Coventry is an unconventional starting point for our podcast. It doesn’t have the historical cachet of a York or a Chester, nor even a major industrial city like its Midlands neighbour Birmingham. But unlike many comparators, Coventry has been a meaningful settlement throughout the whole of the last thousand years. No one era – neither the middle ages, when it hit its relative peak of power and prosperity, nor its post-industrial growth or 20th century architectural transformation – truly defines the city. Its story is enigmatic and multi-layered – join us as we uncover the hidden history of Coventry.
The legend of Lady Godiva
If there’s one figure everyone associates with Coventry, it’s Lady Godiva. And if there’s one story everyone knows about Coventry, it’s her naked horse ride through the streets, to convince her husband to relieve the townsfolks’ tax burden. But before we come to the myth (and I’m afraid the story is just that –indisputably a myth), we should consider Godiva, the real person.
Because yes, Godiva was a real historical figure, and a highly significant one. The wife of Leofric, Earl of the Saxon kingdom of Mercia which incorporated Coventry, she was notable in her own right as the only Saxon woman who remained a major landowner after the Norman conquest. Godiva, along with Leofric, endowed Coventry’s original cathedral as a monastery – potentially a ‘convent’ that gave ‘Covent-ry’ its name.
But onto the fun bit. The story, as recorded from the 13th century onwards, is that Godiva was so moved by the plight of the inhabitants of Coventry at the harsh taxes imposed by Leofric that she pleaded with him to lower them. He agreed, but only on the preposterous condition that Godiva ride naked through the town’s streets. Presumably Leofric never imagined Godiva would agree to this – but agree she did. A later addition to the legend records that Peeping Tom, the only citizen who disobeyed the order to stay indoors and not peek out, was struck instantly blind as soon as he saw Godiva.
Unfortunately, all historians are agreed that the tale is a complete historical fiction, not least as it isn’t mentioned in any sources for two centuries after it supposedly took place (and there are plenty of less titillating records of Godiva’s other deeds during that time). But regardless of its historical veracity, the story has permeated British cultural consciousness and been celebrated in Coventry for centuries. Processions and festivals re-enacting the ride have been held in Coventry since the 1670s, introduced as part of a licentious cultural reawakening following the restoration of the monarchy. In common with theatrical traditions, Godiva was played initially by a young boy. She was subsequently played by women, who wouldn’t quite follow the myth to its limits and ride naked but were instead scantily clothed; as Thomas Pennant describes in 1811, ‘(not literally like the good countess, but) in silk, closely fitted to her limbs, and of colour emulating their complexion’.
Today, the ride is celebrated in Coventry by various memorials, including a statue of Godiva herself in Broadgate and an animated clock in the same square depicting the ride and Peeping Tom’s imposition. But the legend has exploded out of Coventry, being a common cultural trope for centuries. It has inspired opera and poetry, plus numerous films and songs. And of course, the poncey chocolates you buy your mum when you can’t think of anything else to get her for Christmas.
Mary Ann Evans, writing under the male pseudonym of George Eliot, is one of the most important figures in English literary history, and she has a real connection, both in her life in her works, with Coventry. Eliot (we’ll use her pen name here) lived in Foleshill from the age of 21, and her house can still be seen, though only from the outside, on the aptly-named George Eliot Road. She mixed with an intellectual circle of radical free-thinkers in the city, one of whom owned the Coventry Herald and Observer, which published some of Eliot’s earliest writing; a mix of and nameless reviews and satirical commentary on local politics.
Coventry features prominently in Eliot’s novels; most notably in Middlemarch, her magnum opus, which is set in a ribbon-manufacturing Midlands town based on a fictionalised rendering of Coventry. Also in Adam Bede where Eliot delivers a meticulous description of St Mary’s Guildhall.
There’s certainly no doubting the importance of George Eliot’s time in Coventry to her life and works. It’s just a shame more isn’t made of this by the city. Surely the formative years of one of our nation’s finest writers deserve more fitting commemoration than a road name.
