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Coventry in 1837

COVENTRY, a city locally situated in the hundred of Knightlow, in the county of Warwick, of which however it forms no constituent portion ; having been made, with several adjacent villages, a separate county, by an act of Henry VI in 1451, and entitled the County of the City of Coventry. The city, exclusive of the suburbs, is about three quarters of a mile in length, and stands on a small elevation which slopes gradually towards the east and west. The situation is nearly in the centre of the kingdom, on a level tract, which, near Coventry, is about 300 feet above the sea level, 91 miles N.N.W. from London, and 10 N.N.E. from Warwick. It is a place of great antiquity, but its origin appears to be only obscurely known. By some writers it is asserted and by others denied that the name is derived (as Covent Garden from Convent Garden) from a spacious convent which was founded, says Leland, by King Canute, and was destroyed by the traitor Edric in 1016. However this may be, it is certain that in the reign of Edward the Confessor, in 1044, earl Leofric, a powerful lord of the large territory of Mercia, with his wife, the lady Godiva, founded at Coventry a magnificent Benedictine monastery, and appropriated to it half the town and twenty four lordships, besides enriching it with a profusion of rich presents. The capacious cellar of the monks still exists, measuring 75 yards in length by 5 in breadth. From the date of this religious establishment the prosperity of the place appears to have taken its rise. After the Conquest the lordship of Coventry came to the earls of Chester. Leland, writing in the reign of Henry VIII, says that the city was begun to be walled in in the time of Edward II, and that it had six gates, many fair towers, and streets well built with timber. Other writers speak of thirty-two towers and twelve gates. The walls were demolished by Charles II in consequence of the active part taken by the citizens in favour of the parliamentary army. During the monastic ages Coventry had a large and beautiful cathedral, similar to that at Lichfield. At the Reformation it was levelled to the ground by order of Henry VIII, and only a fragment or two now remain. There are three ancient churches, of which St. Michael’s is by far the most remarkable for architectural beauty and ornament. It was originally built in 1133, in the reign of Henry I, and was given to the monks of Coventry by Ranulph earl of Chester, in the reign of Stephen. Sir Christopher Wren is said to have considered this church a masterpiece of the lighter Gothic style. The spire rises finely tapering out of an octagonal prism upon the tower, and its summit is 303 feet from the ground. The interior is lofty and finely ornamented with rows of clustered pillars and arches, with a roof of curiously carved oak and numerous windows of ancient coloured glass. (Description of St. Michael’s Church, by William Reader, Coventry.) Trinity church is a Gothic edifice, but heavier and less elegant than St. Michael’s. The height of its spire is 237 feet. St. John’s is a plain cruciform structure, founded in the reign of Edward III. A handsome new church has been built under the parliamentary commission. One of the richest and most interesting vestiges of the ornamental architecture of the fifteenth century in Coventry, and perhaps in England, is a capacious building called St. Mary’, Hall, erected in the reign of Henry VI. The principal room is 63 feet by 30, and 34 feet in height. Its grotesquely carved roof of oak, the gallery for minstrels, the armoury, the chair of state, and especially the great painted window facing the street, are admirably suited to furnish a vivid idea of the manners of the age in which Coventry was the favourite resort of princes. A tapestry made in 1450, measuring 30 feet by 10, and containing 80 figures, is a curious and beautiful specimen of the drawing, dyeing, and embroidery of that period. This hall is the property of the corporation, and is used as a council chamber, and for civic festivities. (Guide to St Mary’s Hall, by William Reader, Coventry.) In the market-place a richly ornamented Gothic cross, considered one of the finest in the country, was erected in the sixteenth century, and taken down in 1771 to gratify the bad taste of the inhabitants. It was hexagonal, 57 feet high, with eighteen niches of saints and kings. (Gough’s Brit. Topog., vol. ii, p. 303.) The hospital in Gray Friars’ Lane is very ancient, and richly ornamented with carved oak. The building called the Mayor’s Parlour is of the sixteenth century : it is used for judicial purposes.

Coventry has been the seat of two parliaments ; one held by Henry IV in 1404, called Parliamentum Indoctum, from being composed of laymen inimical to the interests of the clergy, or, as some writers say, from the fact of lawyers being excluded. The other by Henry VI in 1459, called Parliamentum Diabolicum, from the numerous attainders it issued against the Duke of York and his adherents.

