29 August 2023

Daily prayers in Ordinary Time
with USPG: (93) 29 August 2023

Saint Mary’s Priory and Cathedral in Coventry was founded in the 12th century with the transformation of a former monastery (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Patrick Comerford

We are in Ordinary Time in the Church Calendar, and this week began with the Twelfth Sunday after Trinity (Trinity XII, 27 August 2023). Today, the calendar of the Church of England in Common Worship remembers the Beheading of Saint John the Baptist with a lesser festival.

Before the day begins, I am taking some time this morning for prayer and reflection.

In recent weeks, I have been reflecting on the churches in Tamworth and Lichfield. This week, I am reflecting each morning in these ways:

1, Looking at a church in Coventry;

2, the Gospel reading of the day in the Church of England lectionary;

3, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary.

Bishop Robert de Limesey of Lichfield transferred his see to Coventry in 1095, and the monastery of Saint Mary became the new cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Saint Mary’s Priory and Cathedral, Coventry:

Sir Basil Spence’s Cathedral in Coventry, which opened over 60 years ago in 1962, was not the first, or even the second cathedral in city, but the third.

Saint Mary’s Priory and Cathedral in Coventry was founded in the 12th century with the transformation of the former monastery of Saint Mary, and it destroyed at the Dissolution of the Monastic Houses during the Tudor Reformation in the mid-16th century.

The priory and cathedral stood on a site north of Holy Trinity Church and the former Saint Michael’s Church in the centre of the city. The site was bordered by Priory Row to the south, Trinity Street to the west, and the River Sherbourne to the north. Excavated remains from the west end of the cathedral are open to the public.

Saint Osburg founded a nunnery by the River Sherbourne, on the edge of the Forest of Arden, around 700 CE. A settlement grew up around the nunnery, and in time this became Coventry.

King Canute and his army of laid waste to many towns and villages in Warwickshire in 1016 in his bid to take control of England. When they reached Coventry, they destroyed the Saxon nunnery founded by Saint Osburg.

Leofric, Earl of Mercia and his wife Lady Godiva rebuilt on the remains of the nunnery in 1043 and founded a Benedictine monastery dedicated to Saint Mary for an abbot and 24 monks.

John of Worcester recalls that Leofric and ‘his wife, the noble Countess Godgifu, a worshipper of God and devout lover of Saint Mary ever-virgin, built the monastery there from the foundations out of their own patrimony, and endowed it adequately with lands and made it so rich in various ornaments that in no monastery in England might be found the abundance of gold, silver, gems and precious stones that was at that time in its possession.’

The abbey church of Saint Mary’s was consecrated in 1043, and Earl Leofric was buried there in 1057.

Bishop Robert de Limesey of Lichfield transferred his see to Coventry ca 1095. The papal authorisation for this move in 1102 turned the monastery of Saint Mary into a priory and cathedral. The priory was rebuilt on an opulent scale to reflect its new importance as a cathedral. The rebuilding and expansion of Saint Mary’s was completed about 125 years later.

Robert Marmion fortified the partially-built cathedral in 1143 and fortified it in an attempt to capture Coventry Castle. Part of his alterations include a defensive trench around the church.

The main cathedral building was cruciform in shape, 130 metres (425 ft) long and 44 metres (145 ft) wide at the west front. It was built in two stages, up to 1143 and from ca 1150 to ca 1250. The cathedral had a central tower and two towers at the west end, the remains of which are still visible. It is believed there were three spires similar to, though pre-dating, those at Lichfield Cathedral.

When the monastery was founded, Leofric gave the northern half of his estates in Coventry, known as the Prior’s half, to support the monks. The other half of his estates in Coventry was called the Earl’s-half and later passed to the Earls of Chester.

Roger de Mold, or Roger de Montalt, Earl of Chester, sold the south side of Coventry to the Prior in 1250, and in theory, for the next 95 years, the town was controlled by a single landlord. In practice, however, disputes arose between the monastic tenants and those previously of the Earl, and the Prior never gained complete control of the entire city.

Coventry remained divided in two parts until 1345, the two parts were incorporated by royal charter into what became the city of Coventry, with its council house in Saint Mary’s Guildhall, a short stroll from the Priory.

According to the mediaeval writer William of Malmesbury, the monastery was so wealthy that its walls were too narrow to contain all the gold and silver.

At the Dissolution of the Monasteries in the 16th century, the seat of the diocese returned to Lichfield Cathedral in 1539. Henry VIII offered the cathedral buildings to the people of Coventry. However, the city was unable to raise sufficient funding, and the king ordered the buildings destroyed.

It was the only English cathedral to be destroyed during the Reformation. Masonry and other items were removed and used for other purposes, leaving only parts of the cathedral standing. The only major part of the monastic buildings to be spared was the north-west tower, which was used as a dwelling until 1714, when Coventry’s Blue Coat School was founded there.

