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A rebel city on its third cathedral

Founded with a Saxon nunnery circa AD 700, Coventry has endured conflict with King Canute (whose army destroyed the nunnery), Henry II (whose army largely destroyed Coventry Castle), Henry VIII (whose Reformation saw the destruction of the first cathedral), Charles I (Coventry was a parliamentary stronghold) and, in 1940, with Hitler’s Luftwaffe. City and cathedral thus share a history of conflict just as, today, they share a determination to build justice and peace, by healing wounds and learning to live with difference.

Chronology of Coventry Cathedral
Coventry Founded

St Osburga founds a convent (or nunnery) beside the Sherbourne River, prompting further settlement around it. The name Coventry is thought to have been derived from convent.

Convent destroyed

The Convent was destroyed and, it is thought, all nuns murdered, by vikings led by King Canute.

A new monastery

Leofric, Earl of Mercia (husband of Lady Godiva) founds a Benedictine monastery at Coventry, dedicated to St Mary. The plan below shows the location of the monastery and its abbey (later St Mary's Cathedral), relative to the parish church of St Michael (which became Coventry Cathedral in 1918) and the new Cathedral, consecrated in 1962.

Coventry’s second castle

Coventry Castle built (on the site of an earlier one) by the 2nd Earl of Chester, who successfully fought off attacks by King Stephen during ‘The Anarchy’.

St Michael’s parish church built

This church established the location of the future cathedral. It lasted for three hundred years.

Coventry Castle attacked by Henry II

The 3rd Earl of Chester mounts a successful defence, but the castle is severely damaged.

St Michael’s church rebuilt

Rivalry between Coventry’s two landlords results two parish churches, right beside each other on either side of their mutual boundary. The new St Michael’s is one of the largest parish churches in England, famous for being the tallest of the ‘three spires of Coventry’, the others being the of the church next door, Holy Trinity, and Christ Church, Greyfriars.

Dissolution of the monasteries

St Mary’s Cathedral is destroyed and the See of Coventry & Lichfield is transferred to Lichfield.

English Civil War

Coventry is successfully defended against attack from King Charles I’s 6,000 strong army.

Royalist prisoners 'sent to Coventry'

Coventry's jail was used as a central place to imprison captured Royalists. The expression ‘sent to Coventry’ is thought to stems either from the hostility shown to prisoners. It might have an earlier origin, from when Coventry was a place of execution, where heretics were sent to be burned at the stake.

Diocese of Coventry created

The 15th century parish church of St Michael was simultaneously elevated to the status of a cathedral, making Coventry a cathedral city again after a gap of almost 400 years. The photograph shown here is thought to have been taken in around 1880.

Bombing raids devastate Coventry

The most severe raid, which the Luftwaffe code-named ‘Moonlight Sonata’, was on the night of 14th November. An estimated 568 people were killed and 4,300 homes destroyed, along with St Michael’s Cathedral.

The decision to rebuild in hope, not defiance

15th November. The morning after he was on the roof of the cathedral, trying to save it from the incendiary bombs, Provost Howard inspects the smouldering ruins. The decision to rebuild the cathedral was taken that morning. In line with the vision of Provost Howard, rebuilding would not be an act of defiance, but rather a sign of faith, trust and hope for the future of 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 photograph below is of Provost Howard on Christmas Day, 1940, conducting a service held in the ruins and broadcast nationally, by the BBC.

A competition to design a new cathedral

Conditions were published inviting designs for a new cathedral at Coventry. Remarkably, they did not follow the recommendation of Lord Harlech’s 1947 commission that the new cathedral should be in the gothic tradition, nor the proposal of the Cathedral Council that it should harmonise with the surviving tower and spire. This opened up the possibility of a more modernist approach.

Basil Spence wins

The winner of the competition to design a new Coventry Cathedral was announced. The three assessors - all architects selected by the Royal Institute of British Architects - chose the Scottish architect, Basil Spence, then best known for designing the Sea & Ships pavilion on London’s South Bank. Whilst not all responses were favourable, the Bishop of Coventry declared “It is the one I should have chosen myself’.

Founding a new cathedral

23rd March. Her Majesty the Queen laid the foundation stone for the New Cathedral.

The Consecration Ceremony

The New Cathedral is consecrated in a grand ceremony in the presence of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.

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