Theatre and song
Ira Aldridge should be better known. Where he is known in Britain, it is usually as one of the earliest black Shakespearean actors, but he had another ground-breaking role in Coventry too, as the first black person to manage a theatre in Britain, in 1828. The location of the theatre is marked today by a plaque honouring Aldridge’s time in the city. He spoke in public against slavery (which was still legal in the British Empire, 21 years after the trade itself had been abolished) and inspired local sentiment towards abolitionism.
A second Shakespearian connection comes with Richard II, where Richard orders and then halts the trial by combat of Bolingbroke (the future Henry IV) and Thomas Mowbray, the Duke of Norfolk, ultimately banishing the pair. This famous scene takes place at Gosford Green, to the east of Coventry, and in Shakespeare’s account was a pivotal act leading to the Wars of the Roses.
Finally, the Coventry Carol deserves a mention. This carol, which derives its name from the medieval mystery plays for which it was written, isn’t exactly in the top flight of Christmas carols these days; I don’t recall ever singing it or hearing it at school, which may be due to its slightly dreary tune and dark subject matter, the Massacre of Innocents. But it has been covered by numerous famous artists including Tori Amos, Annie Lennox, Alison Moyet, Sting and even Chas & Dave, so it continues to touch the odd artistic nerve in modern times.
Politics and war
Coventry was far from the only city struck by the Blitz; the series of German air raids attacking predominantly industrial British towns and cities in 1940 and 1941. Nor did it suffer the most casualties or heaviest damage overall (Plymouth alone suffered four times the number of major raids and 50% more bomb tonnage). But the concentrated, centralised destruction wrought by the night raid of 14 November 1940 holds a unique place in British popular memory.
The air raid sirens went off at 7pm, with the all-clear not sounded until 6.15am; in the meantime, over 500 bombers had destroyed 4,330 homes and more than half the city’s buses. 21 factories suffered serious damage and the city’s tram system was permanently obliterated, the tracks (which in some cases had been ripped up or thrown into the air) never being replaced. And most famously, Coventry’s gothic cathedral, the medieval St Michael’s, was destroyed.
554 people were killed that night. From a total of 1,236 killed in all raids on Coventry, 808 are buried in a mass grave in London Road Cemetery. Relics of the raids include a barrage balloon anchorage and entrance to an air raid shelter in War Memorial Park (which actually derives its name from the First World War). But the most famous and affecting by far is the ruined St Michael’s, which was retained in its ruined state to act as the porch to the brand new modernist cathedral that replaced it.
WWI – Coventry’s contribution
While the Blitz is undoubtedly the most famous military episode in Coventry’s history, its contribution to the First World War should also be highlighted. As an industrial centre with a population that doubled between 1891 and 1911, Coventry’s manufacturing industries contributed vital supplies to the armed forces. With 60,000 people working its armament factories, all manner of products was produced, such as massive naval guns, parts for aircraft cameras, bullets and aeroplane chassis.
The Triumph factory alone supplied 30,000 motorcycles to the Army. This provision was initially arranged by the company’s founder – ironically, a German named Siegfried Bettman who had been Coventry’s mayor at the war’s outset but later had to resign his post.
England’s forgotten capital?
Before the 20th century, Coventry offers little for the annals of military history; as the travel writer Thomas Pennant observed in 1782, ‘the military transactions of this city are very few’. A castle was constructed around 1140, around the location of the cathedrals, with a possible remnant surviving as Caesar’s Tower on the back of the Guildhall. But it saw no significant military action and, apart from a short two-day siege during the Civil War, there are no noteworthy battles to speak of.
However, Coventry did play an important political role in the most famous dynastic conflict in English history; the Wars of the Roses. Queen Margaret of Anjou – wife of Henry VI and de facto Lancastrian leader in place of her pitiful husband – moved the royal court to the Lancastrian stronghold of Coventry in 1456. Coventry, which had hosted occasional parliaments since 1404, effectively became the Lancastrian centre of power and held parliamentary meetings until 1459.