Froissart and Holinshed give a graphic account of the combat at Coventry of the Duke of Norfolk and the Duke of Hereford, afterwards Henry IV. See also Shakespeare’s Richard II.

Coventry has been always renowned for its exhibition of pageants and processions ; and in the monastic ages it was remarkable for the magnificent and costly performance of the religious dramas called Mysteries. Accounts are extant of these solemn shows as early as 1416. They were performed on moveable street-stages chiefly by the Gray Friars, on the day of Corpus Christi. The subjects were the Nativity, Crucifixion, Doomsday, &c., and the splendour of the exhibitions was such that the king and the royal family, with the highest dignitaries of the church, were usually present as spectators. (See A Dissertation on to Pageants or Dramatic Mysteries anciently performed at Coventry, and other Municipal Entertainments, by Thomas Sharp, 4to, 1825.) The plates in this work are extremely interesting, and the facts are valuable as indicating the great progress of society since the time when kings and prelates witnessed with gratification and applause what would now shock the feelings and be condemned by the judgment of the humblest member of society. The following items from a bill of expenses inserted in the work just mentioned, will give an idea of these dramatis personae :-‘Payd for 2 pound of hayre for the divill’s head, 3s.; mending his hose, 8d. Black canvas for shirts for the damned, 4s. Red buckram for wings of angels (represented by naked children), 7s. Paid for a cote for God, and a payre of gloves, 3s.’ The following work also contains much curious information: ‘The Pageant of the Company of Sheremen and Taylors in Coventry, as performed by them on the festival of Corpus Christi, with other Pageants at Coventry, on the visit of Henry VI and his Queen in 1455 ; of Prince Edward in 1474 ; of Prince Arthur in 1498, &c. ; with the Verses recited in character on those occasions.’ By W. Reader, Coventry. Other writers give descriptions of the costly pageants exhibited to Henry IV, Henry VII, and several other kings. Coventry was the favourite residence of Edward the Black Prince. Here also Queen Elizabeth delighted to see ‘The game of Hock Tuesday,’ which represented the massacre of the Danes by the English in 1002, and it was for her especial amusement that, in addition to a ring for baiting bulls, another was put down for badger-baiting, her favourite sport. The peculiar predilection of the people of Coventry for gorgeous pageantry is still displayed in the celebrated processional show at the great fair on the Friday in Trinity week, when many thousands assemble to see the representative of lady Godiva. The legendary origin of this singular exhibition is as follows: Earl Leofric had subjected the citizens of Coventry to a very oppressive taxation, and remaining inflexible against the entreaties of his lady for the people’s relief, he declared that her request should be granted only on the condition that she should ride perfectly naked through the streets of the city ; a thing which he supposed to be quite impossible. But the lady’s modesty being overpowered by her generosity, and the inhabitants having been enjoined to close all their shutters, she partially veiled herself with her flowing hair, made the circuit of the city on her palfrey, and thus obtained for it the exoneration and freedom which it henceforth enjoyed. The story is embellished with the incident of Peeping Tom, a prying inquisitive tailor, who was struck blind for popping out his head as the lady passed. His effigy is still to be seen protruded from an upper window in High Street, adjoining the King’s Head tavern. In Gough’s edition of Camden’s ‘Britannia,’ (vol. ii. p. 346) it is stated that Mathew of Westminster, who wrote in 1307, that is, 250 years after the time of Leofric, is the first who mentions this legend, and that many preceding writers who speak of Leofric and Godiva do not notice it. In Rudder’s ‘Gloucestershire,’ p. 307, a similar legend is said to be related of Briavel’s Castle. The Coventry procession, as at present exhibited, began only in the reign of Charles II, in 1677 : it consists principally of Saint George of England on his charger, lady Godiva, a female who rides in a dress of flesh-coloured muslin, with flowing hair, on a beautiful gray horse ; then follow the mayor and corporation, the whole of the city companies, the wool-combers, knights in armour, Jason, bishop Blaize, &c. &c., all in splendid dresses, with a great profusion of brilliant ribands, plumes of feathers, and numerous bands of music. (The History and Description of Coventry Show Fair, with the History of Lerfric and Godiva. By W. Reader.)

The county from N.E. to S.W. measures about eight miles, and from E. to W. about. seven miles, containing; an area of 18,161 acres. The soil is fertile, and chiefly laid out in pasturage. It is of a red colour, and rests on the red sand-stone of the district. The county, besides the city and suburbs, consists of the parishes of Foleshill, Exhall, Anstey, Stoke, Stivichall, with part of Stow and Shelton. These parishes include a total of nineteen villages and hamlets, some of which are very populous, but they have no share in the civil and political privileges of the city. The city, under the Municipal Corporation Act, is divided into six wards, governed by a mayor, twelve aldermen, and thirty-six councillors.

