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The story of Coventry

The story of Coventry
Title: The story of Coventry
Release Date: 2019-03-02
Type book: Text
Copyright Status: Public domain in the USA.
Date added: 27 March 2019
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The Story of Coventry


Henry VI.
from the painting in the National Portrait Gallery.

The Story of Coventry

by Mary Dormer Harris

Illustrated by Albert Chanler

London: J.M. Dent & Sons, Ltd.

Aldine House Bedford Street

Covent Garden W.C. 1911


All rights reserved



In preparing this volume for the press I have omitted some of thematter in Life in an Old English Town, which did not seem suitablefor this series, and added fresh material likely to be useful tothose who wished to identify the historic sites, and see the historicbuildings of Coventry. In expanding Chapter XV. in so far as it dealtwith the Corpus Christi plays—a task the labours of Dr Hardin Craighave rendered comparatively light—I have been able to add one hithertounpublished item to the subject of the medival dramatic history ofCoventry (p. 296), and dispel the idea that the name "S. Crytyan"given to a play acted in 1505 is a misreading for S. Catherine. Forpermission to publish this item I am indebted to the kindness of MrWilliam Page, F.S.A., editor of the Victoria County History. Anotherpoint remotely bearing upon the pageants is the chronology of royalvisits to Coventry (p. 288), which I have endeavoured to clear up asfar as I could, Sharp's Dissertation on the Coventry Mysteries, theusual guide in these matters, being extremely faulty in this respecton account of the confusion which prevails in the MS. annals ormayor-lists, on which he depended for dates. Of these extant lists,both in print and in MS., I have given a detailed account (p. 106) inconnection with the entry concerning Prince Henry's supposed arrestby Mayor Hornby, a matter which, in view of the Shakespearean interestinvolved, is more fully treated of here than in my previous book.

My thanks are due to Mr J. Munro and the Early English Text Societyfor the kind permission to print extracts from Dr Craig's Two CorpusChristi Plays and from my own edition of the Leet Book. To MrGeorge Sutton, Town Clerk of Coventry, and all the unfailing courteousofficials with whom I so constantly came in contact during my work, Imust (not for the first time) express my gratitude. My obligations toMessrs Longmans and the Society of Antiquaries for permission to printportions of Chapters XII. and XIII. respectively have been acknowledgedin my previous work.


Leamington, Aug. 7, 1911.


The Three Spires and Coventry 1
Leofric and Godiva 14
The Benedictine Monastery 24
The Chester Lordship 37
Beginnings of Municipal Government 45
Prior's-half and Earl's-half 56
The Seigniory of the Prior and Queen Isabella 66
The Corporation and the Guilds 73
The Mayor, Bailiffs, and Community 84
Coventry and the Kingdom of England 95
The Red and White Rose 112
The Last Struggle of York and Lancaster—theTudors and Stuarts 135
The Lammas Lands 169
The Companies of the Crafts 212
Daily Life in the Town—the Merchants and theMarket 233
Daily Life in the Town (continued)—Religion andAmusements of the Townsfolk 269
Old Coventry at the Present Day 317
Index 346


King Henry VI. (From a painting in the National
Portrait Gallery; painter unknown
)      Photogravure Frontispiece

A Courtyard in Little Park Street
Smithford Street
Palace Yard
Council Chamber, showing Panelling
Bablake and S. John's Church
New Street
Butcher Row
Mayoress' Parlour, showing State Chair

The Two Spires from top of Bishop Street
8 Much Park Street
Remains of Old Wall—back of Godiva Street
Saint John the Baptist, Coventry
Gosford Green
24 Gosford Street
130 Far Gosford Street
Godiva Window
Heraldic Tile found in Hales Street
Peeping Tom
Cathedral Ruins
Carved Miserere Seat, S. Michael's Church
Priory Row, Coventry
Cheylesmore Manor House
Gable of Cheylesmore Manor House
34 Far Gosford Street
Old Whitefriars' Monastery, now Coventry Union
40 Far Gosford Street
Courtyard, S. Mary's Hall, Coventry
Minstrel Gallery, S. Mary's Hall
The City Keys
The City Mace—The Sword
The Old State Chair
High Street, Coventry
View of Interior of Saint Michael's
Gosford Street
Smithford Street, Coventry
Cook Street Gate
Old House in Little Park Street
Queen Mary's Chamber
Swanswell Gate
The Council Chamber, S. Mary's Hall
Trinity Lane
Arms of City of Coventry
Old House beside S. Mary's Hall
Whitefriars' Lane
Oriel Window and Stocks, S. Mary's Hall
Old Bablake School
Ford's Hospital
Holy Trinity Church
Swillington's Tomb, S. Michael's Church
Pulpit, Holy Trinity Church
Old House in Cox Street
36 Gosford Street
91 Gosford Street
Old House in Cox Street
Entrance to Kitchen, S. Mary's Hall
Archdeacon's Chapel, Holy Trinity Church
The Staircase, Old Bablake School

[Pg 1]

The Story of Coventry


The Three Spires and Coventry

"Now flourishing with fanes, and proud pyramids,
Her walls in good repair, her ports so bravely built,
Her halls in good estate, her cross so richly gilt,
As scorning all the Towns that stand within her view."
Drayton, Polyolbion, xiii.