Now, it wasn’t particularly unusual for a provincial city to hold parliaments; they weren’t rooted to one place and could be highly mobile at this time – but it was remarkable for an entire royal court to be established in one city for so long. Some historians have even suggested that Coventry should, as a result, be considered the de facto capital of England for this short time. This may be stretching the point slightly (and even if you buy this argument, it would be capital in an administrative sense, along the lines of Canberra or Dodoma, rather than implying that Coventry was the largest or most significant city in the country), but it’s still a fascinating thought.
Civil War and the city walls
The two-day royalist siege of Coventry in August 1642 was not an especially noteworthy episode in the Civil War. However, it led to a significant and lasting alteration to Coventry’s urban configuration, in the vengeful post-restoration destruction of the city’s extensive walls by Charles II.
Construction began on the walls in the 14th century; by their completion in 1534, the red sandstone structures covered two miles, incorporating 32 towers and 12 gatehouses. Today only two isolated gatehouses and some small fragments of wall survive, with 18th century development completing the vandalism that the Restoration reprisals had begun.
The Guildhall; Mary Queen of Scots and Elizabeth’s revenge
As well as incorporating the (possibly) sole remaining fragment of Coventry’s medieval castle, and being a fine building in its own right, St Mary’s Guildhall was the holding place for one of the most famous women in British history after her arrest for treason. Mary Queen of Scots was held here following her arrest for treason, having been implicated in the Babington Plot to assassinate Elizabeth I. Mary’s jailers, according to a (probably apocryphal) tale, hung a portrait of Elizabeth over a low and narrow doorway so that the exceptionally tall Mary would be forced to bow before the portrait to get through. Mary instead went backwards through the doorway, thus turning the insult, quite literally, back round on her cousin.
The notion of Coventry as a forgotten capital of England is fascinating, but ultimately the broader political influence of Coventry is pretty trivial. Nonetheless, while Coventry lacks significant military action before the 20th century, the Coventry Blitz is so infused on the British collective memory of the Second World War that a reasonably positive score is warranted.
Science and industry
Ribbons and the perils of free trade agreements
Notwithstanding medieval dalliances with the woollen and cloth trades (which developed neatly into a cloth cap specialisation at the end of the 15th century), Coventry’s first major manufacturing trade was in silk ribbons.
We shouldn’t mistake this as an industry in any modern, mechanised sense; Birmingham had long surpassed Coventry as the centre of industry and the largest city in the Midlands, while steam power was only introduced to the Coventry ribbon trade in the late 1830s, much later than in other major textile manufacturing centres. But it was hugely important for Coventry, causing the city’s wealth and population to rally from its post-medieval slump. From a population which had plummeted to 6,600 in the early 16th century, ribbon manufacturing alone employed at least 10,000 in 1782, a huge proportion of the town’s inhabitants, which estimates put at around 16,000 by 1800.
The industry, which owed its growth to a surge in demand due to changing fashions around the Napoleonic Wars, employed women as well as men – in fact, more women than men, according to one writer in the 1770s (though the women, he noted tended to earn about 30% less). Trade was strong with America before the American Revolution, but following this the domestic market dominated due to the undercutting of prices in Europe by French produce. And ultimately, this failure to compete on price was the industry’s undoing, when the signing of the Cobden Treaty in 1860 – one of the first free trade agreements – allowed the cheaper continental wares to undercut Coventry’s trade on the domestic front as well. And Coventry’s reliance on this single industry was ruinous; destitute families starved to death, soup kitchens were established in the Guildhall and, within just two years, 4,000 weavers and their families had left the city leaving 800 houses still empty.
Today, the produce and manufacturing artefacts of Coventry’s silk ribbon trade can be seen in the Herbert Art Gallery and Museum, while one silk ribbon factory has survived Coventry’s 20th century development. The factory’s location, on the periphery of the St Mary’s Cathedral ruins, creates a captivating juxtaposition between the architectural manifestations of medieval religious fervour and the creed of consumer capitalism underpinning the modern world.
