23 October 2021
A return visit to Coventry
to see some church sites
I had very little time in Coventry when I visited the cathedral at the end of my three days in Lichfield last week.
Coventry is Britain’s City of Culture this year, but it was ten years since I had been in Coventry. Between visiting Basil Spence’s new cathedral and the ruins of the old cathedral, and returning for Choral Evensong, two of us spent an hour or so revisiting some of the streets near the two cathedrals.
Holy Trinity Church is one of the few major buildings in Coventry that escaped destruction during the bombing raids in World War II. But it was not because of a lucky escape … the vicar of Holy Trinity, Canon Graham Clitheroe, and a team of firefighters bravely averted the danger from the falling incendiaries during the heaviest raid on 14 November 1940.
Holy Trinity Church was built of red sandstone between the 1200s and 1400s, replacing a much older chapel built on the site by the monks of Saint Mary’s Priory.
The church first looked like nearby Saint Michael’s. However, several major restorations have seen much of the original brickwork replaced with a paler coloured sandstone.
The present spire is also much younger than the rest of the church. It is 237 ft high and was erected in 1667 to replace an older one that collapsed during a storm in 1665, killing a young boy.
Sadly, the church was closed by the time we got to Coventry on an afternoon last week. Inside, the stained-glass windows are full of colour and artistry, especially the great west window above the main entrance, glazed by Hugh Easton in 1955.
The east window behind the High Altar, added in 1956 to replace the original window, blown out in World War II. The pulpit was built ca 1470 and said to be one of the highest in England. The Marler Chapel or Mercers’ Chapel was added ca 1526-1527.
Until 2019, a replica of the ancient Coventry Cross stood at the south-east corner of the church. The original cross stood in Cross Cheaping from 1541 until the 1770s.
Beside Holy Trinity Church are the three 15th century cottages, Lychgate Cottages. Originally one house known as Lychgate House, they have long since been split into three separate houses, now forming 3, 4 and 5 Priory Row.
They take their name from the lychgate through which funerals made their way to Holy Trinity churchyard. The word ‘lych’ comes from the old English lic meaning corpse, and coffins and funerals waited at the lychgate for the vicar’s arrival.
The timber used in these jetted buildings has been accurately dated to ca 1414-1415, using tree ring dating. However, they were not built soon after the trees were felled. In 1414, the ground level at that point in front of the priory was many feet lower than the cottages now stand. Instead, they were built ca 1648, possibly using reclaimed timbers that were stored near the church. The timber used may have been from houses taken down a few years earlier, before the Civil War. Their 17th century cellars are not the typical vaulted cellars of mediaeval times.
The building was restored and extended in 1856, survived the bombing of Coventry in World War II, and was repaired again in 1997-1998.
Coventry is also known for the statue of Lady Godiva in Broadgate by Sir William Reid Dick, unveiled in 1949. She too had many church connections and was known as a generous benefactor to abbeys and churches. With her husband Leofric, Earl of Mercia, she paid for churches and religious houses in Leominster, Much Wenlock, Worcester, Evesham, Burton-on-Trent, Hereford, Stowe and Chester.
Although Leofric was regarded as a wise and religious figure, he was involved in the brutal pillage and destruction of Worcester in 1041 after the town defied a royal tax collector. It is said that Godiva made her famous naked horse ride as a bargain with her husband to free the people of Coventry from the heavy taxes he had forced on them.
Leofric and Godiva founded and endowed a Benedictine monastery at Coventry in 1043 on the site of a nunnery destroyed by the Danes in 1016. She had her jewellery turned into religious images and crosses, and it is said that on her deathbed she left her necklaces to the church.
The story of her naked ride through Coventry was first told in the 12th century, 150 years after her death. Peeping Tom is a later addition to the story, first appearing in the tale in the 17th century.
The statue of Lady Godiva in Broadgate is one of the few statues of horses outside London to be listed (Grade II).