A Brief History of Coventry

Jun 18, 2018

From bombing raids and industrial decline to invading Vikings and naked women, Coventry‘s humble stature belies a long and fascinating history.

The name ‘Coventry’ is thought to have originated during the Saxon era. At the time, Coventry itself did not exist, but the area was populated with a few small villages and settlements.

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A local meeting place, known as “Coffa’s Tree”, is said to have marked the centre of the place from which Coventry would eventually spring.

The settlements were ransacked during the Warwickshire Viking raids, and in 1043 the area came under the control of Leofric, Earl of Mercia and his iconic wife, Godiva. The pair sanctioned the building of a Benedictine monastery, and Coventry in its current guise had its origins.

The legend of Godiva has become a cornerstone of Coventry’s culture. Today, a statue dedicated to the popular heroine stands in the city centre. It is said that Godiva was so affected by the struggles of the poor folk of the city under her husband’s heavy taxation that she implored him to reduce the tolls.

Leofric said he would grant her request – should she ride naked through the streets of Coventry. So, after asking everyone to close all windows and doors, she did so, cloaked only in her long hair.

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Whether there is any truth to the legend cannot be ascertained, but Godiva’s exploits have earnt her a near-mythical status in the county of Warwickshire.

Coventry grew rapidly as the small town hurtled into the Middle Ages. By the late 14th century, Coventry was a chartered town with a population of around 5,000. Weaving and wool dying industries formed the backbone of the Warwickshire town.

A small castle and fortified walls had been erected over the preceding century to defend the town’s inhabitants. A place of commercial importance, Coventry was oft visited by the royal family, and became a county in and of itself in 1451 (a status it would hold until 1842).

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Edward, the Black Prince, is thought to have lived in Coventry temporarily, staying at the impressive Cheylsemore Manor, in the south of the town.

Coventry continued to grow as the centuries wore on. Key trades and industries came and went. The walls were taken down and the stone used to build new, more elaborate buildings worthy of an expanding industrial hub. The Coventry Canal was completed in 1790 and connected the town to the Trent and Mersey rivers.

Coventry’s population doubled as the Industrial Revolution took hold. The railways arrived, and so too did many public buildings and general improvements for the townsfolk. Car manufacturing became the central business in industrial Coventry.

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Coventry continued to expand right up until the outbreak of the Second World War. WWII ravaged Coventry, whose industrial heritage made it a primary target for Luftwaffe bombers during the Blitz years. The worst bombing raid occurred on 14 November 1941.

Hundreds died and much of the city was left in ruins, including the iconic Cathedral building.

The decision to rebuild Coventry was made almost immediately. The city’s brand new cathedral, sitting next to the bombed shell of former iteration, became a symbol of peace and reconciliation the world over.

Coventry’s struggles were not over, however. As the British motor industry declined, so too did the prosperous years of the city’s growth. By the 1980s, near 20% of the population was unemployed and an increase in crime made national headlines with a poor reputation for the city.

The end of the 20th century saw local government embark on a large-scale regeneration project, however. As in many similar sites across the nation, funds were pumped into the former industrial city in a bid to save its ailing reputation.

Nowadays, Coventry is on the up. New building projects and a focus on arts and culture have seen this Warwickshire city awarded the UK City of Culture for 2021, with much more growth and rejuvenation.

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