Running like clockwork: Coventry’s bicycle industry changes the world
I’m assuming you have, at some point in your life, ridden a bike. Right? Well, unless you’re a real retrogressive trendsetter and were exclusively riding the penny farthing before hipsters made it cool again, you will have ridden something that was pioneered in Coventry.
The ‘safety bicycle’ (so called because you were able, while riding, to put both feet on the ground to stop) is the standard design for almost all the billions of bikes that currently exist. And the first commercially successful model, the Rover Safety Bicycle, was designed by John Starley in Coventry.
What made Coventry the birthplace of this revolutionary design? The answer lies before bicycle manufacturing ever hit the city, and in Coventry’s prior industries. Because Starley, who introduced bicycle manufacturing to the city in 1868, initially set up a sewing machine company to utilise the skills of Coventry’s small, artisan clockmaking trade.
Clockmakers had existed in the town since the 17th century. Charles II was a customer, while an example made for Queen Anne can be found in the Windsor Castle collection today. While distinctly nicher than the silk ribbon trade, clockmaking employed a not-inconsiderable 2,000 people in Coventry by the 1850s. Clockmaking was also badly hit by the Cobden Treaty and the cheaper imports that flowed subsequently from France and Switzerland. But Starley was able to apply the artisan skills instilled in the trade to his short-lived sewing machine business and then, much more significantly, to his bicycle manufacturing.
Bicycle manufacturing totally changed the urban character of Coventry. No longer ‘the quiet watch-making, ribbon-weaving place it used to be’, said a local resident in 1891, it now contained ‘large factories, smoking engine stacks, steam whistles…and over-crowding of the narrow streets’. Truly, this was Coventry’s first successful mass industry. But more was to follow.
Coventry motors along
Twentieth-century Coventry was the undisputed heart of Britain’s car manufacturing industry. Every mass car manufacturer with a presence in Britain, except only for Vauxhall and Ford, had a manufacturing base in the city. And the reasons – as with bicycle manufacturing – lie not so much in ground-breaking revolutions of design or trade, but by a steady progression from prior trades and the consequent skills, knowledge and capital that could be called upon in Coventry.
From bicycle manufacturing, motorcycle manufacturing was a logical next step. The Triumph factory complex, located in the centre of the town by the site of the modern cathedral, branched out from the latter to the former from 1902 and, by the end of the First World War, was the largest motorcycle manufacturer in Britain.
Triumph then extended its reach to a more revolutionary design in 1921 – the motor car. There was already a burgeoning car manufacturing industry in Coventry to which it could attach itself, which began when Daimler set up its works in an old cotton mill in 1896. The company, which operated under rights to the name from the German firm, became official car supplier to he monarch under royal warrant from 1902 to the 1950s, being supplanted in this role by Rolls Royce (which gives some idea of the high regard in which Daimler’s luxury models would have been held).
Daimler’s factory, slightly further out of the city than Triumph’s, even had its own station, ‘Daimler Halt’ on the Coventry-Nuneaton Line. Built in 1917 and solely for the private use of factory employees until 1956, the station closed in 1965 after just nine years of public use. Nothing of the station remains, but the line still runs and you can visit the location.
‘Britain’s Detroit’ has been well used as a description of coventry in the 20th century. Unfortunately, this slogan has connotations of the heavy slump in its manufacturing base, as well as the triumphs in car manufacturing which preceded this. But Coventry’s manufacturing heritage, while mostly (I stress, mostly) consigned to the past, is worth celebrating – and indeed is celebrated in fitting style by the fantastic Coventry Transport Museum.
I see two unifying narratives to Coventry’s industrial history. The negative is a history of over-reliance on specific industries; while it wasn’t uncommon for towns and cities to have their industrial specialisations, this was particularly acute in Coventry and has led to real ruin for the city when the bottom has fallen out of those markets. But the more positive narrative is a clear progression between different industries and use of transferrable skills and business capital, with direct links between the booming car industry of the 20th century and the artisan trades practiced by clockmakers, centuries before.
