The City of Coventry has been the hometown of our family since 1902 and is rich in history, particularly the Medieval centre of the old town, parts of which have remained unchanged for several centuries. The city's known history stretches back around a thousand years with one of the earliest recorded references to the place being of the Danes, led by Edric the Traitor, sacking the nunnery of St. Osberg's in 1016. The nunnery had been founded 300 years earlier and would probably have stood somewhere near the very centre of the town.
Leofric and Godiva.
The early development of the Coventry owed much to the most famous couple ever to be associated with the town; Earl Leofric and his wife, Lady Godiva. In 1043 they founded a Benedictine monastery which was later to become the priory and cathedral of St. Mary's. Lady Godiva is remembered principally nowadays of course, for her naked ride through the town on horseback, allegedly in an attempt to persuade her husband to lower the taxes that were crippling the poor citizens of Coventry. It is a wonderful story that has spanned many centuries, (and lost nothing in the telling!) but for various reasons it is unlikely that it ever happened quite like that. Coventry then, was little more than a hamlet and such a ride would have been very short indeed. It is also reported that the only taxable property at that time was a horse, therefore further discrediting the rather fanciful tale. The story has however, remained part of the city's legend that will keep people talking about Coventry for as long as the place exists.
Origin of the name.
Something that has never been proven beyond doubt, is the origin of our city's name. The theory that many experts subscribe to, is that Coventry has evolved from the name Cofantreo. It is supposed that an early settler in the area by the name of Cofa, marked his boundary with a tree, (which was apparently a common thing to do then) hence the phrase "Cofa's tree" which translated into "Cofantreo". The tree in question is thought to have stood somewhere near Broadgate and the earliest reference to that name was in 1053. The name was spelt in many different ways during the first few centuries but the most common spelling until around four hundred years ago was "Coventre" before evolving into what we know it as today.
There are several other theories that hold varying levels of credence. Some legends associate the town with the Celtic-Roman water godess, Coventina. Another idea is that the name is derived from the words "Convent" and "tre". The existence of the Convent in the area is well documented and the word "tre" is a Celtic word meaning "settlement" or "town". To me, this also sounds feasible but on my internet travels in search of evidence, I came across a highly detailed explanation by a Coventry historian, who has very eloquently described much evidence which points towards an Anglo-Celtic origin to the city's name.
I imagine that the discussion will continue for some time to come.
Coventry as a County.
By medieval times, due largely to a thriving textile and weaving trade, Coventry had become the fourth largest city in England, smaller only than Norwich, Bristol and of course London. In 1451, King Henry IV granted Coventry the elevated status of County. Thus, Coventry was known as the City and County of Coventry for nearly four centuries until the boundary act of 1847 (during the reign of Queen Victoria) after which it reverted back to being just a city again within the County of Warwickshire.
Many local people feel that Warwickshire is still our rightful county. When one looks at political map showing county boundaries, Coventry stands out like a sore thumb from it's current home in the West Midlands. Apart from a narrow strip to our west, Coventry is surrounded on nearly 80% of its periphery by lovely Warwickshire countryside. Perhaps one day we will revert back to the county where we belong.
Sent to Coventry!
The old saying "sent to Coventry" is quoted frequently by folk, meaning generally to be completely ignored or snubbed by everyone, yet most who use it aren't aware of its origin. As with much historical 'storytelling', there is no absolutely proof of authenticity, but of the three most likely theories, the most popular reason for the saying starts at St. Johns church in Fleet Street.....
.....Around 1648, during the civil war, Oliver Cromwell sent many Scottish Royalist prisoners (who had been fighting for Charles I) to be imprisoned in St. Johns. Whilst exercising in the streets, the soldiers were completely ostracised by the strongly parliamentarian Coventry folk. Since then, people who have been shunned in that way are said to have been "sent to Coventry".
A second possibility suggests that after that civil war, the towns population were so anti-military that they forbid anyone to socialise with any soldiers that were posted here. Thus, for a soldier to be sent here was very unpopular indeed.
Long before this however, Coventry was a place used to carry out executions and so a third theory is that to be "sent to Coventry" had far more serious connotations!
My own feeling is that the third "execution" theory is less likely. I doubt that a saying meaning to shun someone would have originated from people being sent to their death!
Common consensus seems to favour events surrounding the civil war and personally, I imagine that the truth lies somewhere in between the first two ideas.
The two remaining cathedrals.
Selecting either the Old Cathedral or the New Cathedral above will take you to pages with more photographs and information on two of Coventry's most prominent buildings.
Coventry streets through the ages.
Now here is something that you've probably never seen before. (At least, I haven't!) I have spent many hours constructing, using information from old Coventry maps, an animation showing how the streets of Coventry have evolved over the last 400 years or so. It may take a minute or so to download so please be patient, but hopefully it will be rewarding enough to make the wait worthwhile. (If you press F11 on the keyboard when it appears, the window will enlarge to enable easier viewing.)
If you have any useful information to add or maybe some corrections, (I can't guarantee total accuracy or perfect scaling!) please don't hesitate to contact me and share your knowledge.
Clicking here will display the animation.
If you prefer to view the maps showing Coventry's streets through the ages individually then click here. (This will give fully 'interactive' manual control.)
Some areas of these maps are 'clickable' links to other pages; for example, the two cathedrals.
It is interesting to note the rate of growth of the Coventry streets during the 1800s. For the preceding two hundred years there were very few changes at all, but during the industrial revolution of the 19th century the number of streets in the centre of the city more than doubled. This was mainly due to the building of factories but also around the periphery of the industrial centre was a necessity to house the thousands of people who flooded into Coventry to find employment, first of all in the weaving and watchmaking industries and then from around 1870 the cycle industry which, owing largely to the brilliant inventor James Starley, spawned an astonishing 248 cycle firms in the city, making it by far the biggest bicycle manufacturing centre in the world. Many of these cycle firms would eventually turn to manufacturing cars and surprisingly, James Starley also had a key role to play there too.... he invented the differential gear which retains the same basic design today!
A photographic walk around Coventry.
If you select the first picture above, you can tour the surviving sections of the original city wall and the two remaining gates. To the best of my knowledge, it is now a complete photographic record of the visible remains from the grand structure that once surrounded and for a while protected our medieval city.
The second picture will take you on a journey showing you some of the historic buildings and places that have survived many wars and have a tale to tell. I have included a little background information with each one but have left the full historic details to the experts. Hopefully this section will whet the appetite to dig further.....
You can find a wealth of information and further reading about Coventry on the internet. Some such sites are listed in my Links page.
The TV "Time Team" dig.
In 1999 and 2001, the Channel 4 TV - Time Team, fronted by Tony Robinson (better known by many as "Baldrick" in the comedy, Blackadder) came to Coventry to do an historic archaeological dig in search of the original cathedral of St. Mary's.
They were astonished by the quality of what they found and consequently made an unprecedented second visit to the city to see the progress made by Coventry archealogical experts who continued their work.
The cathedral was an enormous structure and the dig revealed many complete artifacts from as long ago as the 12th century which had remained buried for over 400 years since King Henry VIII's Dissolution of the Monasteries.
All the original information on these two visits is available on the Channel 4 web-site including 360 degree panoramas and computer generated reconstructions. You can access their pages directly by clicking on the relevant dates above.
If you would like to see a few of my own photographs from around the dig, please select one of the images above for a larger version.