preferred, as Coventry was once in the Forest of Arden and it is assumed there was some form of tree worship.
There is a strange legend that Christianity was brought to Coventry by the Saint of Cologne, who brought 11,000 virgins to the settlement3. The city was certainly Christian by 700 AD, because a nunnery was established by the holy virgin St Osburga. Even this is shrouded in mystery because so little is known about St Osburga; however, she died as Abbess of the priory and her saintly remains were enshrined in the Abbey. There remains a church bearing her name to this day. Also enshrined was the arm of St Augustine of Hippo, a gift to the priory from King Canute, possibly as a penance for his having destroyed the priory when he was just a Danish raider, before he defeated King Edmund.
Coventry has another connection with the Christian faith. It was reportedly the birth place of Saint George, and also the city to which he returned at the end of his travels, and where he died.
Possibly the best known story attached to Coventry is that of Godiva. Her naked ride through the city to save the inhabitants from the punitive taxes set by her husband, the Earl of Leofric, has spread the fame of the city far and wide.
Unfortunately it is probably just that, a story. Godiva was a real noblewoman, who was born around 1000 AD. The idea that her husband could force one of the highest ranking noblewomen in the country to ride in this manner is unbelievable. It is far more likely this is a pious explanation of a pagan festival. Both naked woman and horses were considered potent fertility symbols.
The other aspect of the Godiva legend is Peeping Tom. He was the one man who was supposed to have looked upon the naked Godiva, and was struck blind for his rudeness. Tom does not appear in the original version of the story4; he comes later and is thought to have developed from a painting of 1586, which shows a bearded man peering through an upper window - probably intended to represent Leofric.
By 1200, Coventry had grown into a prosperous city, probably the third largest in England, a centre of the wool and cloth trade. Such was the quality of Coventry weaving that lead seals have been found stating that the content is genuine Coventry cloth 'that the city may have praise by it and no slander'.
Wool and weaving led naturally to dyeing, and in Coventry this was a highly specialised craft. This led to the development of a blue dye created from sloe berries and other ingredients, that gave a rich, fast colour. This dye led to the expression 'As true as Coventry Blue', for the dye survived washing. The manufacture of this dye was a closely guarded secret of the guild in Coventry and was passed by word of mouth, from master to apprentice. So successful were they in protecting their recipe that today nobody knows how it was made, or even what colour it was exactly.
The city continued to grow. Eventually the wall about it was 12 feet high, 9 feet thick and 2.5 miles around. The city was home to Edward, the Black Prince, and from this comes the city motto Camera Principis ('Treasure chamber of the prince').
Coventry and the Wars
Coventry has featured heavily in wars fought on English soil. It was an event in Coventry that led to the War of the Roses. As recorded by Shakespeare, a trial by combat, ordered by King Richard II, took place on Gosford Green between Thomas Mowbray, Duke of Norfolk and Henry Bolingbroke, Duke of Hereford in 1398. Now these were two of the most powerful and popular nobles in the country. Richard probably feared that war would break out if he allowed either to kill the other. He therefore stopped the trial before it had properly begun and exiled both men. In 1399, Bolingbroke returned, gathered an army and took Richard prisoner. He was then brought to Coventry before being carried to London where he was obliged to abdicate in favour of Henry Bolingbroke - Henry IV. Had Richard not made his fateful decision on Gosford Green, the Lancastrian Kings would not have come to the throne of England - and the War of the Roses would not have happened.
Thus started a succession of Royal visits to Coventry. Henry IV called parliament to Coventry and tradition holds that the young Prince Harry was arrested by the mayor in the priory, for drunkenness. Shakespeare has Henry V meeting Sir John Falstaff5 on the road to Coventry, and Henry VI made Coventry into a county in its own right. In 1459, the War of the Roses began in earnest and Queen Margaret gathered her forces at Coventry and routed the forces of York. The King called parliament to Coventry again and, after sitting in the priory for over a month, they declared York and all his supporters traitors, and condemned them to death. When York was eventually defeated, Neville rose to the leadership of the Yorkist forces and Coventry changed sides, thus being on the winning side when Edward Duke of York rose to become Edward IV. In 1474 Edward, Prince of Wales, one of the princes murdered in the Tower, came to Coventry and was entertained. Richard III did visit Coventry, but at the battle of Bosworth field, Coventry men fought on the side of Henry Tudor. When he was crowned Henry VII on the battlefield by the perfidious Stanley, he came straight to Coventry. His son Arthur married Catherine of Aragon, and part of her dowry was Cheylesmore Manor in Coventry.
Henry VIII6 also came to Coventry and it was the Bishop of Coventry and Lichfield who married Henry to Anne Boleyn. When Henry died, nine-year-old Edward came to the throne, but he died aged 16. Lady Jane Grey was declared Queen, but the next day the Mayor of Coventry declared Mary Queen. Lady Jane ruled for nine days before 'Bloody Mary' rose to the throne. Another queen came to Coventry in 1569, Mary Queen of Scots, though no procession greeted her; she came as a prisoner of her cousin, Elizabeth. She was escorted to her death by a Coventry man, John Harrington, of Coombe Abbey. When James I came to England, he trusted the raising of his children to Harrington, and it was part of the Gunpowder Plot to seize these children. Harrington, however, got wind of the plot and removed the Prince and Princess to Coventry.
