A History of Coventry

By Tim Lambert

Coventry in the Middle Ages

Coventry began as a Saxon village. It was called Coffantree, which means the tree belonging to Coffa. Trees were often used as meeting places. In this case, a settlement grew up around the tree and it eventually became called Coventry.

Then in 1043 Leofric, the local Earl, and his wife Godiva founded a Benedictine monastery at Coventry. They granted the monks land on which to graze sheep. (In the Middle Ages Coventry became famous for its wool industry).

Lady Godiva certainly existed (she is mentioned in documents of the time) but whether her famous naked ride through Coventry took place it is impossible to say. According to the story, her husband Leofric was taxing the people of Coventry heavily and Godiva begged him to remove the tax. He jokingly said he would lift the tax if she rode through the town naked. Godiva did so! The story was first written down by Roger of Wendover (died 1236) and it may be true. However, Peeping Tom is a much later addition to the story of Lady Godiva. He was not mentioned until the 17th century.

From the early 12th century Coventry was divided into 2 halves. The northern half was controlled by the Prior (the head of the priory or small monastery). The southern half of Coventry was controlled by the Earl. However, the Prior slowly lost his power. After 1265 he rented his half of Coventry to the Earl. Then in 1345, Coventry was given a charter (a document granting the townspeople certain rights). From then on The merchants of Coventry formed a town council and elected the mayor and magistrates. Ten years later, in 1355, the Prior gave up all his claims to Coventry.

At the time of the Domesday Book in 1086 Coventry had a population of about 350. By the standards of the time, it was a fair-sized settlement. Coventry grew rapidly in the Middle Ages. By the late 14th century, it had a population of 4,817. By the standards of the time, Coventry was a large and important town. By the end of the Middle Ages, the population of Coventry reached 6,500.

The main industry in Medieval Coventry was weaving and dyeing wool. In Coventry, there were many workers in the cloth trade, drapers, tailors, dyers, and weavers. There were also fullers. They cleaned and thickened the cloth by pounding it in a mixture of clay and water. In Coventry, there were also many leatherworkers like saddlers, shoemakers, and glovers.

There were many other craftsmen in Coventry such as millers, bakers, butchers and bakers, blacksmiths, carpenters, coopers, cutlers, and goldsmiths.

In 1340 the merchants of Coventry were formed into a guild, which looked after their interests. A meeting hall, St Mary’s Hall, was built for the guild in 1340.

From the late 12th century Coventry was probably surrounded by a ditch and an earth rampart with a wooden palisade on top. After 1335 a stone wall was built around Coventry. The wall was built in stages. Most of it was finished by the early 15th century but it was not complete till 1538.

In the Middle Ages Coventry had a castle. Broadgate is named after the gate at the entrance of the castle. By 1250 a manor house, Cheylesmore Manor, was built south of the town. The grounds around it were called Cheylesmore Park.

Much Park Street and Little Park Street after both named after the park attached to the house. Burges is a corruption of ‘between the bridges’, as it stood between the bridges over the Sherbourne and Radford Brook. Spon End may be called that because it was the place where wooden roof tiles or ‘spans’ were made. The Butts was the place where men from Coventry practiced archery. (By law they had to practice every Sunday afternoon).

In the 13th century, friars came to Coventry. The friars were like monks but instead of withdrawing from the world, they went to preach. Franciscan friars arrived in Coventry at about 1234. They were known as Grey Friars because of their grey costumes. The Carmelites arrived in Coventry in 1342 They were called white friars and lived in the Southeast corner of Coventry.

There were also ‘hospitals’ in Medieval Coventry. They were run by the church. The Hospital of St John the Baptist stood at the junction of Hale Street and Bishop Street. In it, monks cared for the sick and poor as best they could.