The Blue Coat School was rebuilt on the site in 1856. During rebuilding, the remains of the cathedral’s west wall were discovered, including the foot of the south-west tower and its spiral staircase.

Coventry remained without a cathedral until 1918, when Saint Michael’s Church, built in the 14th and 15th centuries, became the cathedral of the new Diocese of Coventry was elevated to this status. Saint Michael’s was severely damaged during the Coventry Blitz on 14 November 1940, and replaced after World War by the present cathedral.

The Bluecoat School moved to a new location on Terry Road in 1964. An excavation in the 1960s discovered the original doorway to the chapter house.

Coventry City Council decided to redevelop part of the cathedral site in the late 1990s as a public park as part of its Phoenix Initiative. The Channel 4 programme Time Team was invited to perform an archaeological dig on the site in 1999. The dig consisted of four main trenches: one in the site of the chapter house, one to reach the original floor, four metres below the current ground level, and two to identify the locations of the two crossing piers that would have borne the weight of the tower and roof.

A stone-lined grave was found at the bottom of the trench. Work revealed the remains of a body in the grave just inside the chapter house door. Forensic evidence suggested that the person died in late-middle age and was overweight and diabetic, and it was suggested it was likely the man had been a prior, given to living a relatively sedate life with too much good food and drink.

A later discovery in 2000 was an ‘Apocalypse Mural’, a 14th-century masonry painted with the likeness of four figures, three of them wearing gilded crowns. Further digs were carried out by Time Team in 2001, Coventry Archaeology and Northampton Archaeology.

Parts of the site are open to the public as the Priory Garden and can be walked through or above on wooden walkways. The site of the cloisters has also become a park with a visitor centre containing some of the artefacts excavated.

What was once believed to be the remains of the east end of Saint Mary’s, can be seen beside the current cathedral. Other parts of the priory and cathedral were built over with the 18th century houses on Priory Row.

The priory site is in two parts. A series of pedestrian walkways cross over the priory church, so the site can be viewed from above, giving a good idea of the priory layout. The west wall is exposed, and the foundation walls can be seen.

The second part of the site is the priory cloisters, which have been transformed into a small park, with seating around a square of trees where the monks once strolled. Beside the cloister park is a modern visitor centre, installed as part of a Millennium project to promote Coventry’s history and act as a focal point for encouraging tourism. Volunteers offer tours of the ruins as well as the undercroft.

Coventry Cathedral was the only English cathedral to be destroyed during the Reformation (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Matthew 14: 1-12 (NRSVA):

1 At that time Herod the ruler heard reports about Jesus; 2 and he said to his servants, ‘This is John the Baptist; he has been raised from the dead, and for this reason these powers are at work in him.’ 3 For Herod had arrested John, bound him, and put him in prison on account of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, 4 because John had been telling him, ‘It is not lawful for you to have her.’ 5 Though Herod wanted to put him to death, he feared the crowd, because they regarded him as a prophet. 6 But when Herod’s birthday came, the daughter of Herodias danced before the company, and she pleased Herod 7 so much that he promised on oath to grant her whatever she might ask. 8 Prompted by her mother, she said, ‘Give me the head of John the Baptist here on a platter.’ 9 The king was grieved, yet out of regard for his oaths and for the guests, he commanded it to be given; 10 he sent and had John beheaded in the prison. 11 The head was brought on a platter and given to the girl, who brought it to her mother. 12 His disciples came and took the body and buried it; then they went and told Jesus.

Our Lady of Coventry by Sister Concordia Scott, installed in the ruins of Saint Mary’s Priory, Coventry, in 2001 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Today’s Prayer:

The theme this week in ‘Pray With the World Church,’ the Prayer Diary of the Anglican mission agency USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel), is the ‘República de Jovens Home in Brazil.’ This theme was introduced on Sunday.

The USPG Prayer Diary today (29 August 2023) invites us to pray in these words:

Let us pray for the República de Jovens (Young People’s Community House) project. That it will provide a safe place to call home for all who walk through its doors.

The Collect:

Almighty God,
who called your servant John the Baptist
to be the forerunner of your Son in birth and death:
strengthen us by your grace
that, as he suffered for the truth,
so we may boldly resist corruption and vice
and receive with him the unfading crown of glory;
through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

The Post Communion Prayer:

Merciful Lord,
whose prophet John the Baptist
proclaimed your Son as the Lamb of God
who takes away the sin of the world:
grant that we who in this sacrament
have known your forgiveness and your life-giving love
may ever tell of your mercy and your peace;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Parts of the priory and cathedral were built over with the 18th century houses on Priory Row (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Yesterday’s reflection

Continued tomorrow

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org

The Execution of Saint John the Baptist … an early 18th century icon from the Monastery of Saint John the Theologian in Anopolis, in the Museum of Christian Art, in the Church of Saint Catherine of Sinai, Iraklion, Crete (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

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