Coventry has had three Cathedrals in the past 1000 years: the 12th century Priory Church of St Mary, the medieval Parish Church Cathedral of St Michael and the modern Coventry Cathedral, also named for St Michael. Coventry’s fortunes and story are closely associated to the story of its Cathedrals – a story of death and rebirth.
Coventry’s earliest cathedral, dedicated to St Mary, was founded as a Benedictine community by Leofric, Earl of Mercia, and his wife Godiva in 1043. Built on the site of a former religious house for nuns, its sheer size is some indication of the wealth which Coventry acquired in the middle ages.
In 1539, with the dissolution of the monasteries, the See of Coventry and Lichfield was transferred to Lichfield and the former cathedral fell into decay. Only in 1918 was the modern diocese of Coventry created in its own right, and the church of St Michael designated as its cathedral.
The majority of the great ruined churches and cathedrals of England are the outcome of the violence of the dissolution in 1539. The ruins of St Michael’s are the consequence of violence in our own time. On the night of 14 November 1940, the city of Coventry was devastated by bombs dropped by the Luftwaffe. The Cathedral burned with the city, having been hit by several incendiary devices.
The decision to rebuild the cathedral was taken the morning after its destruction. Rebuilding would not be an act of defiance, but rather a sign of faith, trust and hope for the future of the world. It was the vision of the Provost at the time, Richard Howard, which led the people of Coventry away from feelings of bitterness and hatred. This has led to the cathedral’s Ministry of Peace and Reconciliation, which has provided spiritual and practical support, in areas of conflict throughout the world.
Shortly after the destruction, the cathedral stonemason, Jock Forbes, noticed that two of the charred medieval roof timbers had fallen in the shape of a cross. He set them up in the ruins where they were later placed on an altar of rubble with the moving words ‘Father Forgive’ inscribed on the Sanctuary wall. Another cross was fashioned from three medieval nails by local priest, the Revd Arthur Wales. The Cross of Nails has become the symbol of Coventry’s ministry of reconciliation.
Her Majesty the Queen laid the foundation stone on 23 March 1956 and the building was consecrated on 25 May 1962, in her presence. The ruins remain hallowed ground and together the two create one living Cathedral.
The place we call ‘Coventry Cathedral’ is in fact two buildings that lie at the very heart of the city of Coventry. The Ruins of the ‘old Cathedral’ are the remains of a medieval parish church, consecrated to be the Cathedral of the new Diocese of Coventry in 1918. In a little over 20 years, this building would be destroyed by enemy air attack in the Second World War. Rather than sweeping away the ruins or rebuilding a replica of the former church, inspired by the message of Christ for reconciliation, the then leaders of the Cathedral Community took the courageous step to build a new Cathedral and preserve the remains of the old Cathedral as a moving reminder of the folly and waste of war. From that point, Coventry Cathedral became the inspiration for a ministry of peace and reconciliation that has reached out across the entire world.
The ‘new’ Cathedral was itself an inspiration to many fine artists of the post-war era. The architect, Sir Basil Spence, commissioned work from Graham Sutherland, John Piper, Ralph Beyer, John Hutton, Jacob Epstein, Elisabeth Frink and others – most still to reach the peak of their artistic careers. In the ‘old Cathedral’ it is still possible to see (uniquely) at eye-level, sections of outstanding, hand painted glass by John Thornton (circa 1450). Thornton, born in Coventry, was recognised as a master glass painter of his time and went on to paint the windows of York Minster. Coventry Cathedral is fortunate to have a very fine collection of his glass which is being conserved with a view to future public display and can be viewed by special arrangement in the meantime.
Today the ruins of the old Cathedral are preserved as a memorial and sacred space for the City. They also provide a dramatic backdrop to open air events and film recording on occasions. The Coventry Litany of Reconciliation is prayed here every Friday at noon. As part of our 2012 Golden Jubilee we are planning to open up the old chapels and crypts under the ruins to create a Visitor Centre that will offer a new and moving reconciliation experience to visitors before they enter the Cathedral.
The interior of the iconic new Cathedral provides many surprises. During the Second World War, the then senior clergyman of the Cathedral, Provost Richard Howard, witnessed the way Christians of all denominations came together to pray – for themselves, for peace and for their enemies – and conceived of an ecumenical space within a future, new Coventry Cathedral. The revolutionary and boundary-breaking nature of this idea should never be under-estimated. The Chapel of Unity is that unique space.
Although physically attached to the new Cathedral, this Chapel is not consecrated as Anglican/Church of England space, but is on a 999 year lease to an ecumenical Joint Council. In the Chapel of Unity Christians of any and all denominations may gather to worship and receive the sacraments. For more information click here.
In the 1990s, a national poll saw Coventry Cathedral elected as the nation’s favourite 20th Century building. It never fails to move, excite and delight all who visit and worship here.
Obtaining more information
If you would like to obtain more information about the history of Coventry Cathedral, its buildings, people or ministries, please contact our Archive Team, by calling or leaving a message on +44 (0)24 7652 1218 or write to:
The Archive Team, Coventry Cathedral, 1 Hill Top, Coventry, CV1 5AB
A charge may need to be made for supplying and sending information.