Time has brought many changes since old Drayton thus vaunted thestateliness of Coventry. The walls, the cross are gone, and of thetwelve stately gates, but two remain. Gone, too, is the splendidconduit in the Cross Cheaping, S. Nicholas' Hall in the West Orchard,meeting-place of the Corpus Christi guild; and S. Nicholas' Church, outto the north beyond Bishop Street, which fell to ruin soon after theReformation. But the "proud pyramids," the "three spires," remain yet,and give greeting to all who approach Coventry, dominating the flatmidland country for many a mile, changing their relative position asthe spectator moves, and their colour in the shifting lights. Highestand fairest of all—so "the Archangel," says Fuller, "eclipseth theTrinity,"—is the nine-storied belfry of S. Michael's, tower, octagonand spire, a wonderful example of symbolism of design and harmoniousdisposal of ornament. The tower, begun in 1373, was the gift—saystradition—of the men of the Botoner family, the[Pg 2] spire of its women,not the least among the many noteworthy achievements that in Coventryhistory are linked with a woman's name.



Such a medley is Coventry that the great steeple over-shadows quiet,memory-haunted places, and streets filled with the clamour of traffic,pleasant houses rich men have lately built, and squalid courts, thatoccupy[Pg 3] the site of many an ancient burgage croft and garden. It isa typically English city, whose history might serve as the "abstractand brief chronicle" of England. A thoroughly corrupt borough inthe worst days of municipal corruption, rigidly Puritan under theStuarts, loyal under Elizabeth, steady for hereditary right at Mary'saccession—but Protestant, as witness its martyrs—Lollard in thehey-day of Lollardry, patriotic and Talbot-worshipping in the HundredYears' War—as England was, so was Coventry. In art and letters, also,the city recalls what is most characteristic in the achievements of theEnglish people. Here flourished medival architecture, an art whereinEnglishmen have excelled greatly, and the medival religious drama,foundation of Shakespeare's greatness; while chance, and the sojournof George Eliot, have given the city associations with the literaryoutburst of the Victorian time.

The doings of Coventry folk or the happenings within the city must haveimpressed the minds of generations of English folk, since the name hasentered into folk rhymes[1] and flower names, and proverbial Englishspeech. Old botanists speak of "Coventry bells" and "Coventry Marians,"where now we say "Canterbury bells"; children play card-games called"Peeping Tom" or "Moll of Coventry"; and we still, by silent avoidanceof our friends, "send them to Coventry," a reminiscence maybe of theuncivil treatment the city Roundheads gave to imprisoned Cavaliers whattime the bitterness engendered by the Civil War was abroad in the land.

Interesting too—albeit scanty—are the relics of legendary loreand heathen custom which ofttimes perplex the student of the city'shistory. Here was played the Hox-Tuesday play, survival, sayfolklorists, of the struggle to gain possession of a victim for the[Pg 4]sacrifice; here the national legend of Godiva grew up; and here, menfabled, S. George, patron of England, was born.

In the country round about Coventry two Englands meet, one a land ofgreen woods and well-watered pastures, the other black with the toil ofthe coal-fields. The city turns its most prosperous side southwards,and the common view of the spires is the one from the south, wherethe tree-bordered road from Kenilworth, whereon so many kings andqueens have travelled, slips into Coventry, past a fringe of ample,comfortable houses, that the well-to-do have raised in our own time.This was Tennyson's view of the spires, and George Eliot must haveseen it daily in her school-life, which she passed in the house thatis farthest from the town in Warwick Row. It is the common view,but not the most interesting, since the octagonal Decorated steepleof Christchurch, recased in fresh stone, last remnant of the nowdemolished church of the Greyfriars, is the least commanding of thethree, and by its nearness somewhat dwarfs the rest. The Greyfriarsof Coventry, be it said, have gained by a scribe's error, a probablyquite unmerited fame as producers of the noted Corpus Christi plays; inreality, this honour should belong to the lay-folk and craftspeople ofthe city.

It is well—so the journey is made from the south—to gain a moredistant view of the "proud pyramids" over the flat fields from theStoneleigh Road, where Christchurch falls into its proper place. Thetrees make the way through Stoneleigh a lovely one, and the villagechurch, redolent of eighteenth century peace, with a magnificent Normanchancel arch, furnishes a fine excuse for delay. Nearer to Coventrythe way winds on over Finham Bridge, shadowed by poplars, and throughStivichall, a hamlet the widow of Earl Ranulf of Chester gave to theBishop of Lichfield for the welfare of her husband's soul. Allotmentgardens and newly-built[Pg 5] streets occupy the land to the south-eastof the city, formerly known as the Little Park, once part of a royalestate. It is a commonplace-looking site nowadays, albeit thronged withmemories. Here Lollard sermons have been preached and miracle-playsplayed, and hither Laurence Saunders and others were led out to beburned in 1556, on ground now occupied by a factory, where once longafter men discovered charred fragments of a stake. They are buildingstreets over the Park area by the station nowadays; but this was apractice inaugurated long ago when Much Park Street (vicus parcimaioris) and Little Park Street (vicus parci minoris) were builton

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