Even if it isn’t the manufacturing and industrial centre it used to be, the legacy of Coventry’s industry is still with us today – not just in its cultural heritage, at the fantastic Coventry Transport Museum, but in the design of the most used form of transportation in the world. There are over a billion bikes in the world, far more than there are cars, and almost all built to the Coventry safety bicycle design. In this sense, Coventry’s industry still shapes the world today.
Architectural and Urban Heritage
Planning and loss – Coventry, the prototype for the modern British city
Coventry today is the archetype of post-war British town planning. Its concrete and carriageway ruthlessly displace all traces of its pre-modern heritage in the popular consciousness. But this wasn’t always the case.
Coventry comprised a real mixture of architectural styles before the Second World War. The centre contained many factories, but JB Priestley could still offer this description in 1934; ‘you peep round a corner and see half-timbered and gabled houses that would do for the second act of Meistersinger [a Wagner opera, noted for its atmospheric depiction of 16th century Nuremberg]…I knew it was an old place, but I was surprised to find how much of the past, in soaring stone and carved wood, still remained in the city’.
Indeed, 19th century travel writing is replete with observations of Coventry’s aged appearance. John Marius Wilson gives a good impression of pre-modern Coventry:
The old streets are generally narrow, and obscured by high, projecting, richly-ornamented gable ends and upper stories; while the modern ones are well-built and commodious. Many remains of the olden times appear in the edifices, both public and private; and are preserved with care.
Going back further, Thomas Pennant in 1811 describes entering Coventry, ‘a great and antient city[…]The streets in general are narrow, and composed of very antient buildings, the stories of which, in some, impend one over the other in such a manner, as nearly to meet at top, and exclude the sight of the sky.’
And Daniel Defoe in 1762:
The buildings are very old, and in some places much decay’d; the city may be taken for the very picture of the city of London, on the south side of Cheapside before the Great Fire; the timber-built houses, projecting forwards and towards one another, till in the narrow streets they were ready to touch one another at the top.
I’m instantly put in mind of the Shambles in York, where innumerable Harry Potter shops in quaint, rickety old buildings knock off tat to thousands of obliging tourists every year. But there’s nothing like this in Coventry today. What happened?
In a word; planning. And Coventry was the first English city to embark on a major planning and rebuilding scheme for its centre. Indeed, Historic England describes its premeditated modernist form as ‘propaganda’ for national building programmes.
We think of this as a post-war redesign, opportunistically and necessarily reacting to the destruction wrought by the Blitz, but the plans were in fact already in place well before the Luftwaffe did its work. Donald Gibson, City Architect and later City Planner, started his plans for rebuilding and reorganising the city centre in 1938. His plans were first exhibited in 1940, before the November 1940 raids which obliterated the centre. And plenty of old timber-framed buildings had already been pulled down to build new roads and allow new department shops, Co Op and Owen Owen, to be built in the late 30s. The Blitz certainly radicalised the project, but it absolutely did not beget it.
A few fragments of medieval Coventry remain, having escaped – in one way or another – the planners’ machinations.
First, and most importantly, the old medieval cathedral. This is not, the present modernist cathedral, nor the shattered remnant of its predecessor but St Mary’s, the first of Coventry’s three cathedrals.
Originally endowed as a monastery by Godiva and her husband Earl Leofric in the 11th century, the cathedral was rebuilt over 125 years from 1102 after the Bishop of Chester moved his see from Chester to Coventry. Approximately 50% longer than the second cathedral and of cruciform shape (i.e. a cross), no one knows exactly what the structure looked like; however, archaeological evidence suggests that the structure wasn’t strong enough to support spires, so it may possibly have resembled Wells Cathedral.
The cathedral was razed after the dissolution of the monasteries. Its destruction was far from inevitable – indeed, it was the only English cathedral destroyed in the dissolution – but the substantial number of churches in Coventry, along with the existence of another cathedral in its diocese (Lichfield’s clergy being far more complaint with the king’s whims) were the deciding factors.
