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The Story of Coventry
By Peter Walters
The History PressCopyright © 2013 Peter Walters
All rights reserved.
IN THE BEGINNING
In August of 1793, The Gentleman's Magazine, in its monthly digest of news from the provinces, reported an event of no little historical curiosity from Coventry.
Its correspondent 'Explorator' announced that he had two pots containing nearly 2,000 Roman coins, recently unearthed on the Bullester Field Farm in the neighbouring parish of Foleshill. And he went on to describe an earlier discovery, right in the heart of the old town: 'In the last summer the street in Coventry called Broadgate was opened to a depth of five or six feet when a regular pavement was discovered, and upon that pavement a coin of Nero.'
He added that it all gave further strength to his theory that a Roman road, linking the known Roman centres of Mancetter and Warwick, ran straight through where Coventry now stood. But could it also be evidence of a long-lost Roman settlement, from which the modern town of weaving and clock-making had sprung?
It appears not. More than 200 years later there is still no positive evidence of Roman occupation in what was to become Coventry. The pavement those eighteenth-century diggers discovered was almost certainly a floor of medieval origin and despite a string of finds by archaeologists, some made very recently indeed, proof that the Romans set up some kind of settlement in Coventry is still as frustratingly difficult to pin down as it ever was.
In some senses, this might seem surprising. In an area very close to the intersection of two major Roman roads – with Watling Street (now the A5) only nine miles away and the Fosse Way (A46) just six – we might expect there to be a settlement in such a well-watered and well-wooded area, where tradition suggests there had been an ancient trackway over the River Sherbourne, dating back into prehistoric times.
There's evidence nearby of occupation before the Romans arrived. A substantial settlement of fourteen Iron Age roundhouses was found on the University of Warwick campus, on the southern edge of the city, during work to lay a new university running track in 2002. The roundhouses probably dated from the third century BC.
What are believed to be boundary ditches from Romano-British farmsteads emerged from two further modern development sites to the east, during construction of the city's North-South Road (1987) and a new cinema site on the Cross Point business park (1991). As recently as 2006, archaeologists working on the Coventry University site off Priory Street in the city centre came across a ditch and scattered finds that might well have come from another farmstead.
However, the first-century Lunt Fort at Baginton, and the civilian settlement that grew up around it, are the only significant Roman remains to have been discovered in the immediate vicinity of Coventry. From the fort ramparts, reconstructed in the early 1970s, the modern city centre can be seen to the north, some four miles off.
First evidence of Roman occupation at Baginton began to emerge in the early 1930s, when extensive gravel-working around the edges of the village turned up large quantities of pottery, dating from the first to the third century, and other artefacts that suggested a military occupation there too.
Excavations in the summer of 1960 made the first discoveries of what turned out to be a sequence of military camps. The earliest of these are dated AD 60–61, when the Roman governor of Britain, Gaius Suetonius Paulinus, brought the rebellious Boudica, Queen of the Iceni, to her final reckoning.
That bloody and decisive engagement may well have taken place somewhere near Mancetter, more than twenty miles away at the northern edge of Warwickshire. It is believed that The Lunt was constructed by a unit of auxiliaries to deal with the many horses captured from the rebels by the victorious Roman army. Certainly the Gyrus, or horse-training corral, is its most important feature. No other quite like it has been found in the whole of the Roman Empire.
The Lunt was abandoned within twenty years, but the Roman army was back around AD 260 to build a further, short-lived fortification on the same site, and the civilian settlement that grew up around it continued long after the army had moved on.
It is that settlement that provides arguably the clearest archaeological link in this part of the country between the Roman and the Anglo-Saxon periods; the quarrying that churned up the village in the 1930s also disturbed an extensive Saxon cemetery, and bequeathed to us an extraordinary item found in one of the graves. The Baginton Bowl, a bronze hanging bowl dating from the sixth or seventh century and now on display in Coventry's Herbert Museum, is the most notable Saxon artefact so far discovered in Warwickshire.
Place names around what has become the modern city of Coventry suggest a steady advance for Saxon settlement right across the area. Allesley, Keresley, Corley and Binley, for example, are all Old English names, in notable contrast to Rugby and Princethorpe to the east, for instance, which betray clear Scandinavian roots.
The 'ley' word-endings of many of those Saxon place names, denoting a clearing in woodland, point to the looming presence of the legendary, now almost supernatural, Forest of Arden.
Coventry stands at the fault line between the great forest, stretching away to the west and north of the city, and the Feldon, a more open landscape of heath and rich pastureland to the south and east. There's evidence that Arden as a dense, continuous woodland, of the sort beloved by big screen outlaws, had already receded by Roman times, but the Saxon settlers and farmers who followed clearly still associated their new homeland with tree-clearing, and places like Allesley and Keresley are still classified as part of Coventry's ancient Arden landscape.
