Coventry: The City of Lady Godiva
Part II: The Village Becomes A City

A Historic Travel Article by Jim Hargan

First published by British Heritage magazine, January 2001

The Medieval City

The Coventry we know today took form in the Medieval period, between 1100 and 1500, as a great wool center and cloth manufacturer. By 1100, Coventry's Benedictine priory hosted a cathedral, one of the largest in Britain. The next three centuries brought a building boom still very much in evidence in Coventry's central district. The Parish Church of St. Michael, so magnificent it would be made a cathedral in 1918, reached its final form in 1346. Across from St. Michael's, the magnificent St. Mary's Hall, erected by the merchant guild of St. Mary in 1342, stands as a monument to the power of the medieval wool merchants. Now a city building and open to the public, St. Mary's is organized around a Great Hall with a 14th Century timber roof and a tapestry from around 1500.

St. Mary's Guild Hall. The Great Hall, detail, showing ceremonial armor displayed on wall. Location: ENG, Coventry Borough, Old City, Central District. [ref. to #243.179] St. Mary's Guild Hall. The Great Hall, gen. view. Location: ENG, Coventry Borough, Old City, Central District. [ref. to #243.177]

The Wall and Beyond

Ford's Hospital, a half-timbered 16th C. almshouse still in its original use. View of courtyard. Location: ENG, Coventry Borough, Old City, Central District. [ref. to #243.128]At the same time that St. Mary's and St. Michael's were rising, the town started to build itself a city wall. This wall encircled the city at full height with a walkway along the top, allowing egress to the city by twelve elaborate gates. The wall may have had a defensive function, as well as some role in regulating the market within its precincts, but it seems to have been mainly an expression of civic pride, a statement that Coventry had arrived. As indeed it had -- by 1400, Coventry was the fourth largest city in England, surpassed only by London, Bristol and York. The wall is long gone, but two of these gates survive, one of them housing the Coventry Toy Museum.

Half-timbered buildings, their upper stories overhanging the narrow streets, soon lined the city lanes of Coventry and spilled out the main gates, much like modern suburban strips. Surprisingly, much of this medieval building survived into the 1930's, only to fall to German bombs and post-war modernization. A major area of medieval half-timbered buildings survives along Spon Street, on the western edge of the central district. This ancient commercial district grew up outside the Spon Street Gate (now gone); about half the buildings have been moved in from other parts of the city, survivors of modern urban planning. Today's planners, intent on fixing the mistakes of the past, are executing an ambitious restoration scheme for Spon Street. Meanwhile, visitors can enjoy a good meal and a cask ale at The Windmill, an old-fashioned neighborhood pub that strays through small, timbered rooms in one of Spon Street's oldest buildings -- a good place to enjoy a traditional Sunday roast.

Spring flowers planted in the ruined walls of the old cathedral; St. Marys Guild Hall visible beyond. Location: ENG, Coventry Borough, Old City, Coventry Cathedral. [ref. to #243.147] 

Ribbons, Bicycles, and Jaguars

In 1539 Coventry's Benedictine priory, founded by Godiva six centuries before, was dissolved and its cathedral moved to another town. The cloth trade was in decline, and Coventry with it. Industry would continue on a smaller scale, with weavers turning to silk ribbons -- a product still made in Coventry. Watchmakers also came to Coventry, starting a tradition of fine craftsmanship. When bicycles became popular in the mid-19th Century, Coventry had the skilled craftsmen needed to produce the carefully machined parts, and soon came to dominate Britain's bicycle industry.

The undamaged tower of the ruined old cathedral, as viewed from Hay Lane. Location: ENG, Coventry Borough, Old City, Coventry Cathedral. [ref. to #243.160]Some of the names of Coventry's 19th Century bicycles are still famous, but for other reasons. Rover and Triumph were just two of Coventry's bicycle companies that turned to automobiles. Other Coventry auto manufacturers were Daimler and Jaguar. While these famous Coventry automakers produced the great sports and touring cars that Detroit could only dream about, other Coventry companies made family cars for Britain's growing middle classes, with over a dozen manufacturers. The Coventry auto works thrived throughout the first half of the Twentieth Century, with its tradition of fine craftsmanship and attention to detail. Unfortunately, nearly none of Coventry's original factories have survived the mergers and modernizations that followed the Second World War. Coventry's great auto manufacturers are remembered in the Museum of British Road Transport, with its large collection of antique and historic automobiles, on the north edge of the central district.

As Coventry grew with its automobile industry it once again became a cathedral city. Coventry's original cathedral, St. Mary's, had been destroyed in 1539 by order of King Henry VIII, leveled so completely that its site was lost until its massive foundations were found under a demolished building in 1856. (The foundations can now be seen behind the modern cathedral.) In 1918, Coventry's enormous 14th Century parish church, St. Michael's, was declared the new cathedral. Build of red sandstone in the spectacular Perpendicular Gothic style native to England, St. Michael's was both the longest and the tallest parish church in England at the time of its elevation, with a bell tower standing thirty stories high. Nearby Trinity Church, another Perpendicular structure, would be overwhelming in any place other than beside St. Michael's. At Trinity visitors can enjoy a major late medieval church in all its glory, virtually unchanged since the 17th Century.

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Next: Death & Transfiguration

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