16 July 2023

The church at Grey Friars in
Coventry was rebuilt twice
and its spire still stands

The spire and tower are all that survive of Grey Friars, the mediaeval Franciscan priory in Coventry (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Patrick Comerford

Grey Friars was a mediaeval Franciscan priory in Coventry. The original monastic buildings were lost in the Reformation. Until World War II, the spire was part of a 19th century church. The church was destroyed in an air raid during the Coventry Blitz, and the spire is now a café and bar.

The Franciscans or Greyfriars in Coventry are first mentioned in 1234, when Henry III allowed them timber from the woods in Kenilworth to roof or build their oratory or church. As this is only 11 years after these friars were first introduced into England, it shows that Coventry was one of their earliest settlements.

The Franciscan friars became known as the Greyfriars because of the grey colour of the robes worn by the Franciscans. They were known too for their humble churches and conventual buildings. But, as time passed, their supporters made generous donations and built churches on their site.

Later documents show that Ranulf de Blondeville, Earl of Chester, allowed them to build their house on his manor at Cheylesmore, on the south-west side of the city. His nephew-in-law, Roger de Montalt, granted the Franciscan friars of Coventry a site to enlarge their area in 1289.

The Hastings family built a chapel on the north side of the friars’ church ca 1300, and several generations of the family were buried there. John Ward, the first Mayor of Coventry, was also buried in the church of the Greyfriars in 1348. Other mayors who were buried in the Greyfriars church include Henry Dodenhall, mayor, 1365; and Adam Botoner, mayor, 1374-1377 and 1405.

In 1359, Richard II granted the Greyfriars as much stone from the quarry in the Black Prince’s park at Cheylesmore as they needed for their house, and to dig earth for the walls, plaster and a postern gate or secret gate into Cheylesmore Park for the recreation of the friars. However, the key to the gate was to be kept by the warden and was to be used only by friars who were sick.

The base of the tower, once the chancel of Christ Church Coventry, is now a bar (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Grey Friars church stood on a site at the corner of New Union Street and Warwick Lane, in the centre of Coventry. The church was cruciform in shape, with a central tower and spire. This was a medium-sized monastic church, measuring 240 ft long and 60 ft wide. By comparison, the first Coventry Cathedral was about 460 ft long.

The slender spire became one of Coventry’s ‘three spires’, along with Holy Trinity Church and Saint Michael’s Church, later to become the second Coventry Cathedral. Christ Church is the shortest of the three, at 230 ft high, while Holy Trinity stands at 237 ft and Saint Michael’s is 295 ft.

The provincial chapter of the Grey Friars of England met in Coventry on at least four occasions: 1420, 1472, 1489 and 1505.

The Grey Friars of Coventry achieved celebrity with the great sacred drama played under their auspices on the feast of Corpus Christi. These Mysteries outlined Biblical history, with 42 distinct acts, with seven depicting Old Testament scenes and the remainder reenacting New Testament scenes. The English manuscript of these Mysteries, Ludus Coventrie, was written ca 1468 and belonged to the Franciscans of Coventry.

Theatres for the different scenes were mounted on wheels and drawn around the town for different audiences and spectators. Queen Margaret attended in 1456, Richard III in 1484, and Henry VII in 1492. On the last of these occasions it is expressly stated that Henry came ‘to see the plays acted by the Grey Friars.’

By the 16th century, there was a Rood Chapel in the churchyard, and another chapel dedicated to Saint Anne. Grey Friars was bounded by Greyfriars Lane in the east, Cheylesmore Park on the south-east, Warwick lane on the north-west, and the city walls on the south-west.

The Victorian church walls were pulled down in 1950, leaving only the mediaeval tower base and spire (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

The friary fell victim to the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1538 during the Tudor Reformation. The corporation made many efforts to prevent the destruction of the church of the Franciscan friars. But on 5 October 1538, John Stafford, the warden, and 10 of the friars signed the ‘surrender’ of their house.

The monastic buildings were torn down. But the tower and spire of the friary church survived for the next 260 years as a feature of Coventry’s skyline, cared for by the city corporation.

The spire was blown down in 1551, and the top was remodelled in 1608 without a spire. The spire was rebuilt and had to be repaired at least twice in the 17th and 18th century. The former monastic lands were initially converted to an orchard, but this was swept away when New Union Street was created in 1820.

The base of the tower had seen a number of uses, and by 1800 it was being used as a pigsty and storehouse.

By the early 19th century, the growing population of Coventry created the need for more churches, and funds were raised to rebuild the church. By then, the city owned the church spire and gave it to the new church, although it took several years to buy up the surrounding buildings and clear the site.

Clearing the area allowed archaeologists to uncover the layout of the original friary, to the south of the church, and the burial ground to the north.

In the end, the available site was much smaller than the medieval church, and the new church was 124 ft long and 55 ft wide. The tower was no longer central, but functioned as the new chancel at the east end of the church.

The foundation stone for the new church was laid on 16 March 1830. Rebuilding was complete by mid-1832, and the new church, Christ Church Coventry, was consecrated on 3 August 1832.

Two plaques on Christchurch spire, one giving a brief history, the other commemorating the naming of Dresden Place (Photographs: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

During World War II, the new church survived the worst raid on 14 November 1940 but was badly damaged in a subsequent raid on 8 April 1941.

The structure was declared unsafe, and what remained of the Victorian walls were pulled down in 1950, leaving only the mediaeval tower base and spire. The tower now stands 211 ft high, with over half of that height taken up by the slender spire.

The site was bought by the city, which restored the tower and spire in 1970. The area was named Dresden Place in 1974 as a symbol of the friendship between Dresden and Coventry ‘born out of wartime destruction and now devoted to international understanding and peace.’

The base of the tower is now a café and bar. At one time, it was cleverly called ‘Inspire (‘in spire’) but today it is known as Dhillon’s Brewery Spire Bar.

Christchurch Spire is near the west end of New Union Street, a few minutes’ walk from the cathedral quarter and the railway station.

Christchurch Spire is a few minutes’ walk from both Coventry Cathedral and the railway station (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

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