So where in all of this did the city itself get its name?
Over the past century of scholarship there have been a number of theories. At one time a connection with the Roman water goddess Coventina was thought likely. Another school of thought ascribed the name to a description of physical features of the site, principally a hillside and a cave.
But the balance of support has more recently settled around another sort of landscape feature – a tree employed either as a sacred object of veneration itself or as a boundary marker for lands held by a local Saxon landowner named Cofa.
While the use of trees as boundary markers was widespread in Saxon England, we have no idea who Cofa might have been. No information about an individual who may be a key figure in the story of Coventry has come down to us. It is just another example of the shadowy nature of the city's beginnings.
Tradition, that long-established and widely quoted source that stands somewhere between rumour and evidence, identifies a female antecedent as the earliest known person with Coventry connections.
Her name was Osburga (or Osburg in modern parlance). She was in religious orders and one version of the story describes her as one of the famed sisters of Barking in Essex who left the security of their house around 675 to found other monastic settlements. She was later canonised.
Osburga was abbess, it is said, of a nunnery established close to the River Sherbourne, somewhere in the Hill Top area of modern Coventry. This foundation, possibly with a small church included in it, was the earliest evidence of settlement in Coventry.
Reference to a nunnery at Coventry appears in some fly-leaf jottings on a bound set of anonymous sermons, dating from the late fourteenth century: 'In ancient times on the bank of the river called by the inhabitants Sherbourne, which flows right through the city of Coventry, there was formerly a monastery of young women dedicated to God.'
St Osburg herself remains an enigma, a virgin saint about whom very little is known, but the fate of her nunnery is perhaps a better known element of this old story. It was destroyed, the chroniclers wrote, in 1016 when a Danish army led by Cnut and the English traitor Eadric Streona ravaged Warwickshire.
Historically, this is not beyond the bounds of possibility. At that time Cnut was on the rampage in his ultimately successful campaign to seize the throne of England, and the Danes had long had a taste for pillaging monastic houses. Lying less than twenty miles from the Danelaw, the area of eastern and northern England over which the Danes had held sway since their treaty with Alfred the Great in 886, St Osburg's nunnery must have been at risk more than once in the dynastic struggles that erupted from time to time in this border country.
Another distant memory of those turbulent times may indeed have lingered on in the Hock Tuesday play, performed in Coventry on the second Tuesday after Easter from around 1416 until the early years of the seventeenth century. Traditionally, the play's origins are linked either to victory celebrations following a massacre of the Danes in England that took place in 1002, or to news of the death of the last Danish King of England, Harthacanute, in 1042.
There is no hard evidence that St Osburg's nunnery ever actually existed, but there are intriguing pointers as to some kind of ecclesiastical presence in the Hill Top area before the eleventh century.
A section of decorated sandstone moulding found in Palmer Lane in 1937, originally believed to be part of a free-standing cross, is now thought to be a door jamb or window moulding from an ecclesiastical building, dating from around the year 1000. A burial found during archaeological excavations (1999–2003) on the site of Coventry's first cathedral was carbon-dated to 875, while a second body discovered in a grave beneath the cloister has been dated to the tenth century.
St Osburg herself has certainly lingered in the city's collective memory. A shrine to her was established in the cathedral and her head, enclosed in copper and gilt, was listed as one of its most important relics. In 1408, the Bishop of Coventry and Lichfield, John Burghill, responding to public representations, commanded that her feast-day of 30 March was to be celebrated in the city.
Well beyond the Middle Ages, the name given to the marshy, riverine area now defined in the modern city as Pool Meadow was St Osburg's Pool, while the most central of Coventry's Catholic churches, with primary school attached, still bears her name.
The notion that St Osburg and her nuns were effectively Coventry's first identified citizens is contradicted by another long-held theory as to the city's origins. This argued that the first Saxon settlers established themselves, not around Hill Top, but on the other side of the river, on the south-facing slopes of Barr's Hill.
William Dugdale, the seventeenth-century Warwickshire antiquarian, firmly believed that this fledgling settlement lay on those slopes and had created Coventry's first church by the year 1003, named for St Nicholas. His was a view shared by many of the city's Victorian historians.
In fact, St Nicholas Church first appears in the records in 1183 and for much of its history it was a dependent chapel of Holy Trinity Church on Hill Top. By 1535, a full century before Dugdale was writing, St Nicholas was 'in decay and ruin' and within a generation had been turned into a store house. Exactly where the church stood is now open to conjecture, although human remains from its churchyard have regularly cropped up in successive waves of redevelopment since the nineteenth century.
An opportunity to test the tradition of early settlement on Barr's Hill came in 1965, when a cutting was driven into the hillside for an access road to serve Coventry's new inner ring road. But archaeologists found no evidence of human habitation whatsoever and it remains just another intriguing possibility.
