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18 September 2014
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History of a City: Coventry

By Dr Charles Insley
Opening themes

Image of the ruins of St Michael's cathedral
The gothic shell of St Michael's cathedral 
The most obvious place to start is in the gutted shell of the Cathedral Church of St Michael. These Gothic ruins hint at Coventry's medieval past.

Although, like many places, very little of medieval Coventry is still standing, there is enough to give us a flavour of the bustling cloth centre that was the medieval city.

The historical records tell us that as a settlement, Coventry may date back to the 10th century, while the building, which was to become the priory, was founded in the mid-11th century by Leofric, Earl of Mercia and his notorious wife, Godgifu, or Godiva. Many of the place-names of the villages around Coventry, places that have ultimately become its suburbs, are also Anglo-Saxon in origin.

'... the ghost of medieval Coventry remains in some of the street names ...'

Despite the loss of most of Coventry's surviving medieval buildings during the Blitz, the street plan of central Coventry was essentially that of the medieval city. Even now, after the complete rebuilding of the city centre, the ghost of medieval Coventry remains in some of the street names, such as Pool Meadow, Broadgate, Cross Cheaping, Earl Street, Jordan Well, Fleet Street, Spon Street and Greyfriars Green.

Image of Spon Street, Coventry
Medieval houses on Spon Street, Coventry 
Documentary evidence tells us that Coventry was a booming wool and cloth centre in the Middle Ages and one of the wealthiest cities in medieval England. Evidence of this wealth is hard to find, but it is there.

If we walk across the city centre from the old cathedral, we can see one of the most remarkable survivors of the destruction of 1940: the magnificent St Mary's Hall. This is one of the most impressive guildhalls surviving in England and was the seat of the city's medieval corporation, its government. Even now, this is an impressive building and tells us something about the wealth of the city in the medieval period.

'... on New Union Street we can see the remains of the once-majestic Cheylesmore manor ...'

Across the 1960s pedestrian shopping precinct, and just inside the ring road, is Spon Street where with its surviving medieval shops and houses. These impressive half-timbered buildings, with their jettied upper storeys (where the first floor sticks out beyond the ground floor) give some indication of the economic standing of the city towards the end of the Middle Ages when these houses were built. Behind the 1960s shops on New Union Street we can see the remains of the once-majestic Cheylesmore manor, the Coventry palace of the Earls of Warwick.

Coventry differs from many other towns and cities in that there was no period of rebuilding and redevelopment in the 16th, 17th and early 18th centuries. Although the city had been a booming wool town in the Middle Ages, its economic fortunes had plummeted towards the end of the 15th century, to the extent that it was not sufficiently prosperous in the next 200 to 300 years to be substantially rebuilt or expanded.

The city walls, for instance, were not finally removed until the 18th century, although traces of this, such as Cork Street Gate, still remain. The result was that much of medieval Coventry was still standing in the first half of the 20th century, cheek by jowl with the town houses of the 18th century and the terraces of the 19th century, only to be destroyed in the disastrous air raid of November 1940.

Published: 2005-03-07

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