Today, parts of the ruins are open as a public park and visitor centre, following several recent archaeological excavations (including an unprecedented four-day dig by Channel 4’s Time Team).
Other remnants of medieval Coventry include The Chapel of St John’s Hospital (Coventry’s oldest building, dating from the 14th century), Whitefriars, St Mary’s Guildhall and Fords Hospital (alms-houses which were rebuilt after the Blitz). However, with the notable exception of the Guildhall (which blends quite nicely with the ecclesiastical and civic buildings of its surroundings), these buildings are all highly conspicuous by aesthetic deviation from their surroundings. Even as far back as 1961, Pevsner’s guide described them as ‘an alien body’ – indeed, he suggests ignoring them on any perambulation round the city, as Coventry can only be appreciated as a 20th century city.
Most contentious are the medieval buildings that were moved and (I can think of no better word) plonked on Spon Street, following rescue from development further up the road and on Much Park Street. It feels unkind to criticise any well-meaning attempt to preserve heritage, but this tacky, discordant street is a jarring reminder of how well-intentioned but poorly executed heritage preservation can go so badly wrong.
Coventry today: a tale of two cathedrals
We can bring these narrative strands together quite tangibly, by framing the story of Coventry’s urban landscape as a tale of two cathedrals. St Michael’s, Coventry’s second cathedral from 1918-1940, stands gutted today, as both monument and remnant of the Blitz and the Coventry lost to war and planning in the mid-20th century. The extant shell sits quite neatly with the surrounding civic buildings, also built of red sandstone found locally in the Midlands. But its key function now is as porch and counterpoint to its replacement, the adjacent modern cathedral.
Construction on the new cathedral began in 1956, with consecration in 1962. Basil Spence’s design chosen by competition, may be lauded today but divided opinion at the time; while architectural journals and critics were full of praise for modernist style, letters to the local press were almost entirely critical of the design, with one local vicar remarking that it reminded him of a cinema. But the design proved an indisputable success, attracting four million visitors within a year of opening.
To my mind, the cathedral is one of the most unique and intriguing buildings in Britain, not least by its divergence from standard religious design. It is remarkable among Anglican cathedrals in Britain for breaking away from the gothic style, much as St Paul’s in London is iconic for its Renaissance style. And, the new cathedral’s design stands as the thematic centrepiece of the post-war city centre redesign of Coventry. While modernist architecture gets a (usually justified) slating today, Coventry Cathedral is proof of how such buildings can stun and inspire when given their due care and reverence.
This is an exceptionally difficult category to score. Coventry is not an easy city to love – the unrelenting concrete modernity can overwhelm even the most open-minded aesthete. But from the perspective of historical interest, the city has a unique story to tell. Emblematic of a crucial time in the country’s rebuilding – pioneering even, as the ‘national flagship of reconstruction’ – the city centre is itself a living historical template which has never stood still. And its magnificent modern cathedral comes very close to justifying a visit all on its own. It’s just a shame that the attempts to rescue Coventry’s medieval heritage have been too little, too late and too careless.
Reality vs expectations
Coventry’s reputation – a banal, concrete sprawl, trashed by thoughtless planning – has roots in truth. It is unquestionably a 20th century city, where the reckless destruction of heritage owes at least as much to the rash manoeuvrings of city planners as to the devastation of the Blitz.
But while tangible heritage may be lacking, the city holds its own unique place in the intangible sphere of British cultural memory, through the impact of the Blitz. And of course, the city’s industry has had a lasting impact on the whole world, through its pioneering design of the modern safety bicycle.
Moreover, this outward appearance belies a rich history, with something to offer in all four of our criteria. Though admittedly weak on culture, it presents other aspects of its history well; the transport museum and the presentation of all three cathedrals, both alone and in juxtaposition, are exceptional. We got more than we came for, and that’s enough for a positive score.
Thank you for joining us discovering the history of Coventry. Please post your thoughts on the episode, including anything we’ve missed, in the comments below. If you’ve enjoyed the podcast please share.