The modest reckoning for Coventry in the Normans' great registry of interests, the Domesday survey, suggests that the place was scattered and rural in character at the time of the Conquest. It records a population of fifty villeins (tenants who could hold property but owed fealty, and service, to the local lord), twelve bordars (cottage holders who were often the younger sons of villeins) and seven serfs (little more than slaves) – with their families totalling around 300 people.
They were using twenty ploughs to work a significant area of arable land and they controlled a substantial area of woodland, covering about two square miles.
The consensus among historians now, however, profiles Coventry as a modest-sized settlement at the end of the Saxon period with a population of around 1,200, similar in size to the town of Warwick. There are plenty of towns known to exist at the time which do not feature at all in the Domesday survey. The ancient city of Winchester and even London itself are both examples, and the modern view is that Coventry was almost certainly the same, with merely the rural part of it recorded by inventory clerks.
There's some evidence that this settlement may have boasted a church too. In 1022, Archbishop Aethelnoth, while in Rome to be formally installed as Archbishop of Canterbury by Pope Benedict VIII, purchased a holy relic, the arm of St Augustine of Hippo. The chroniclers say that he paid 100 silver talents and one gold talent for it and, more importantly, that on his return to England he gave it to the church in Coventry.
Whether this was a church associated with St Osburg's nunnery or a later minster church established to serve the growing community remains a question that archaeologists might one day resolve.
However, there is no doubt that the earliest clear and unambiguous date in Coventry's history is the year 1043, when it is recorded that Leofric, Earl of Mercia, and his wife Godgifu (Godiva to us) dedicated a house of monks with the Benedictines in Coventry.
Although they loom large in the story of early Coventry, neither Leofric nor Godiva could claim local antecedents. Godiva's origins remain obscure, although a fourteenth-century charter states that she was sister to Thorold, Sheriff of Lincolnshire, and if so may well have spent her early life in that part of eastern England. As a landowner she had extensive holdings in Warwickshire, including the fledgling Coventry.
History has downplayed the importance of Leofric in the story of eleventh-century England. He was one of the triumvirate of earls (Godwin of Wessex and Siward of Northumbria were the others) who held the ring in the turbulent years that followed the end of Danish rule in England in the early 1040s.
It was Leofric who represented stability when war threatened, backing King Edward the Confessor against the claims of the over-mighty Godwin, and somehow contriving to establish a truce which saw the Earl of Wessex and his family outlawed for a time, astonishingly without a drop of blood being spilt.
While he plays a subsidiary and brutish role in the story of his wife's legendary ride, Leofric's contemporaries regarded him rather differently. On his death in 1057, the eulogies described him as devout and illustrious, while the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle paid simple tribute to him as 'very wise in all matters, both religious and secular.'
Leofric was born, probably in the 990s, the third son of Leofwine, Ealdorman of the Hwicce, a Saxon tribal grouping who held sway over much of what is now Worcestershire and south Warwickshire. Both his elder brothers died in war, the eldest, Northman, at the hands of the Danish warlord Cnut, on his way to seize the throne of England in 1017.
Yet it was the Dane to whom this shrewd and ambitious Saxon owed his advancement. Cnut clearly had a soft spot for Leofric, setting aside his usual practice of replacing Saxon nobility with Danes by making him Earl of Mercia around 1026.
When Cnut died in 1035, Leofric supported Harold Harefoot, the son of Cnut's first wife, against his half-brother Harthacnut. It is perhaps a sign of his gifts as a diplomat that he managed to hang on to the earldom when Harthacnut succeeded to the throne five years later.
Leofric faced a test of his loyalty within months when two royal tax-gatherers were set upon and killed by angry townsfolk in Worcester, right at the heart of his own family domain. An enraged Harthacnut ordered him to burn and pillage the town and there's every indication that he did – possibly accounting for the prominent reference to oppressive taxation in the later stories of Godiva's famous ride.
Ten years later, it was Leofric who devised a peaceful resolution when Earl Godwin threatened rebellion against Edward the Confessor. Despite some family troubles (his son Aelfgar was outlawed in 1055) he was still one of Edward's closest confidants when he died 'at a good old age' at his estate at Kings Bromley in Staffordshire in the early autumn of 1057.
Excerpted from The Story of Coventry by Peter Walters. Copyright © 2013 Peter Walters. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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Table of Contents
1 In the Beginning 9
2 The Early Town 24
3 A Golden Age 45
4 Darkening Skies 67
5 A Fanatic Town 89
6 'What Fools Ye Be' 111
7 A Great Rebellion 130
8 An Industrious Revolution 149
9 The Age of Machines 175
10 War and Peace 204
11 Boom and Bust 231