Coventry: The City of Lady Godiva
Part III: Death & Transfiguration

A Historic Travel Article by Jim Hargan

First published by British Heritage magazine, January 2001

Death from the Sky

Coventry's large auto works attracted large-scale German bombing raids during World War Two. On November 8, 1940, the Germans chose Coventry as the site to unleash a new and devastating weapon — saturation bombing. That night the Luftwaffe dropped 500 tons of high explosives and 30,000 incendiary bombs upon Coventry's center and factories. The massive raid killed 568 people, destroying 46,000 homes and 75% of the city's industry. The jubilant Germans coined a new word to describe destroying a city by fire bombs: zu Coventiren, "to coventrate". More air raids followed in April. Coventry's center was destroyed by fire and its cathedral left in ruins.

Alter and cross of burnt roof timbers in the chancel of the old cathedral. Location: ENG, Coventry Borough, Old City, Coventry Cathedral. [ref. to #243.149] The outer nave wall of the 20th C. cathedral, viewed across Cathedral Green, showing the Chapel of Unity; small girl looking at stone plaque. Location: ENG, Coventry Borough, Old City, Coventry Cathedral. [ref. to #243.143] 


The morning after the cathedral's destruction, its stonemason, Jock Forbes, found two burnt medieval roof timbers lying together in the shape of a cross; he lashed them together and set them up in the rubble as a symbol of rebirth. His cross still stands there, in the ruins of St. Michael's, behind a simple stone altar made of the rubble of the destroyed cathedral. Behind the altar are the carved and gilded words, "Father Forgive". For the ruined Cathedral of St. Michael remains consecrated, a sanctuary dedicated to reconciliation. The ruins of the tall red outer walls enclose a quiet place of red flagstones and pots brimming with flowers, with people sitting on wooden benches to talk quietly, read or pray. Miraculously, the three hundred foot spire stands unharmed, and since 1987 has had a full peel of twelve bells to ring in services and festivals.

Interior of the 20th C. cathedral. Baptistry, with the Bethlehem Font, and stained glass by John Piper and Patrick Reyntiens. Location: ENG, Coventry Borough, Old City, Coventry Cathedral. [ref. to #243.166]The new Cathedral Church of St. Michael, completed in 1962, stands connected to the ruins by a fifty-foot porch, supported by gracefully thin red sandstone columns. Designed by Sir Basil Spence (who was knighted for it), it is an uncompromising modernist structure of red sandstone. Its outer walls, seven stories high, curve gently outward and around sawtooth bays of stained glass. The cathedral's vice-provost has described its interior as "a theatre for worship," a modernist interpretation of its great Gothic forbears. Perhaps its most impressive site is the baptismal font, carved from a rough boulder of Bethlehem stone and surrounded by stained glass. On the opposite end of the cathedral an enormous tapestry of Christ in Glory covers the entire wall behind the simple concrete altar. Each stained glass window, set in its bay, is fully visible only to a worshiper returning from Communion; the plain wall of each bay, visible to the main floor, is clad with a great marble slab carved with Bible verses. The Chapel of Christ in Gethsemane sits to one side, a cave-like recess with a gilded mosaic of the Angel of Agony, its entrance framed by a giant sculpture of a crown of thorns; it is dedicated as a place of prayer for those experiencing pain or problems. The unifying theme remains reconciliation. Its current provost, the Most Reverend John Petty, says, "Reconciliation is the primary mission of our ministry."

The Very Rev. John Petty, Provost of the Cathedral, in the ruined old cathedral, in front of a statue to Reconciliation. Location: ENG, Coventry Borough, Old City, Coventry Cathedral. [ref. to #243.161] 

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