Sent to Coventry
In the English Civil War, Coventry first tried to placate King Charles I with money, and then told him he was welcome to come, but his cavaliers should remain outside. The King was outraged and, on 20 August, 1642, laid siege to the city, but the citizens rose up and defended the city wall. Thus the first shots of the civil war were fired. Coventry was so staunchly Parliamentarian that prisoners were sent to be held in the city. No citizen would aid these prisoners in any way and refused to speak to them. This is commonly believed to be the source of the saying 'Sent to Coventry'. However, there is perhaps an older meaning. From the reign of Henry III (1216 - 72), criminals had been sent to Coventry to be put to death. Covin tree means tree of punishment, a tree of mass hangings.
A Period of Calm
The 18th Century saw Coventry removed from the forefront of the political life of the realm and there were no royal visits, though Coventry was established as a barracks town7. The canal company was formed in 1768, and coal was being transported from Bedworth by the following year.
The mid-19th Century saw Coventry in the midst of recession overshadowed by industrial Birmingham. The city had been in decline since Tudor times, but by the 19th Century the silk ribbon trade had collapsed and the watch trade was suffering from cheaper imports. The mill owners were no longer sending work out to the topshops of the outworkers and there were protests and riots against the new steam looms. The year 1838 saw Coventry connected to London and Birmingham by railway. The city was enjoying a reputation as a revivalist centre and Dickens8 and Thackeray both visited the city more than once. However, the leading literary luminary locally was Mary Anne Evans. Better known as George Elliot, she was resident in the city during this period. Born at nearby Arbury, she received the larger part of her education in Coventry and later became part of the literary set under the auspices of the Bray family, when her father moved to Foleshill in Coventry once he retired. Though she left Coventry in 1850, she based the setting of Middlemarch on Coventry9.
Dame Ellen Terry was born in Coventry about this time. However, a newcomer to the city was to provide its salvation when James Starley established his sewing machine works in the city10. He later branched out into the cycle trade and patented the first safety cycle. All modern cycles are based on the Rover invented by his nephew John Kemp Starley. The motor trade came to the innovationists and engineers of the city and thus was established the beginnings of the engineering works that were to grow in the city. In 1874, George Singer of Coundon Court (now a school) established the Singer company to produce cycles. In 1905, the company began car production. Other famous employers of the time were Rover, Triumph, Daimler, Hillman and Humber. In 1910, the population was estimated at 100,000 and 10% of these were employed in the motor trade. The First World War brought even more industry to Coventry and the Ordnance Works in Red Lane employed so many people that the Stoke Heath Estate was built to house them all.
In order to provide access for heavy goods through the city centre, the Council decided upon a policy of 'slum clearance'. In what was probably the most wanton act of vandalism ever performed in the city, street after street of 16th Century cottages and workers houses were demolished to provide land and access for the new factories. Despite this, a newly married woman coming to Coventry from Derbyshire with her husband described Coventry as 'the most attractive city, with cobbled streets and beautiful buildings.'
The multitude of engineering works in Coventry were providing cars, engines, tanks, munitions and aircraft for the British army. The German high command decided to stop it, and a vast aerial bombardment began on the night of 14 November, 1940. For over 11 hours, high explosive and incendiaries rained down onto the heart of the medieval city. Never previously had such mass destruction been perpetrated on a city. The Germans invented a word for it, Coventration. Later the German town of Dresden was chosen for a return attack and was itself coventrated. After the war the two towns twinned, a link they maintain to this day.
The Coventry you see today with its ring road and new cathedral is what was created out of that rubble after the war. The city architect, Donald Gibson, envisaged a traffic-free pedestrianised shopping centre and thus the few buildings that escaped the Luftwaffe were demolished11. His intention was to produce a vista of the famous Coventry three spires: St Michael's12, Christchurch, and Holy Trinity, but his revolutionary ideas have been adopted and developed around the world.
The re-building of the cathedral was a priority and Basil Spence won the competition to design the new cathedral. He linked the new building to the shell of the old. Queen Elizabeth II laid the foundation stone in March 1956 and the new building was consecrated in 1962. In 1960 the population had risen to 300,000 and 20% were employed in the motor industry. The collapse of the motor industry hit Coventry hard, but like its symbol, the Phoenix, the city is rising from the ashes. The engineering works are largely gone and Coventry has turned to service industries with call centres, science parks, and two universities.
Coventry was the birthplace of Sir Frank Whittle, Britain's greatest aero-engineer, and inventor of the jet engine. A statue of Sir Frank Whittle was unveiled in The Millennium Place on 1 June, 2007, on the 100th anniversary of Frank Whittle's birth in Coventry.
There is a long standing joke - 'How do you tell if someone is from Coventry?' Answer - 'By the shamrock in his turban.' The racial harmony of the city is well known.
The future is of course a hidden page, yet the citizens of this multi-cultural city seem to be optimistic that it will be less traumatic that its past. Certainly they have a past to live up to.