The assizes are regularly held in the city, and quarter-sessions are held, of which the recorder is sole judge, besides which there are various other courts.

Besides the patronage of many important appointments, the corporation had formerly the distribution of charitable funds amounting to £7,300 per annum. The following are the principal institutions of this kind, which in Coventry are very numerous. Sir Thomas White’s charity, founded in the reign of Henry VIII, produces annually between £2,000 and £3,000. The Bablake Men’s Hospital, of which an income of about £1,500 is devoted to the maintenance of poor and aged men, was founded by the will of Thomas Bond, in 1506. The Bablake Boys’ Hospital has an income of about £940, appropriated to the maintenance and education of young and poor boys. Besides these, there are twelve other considerable charities, and several minor ones. A full account of these charities is given in the ‘Reports on Charities.’

The free school is a richly endowed institution founded by John Hales in the reign of Henry VIII. Here Sir William Dugdale and several other eminent men were educated. The income is about £900 per annum ; and the school has two fellowships at St. John’s College, Oxford, one at Catherine Hall, Cambridge, and six exhibitions at either university. It appears from the Charity Commissioners’ Reports, that the school was grossly mismanaged at the time of the inquiry ; the fine school-room was locked up, and the books of its library, which had not been used to light the fire with, were missing or torn and covered with mould. Since that time a new head-master has been appointed, and at present the school is again attended by a number of pupils. There is a large Lancasterian school, Sunday schools, and several good private academies ; with places of worship for Catholics, Presbyterians, Unitarians, Independents, Baptists, Methodists, and Quakers. The general appearance of the town is gloomy and crowded ; many of the streets being narrow, and darkened by the projection of the upper stories of houses built in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. The city retains its ancient limits ; any enlargement of which is prevented by the surrounding commons, called the Lammas Lands,. on which the freemen have the right of pasturing their horses and cows. The streets are lighted and watched at night, but are not generally paved, or supplied with public sewers. In addition to the buildings already noticed, may be named the County Hall, a stone edifice erected in 1785, and the Draper’s Hall, which is ornamented with Tuscan pilasters, and is elegantly fitted up for assemblies and other public entertainment. The gaol has recently been rebuilt by the corporation at an expense of above £16,000.

In the time of the Edwards and Henries the tradesmen of Coventry were famed for their affluence. In 1448 they equipped 600 armed men for the public service. Until the war between England and France in 1694, the staple manufacture was woollens, broad-cloths, and caps ; and previous to 1580 there existed a famous manufacture of blue thread, the water of the small river Sherbourn, which passes through the city, being an excellent menstruum for dyeing this colour. During the eighteenth century there was a flourishing manufacture of tammies, camlets, shaloons, calimancoes, gauzes, &c., but it is no longer continued. At present the staple manufactures are ribbons and watches. The former was introduced about 1730, and in 1830 the number of individuals to whom it afforded employment in the city and adjacent villages is said to have been about 16,000, the number of looms being nearly 3,000. Of late years this manufacture has not been so prosperous, for which one of the reasons assigned is the fact of a great portion of the proprietary manufacturers residing in London. The manufacture of watches was introduced about 1800, and has become so extensive that the annual number manufactured is equal to that of London. The local position of Coventry is favourable for commercial operations, being nearly central between the four greatest ports of England - London, Bristol. Liverpool and Hull ; possessing great facilities of water communication by the Coventry and Oxford canal, which opens into the Grand Trunk navigation, and having one of the main roads from London to Birmingham passing through its streets.

There are several guilds, or incorporated trading companies, some of which are possessed of considerable property, which they spend in charity and festivities. The city of Coventry sends two members to parliament. The elective franchise was first granted in the reign of Edward I. The number of electors since the Reform Act, is 5,000. The population of this city in 1377 was 7,000, at which time there were only 18 towns in the kingdom having 3,000 inhabitants. In 1831 the population was 27,070, of whom 204 families were employed in agriculture, and 4,913 in trade and manufactures. There is a weekly market on Friday, and fairs on the second Friday after Ash Wednesday, May 2nd, Friday in Trinity week, August 26th and 27th, and November 1st, for the manufactures of the city, and for cattle.