Coventry in the 16th and 17th Centuries

In 1520 Coventry had a population of 6,601 but it slowly declined and by 1587 it was only 6,502. Meanwhile, in 1506 a merchant named Thomas Bond left money in his will to build a ‘hospital’ or almshouse for old men. In 1509 William Ford left money in his will for another ‘hospital’ or almshouse.

In 1538 Henry VIII closed the friaries in Coventry. In 1539 the priory was closed. However, Coventry Grammar School opened in 1545. Bablake Free School was founded in 1567.

Like all towns in those days, Coventry suffered from outbreaks of plague. One severe outbreak was in 1603.

Then in 1642 came a civil war between the king and parliament. Charles I attempted to enter Coventry with an army but he was refused entry and Coventry remained in parliament’s hands for the whole of the war. During the Civil War, prisoners were held in the Church of St John. In 1647 a writer said that prisoners were ‘sent to Coventry’. The phrase came to mean excluded from polite society.

In 1662 Charles II ordered the people of Coventry to destroy the walls around the city (perhaps remembering how his father had been refused admission in 1642). Most of the walls were broken up and the stone was used for new buildings, but the gates remained.

The traditional industry of Coventry, weaving and dyeing wool declined in the 17th century. On the other hand, a new industry appeared. As early as 1627 silk was woven in Coventry. By the end of the 17th century silk weaving was an important industry.

At the end of the 17th century, the travel writer Celia Fiennes described Coventry: ‘Coventry stands on the side of a pretty high hill. The spire and steeple of one of the churches are very high and is thought the third highest in England. In the same churchyard stands another large church, which is something unusual, two such great churches together. Their towers and the rest of the churches and high buildings make the town appear very fine. The streets are broad and well paved with small stones.’

Coventry in the 18th Century

The traditional wool industry in Coventry continued to decline although silk ribbon weaving boomed. From the mid-18th-century watchmaking also became an important industry in Coventry.

In the later 18th century most of the town gates of Coventry were demolished as they impeded the flow of traffic. New Gate went in 1762. It was followed by Gosford Gate and Bishop Street Gate in 1765. Spon Gate went in 1771 and Greyfriars Gate was demolished in 1781. Bastille Gate survived until 1849 but today there are only 2 surviving gates, Swanswell and Cook Street. The Market Cross in Coventry was destroyed in 1771. However, it was rebuilt in 1976.

In 1793 a dispensary was opened where poor people could obtain free medicines. Coventry gained its first newspaper in 1741 and from 1790 night watchmen patrolled the streets of Coventry.

The first stretch of the Coventry Canal was built in 1769. By 1790 it connected Coventry to the Trent and the Mersey.

Coventry in the 19th Century

In 1801 the population of Coventry was 16,000. By the standards of the time, it was quite a large town. By 1851 the population of Coventry had reached 37,000 and by 1900 about 62,000.

There were many improvements in Coventry in the 19th century. A gasworks opened in Coventry in 1820 and the town soon had gas street lighting. In 1836 the first real police force was formed in Coventry. In 1847 a cemetery was opened. Since 1541 Coventry had been a county on its own. In 1842 it was made part of Warwickshire again.

The railway reached Coventry in 1838. Also in 1838, the Coventry and Warwickshire Hospital was opened. Gulson Road Hospital was built in 1843. In 1871 a smallpox epidemic in Coventry killed 166 people. As a result, a fever hospital was built in 1874.

Nevertheless, life in 19th century Coventry gradually improved. Late in the century, the council built sewers in Coventry.

A Technical Institute was founded in Coventry in 1887 and in 1902 it became the Technical College. Coventry City Football Club was founded in 1889. The first telephone exchange in Coventry opened in 1889 and the first electricity generating station opened in 1895.

Steam-driven trams began running in Coventry in 1884. After 1895 they were replaced by electric ones.

As Coventry grew it spread outwards. Union Street and Whitefriars Street were built about 1820. In the mid-19th century, houses were built around Swanswell. From the middle of the century, Earlsdon and Cheylesmore were built up. In 1890 the boundaries of Coventry were extended to include Radford. By 1900 growth had spread to Foleshill.

Silk weaving was still booming in Coventry in the early 19th century but it declined rapidly after 1860. The Cobden Treaty was made with France in 1860. It allowed free trade. French silk ribbons flooded into England and the ribbon makers of Coventry were ruined. Many emigrated.

A man named Thomas Stevens 1828-1888, had another idea. He made silk pictures, which he called Stevengraphs, and built up a successful business.

New industries appeared in Coventry during the 19th century. The first bicycles were made in Coventry as early as the 1860s. In the late 19th century cycling became very popular and the bike-making industry boomed. In 1897 the first cars were made in Coventry.

Coventry in the 20th Century

During the 20th century amenities in Coventry improved. An ambulance service began in Coventry in 1902. Coventry gained its first cinemas in 1910 and the first motor buses in Coventry ran in 1914.

The parish church of St Michael was made a cathedral in 1919 and War Memorial Park in Coventry opened in 1921.

In the early 20th century watchmaking in Coventry declined. So did bicycle making. On the other hand, car manufacturing boomed in the early 20th century but it declined after the 1950s. In 1916 G.E.C. began making electrical goods in Coventry. At the end of the century, the main industries in Coventry were engineering and making electronic equipment.

In the 1920s council houses were built at Radford and Stoke Heath. In the 1930s council and private houses were built at Holbrooks and Stivichall. Many private houses were built at Coundon and Keresley Heath. Other private houses were built around Tile Hill Lane. At the same time, the council began slum clearance in the town centre and began building council houses to replace them.

The boundaries of Coventry were extended in 1928. Stoke was absorbed as well as Pinley, Whiteley, and Stivichall. Part of Foleshill was also absorbed in 1928. The other part was absorbed in 1932 when the boundaries were extended again. At that time Coundon was also absorbed. So were Willenhall, Wyken and Walsgrave on Sowe. In 1937 Trinity Street was built. Corporation Street was built in 1939. A southern bypass was built in 1940.

Herbert Art Gallery and Museum was founded in 1939.

Coventry suffered severely in the Second World War. The two most severe bombing raids were on the night of 14-15 November 1940 and 8-9 April 1941. The city center was devastated by the bombing. St. Michael’s Cathedral was destroyed apart from its spire and outer walls.

The huge task of rebuilding Coventry began in 1948 when Princess Elizabeth laid the foundation stone of the new city centre. A statue of Lady Godiva was unveiled in 1949. In the 1950s Coventry city centre was rebuilt and in the late 1960s, an inner ring road was built.

After World War II council houses were built at Tile Hill and Whitmore. In the early 1970s council flats were built at Hillfields. Private houses were built at Allesley, Walsgrave on Sowe, Binley, and Stivichall.

Meanwhile, the first mosque in Coventry was built in Eagle Street in 1960. The same year Lanchester College of Technology was built.

Belgrade Theatre opened in Coventry in 1958 and in 1960 the Herbert Art Gallery and Museum was built. A School of Music was built in 1964. Coventry Polytechnic was founded in 1970. It was made a university in 1992.

Meanwhile, Coventry Transport Museum opened in 1980.

Cathedral Lanes Shopping Centre opened in Coventry in 1990 and West Orchards Shopping Centre opened in 1991. Coventry University Technocentre opened in 1998.

Coventry in the 21st Century

At the beginning of the 21st century, a new project to refurbish Coventry city centre called the Phoenix Initiative began. It included the Whittle Arch, which commemorates Sir Frank Whittle the inventor.

Coventry Cathedral

Coventry Cathedral

Skydome Leisure and Entertainment Centre opened in 2000. Coventry Building Society Arena opened in 2005.

The Coventry Music Museum opened in 2013. The Wave Waterpark opened in 2019.

In 2023 the population of Coventry was 345,000.