Saturday, October 18th 2014
The city we visited today began as an Anglo-Saxon village called Coffan Treo, meaning ‘Coffa’s Tree’. Perhaps the said tree was used as a meeting place and became associated with Coffa because he lived nearby. In the fullness of time, the name evolved into the one by which we know it today, Coventry. As far as I am aware, the ‘o’ in Coventry is pronounced like the ‘o’ in ‘bother’ and ‘hover’ but I also hear people pronounce the name as though the first two syllables rhyme with ‘oven’. I see no reason why they would do this and dismiss it as an affectation.
Coventry is an ancient city and its Cathedral dates from the 14th century. Because of its industrial importance, Coventry suffered badly during the Second World War from bombing. The Cathedral was one of the Luftwaffe’s victims. While Coventry has been largely rebuilt, much remains of its historic past and we saw – and photographed – so much during our visit that I had a hard task selecting which images to include. What follows is merely a sample of what the city has to offer.
On leaving the station, we debated whether to take a cab into town or to walk. In the end we decided to walk. This unfortunately took us through some of the less prepossessing parts of the city, rebuilt after the war. We did, however, see the memorial to James Starley, erected in 1884. The memorial is slightly unusual in having a pair of line drawings depicted on two of its sides. The allegorical female figure on the top is Fame. A profile of James Starley, sadly un-nosed, occupies one side of the column and the drawings represent his inventions in the field of bicycle engineering. The inscription claims that Starley is the “Inventor of the Bicycle”. Alas, no. Various viable designs of bicycle were in existence before Starley began his illustrious career, though it can be said that he created the bicycle manufacturing industry for which Coventry became famous and improved the design of the bicycle with his inventions.
Passing through Bull Yard, I spotted these bollards topped with elephants. This unusual design for the humble bollard is owing to the fact that the elephant is the heraldic beast of Coventry, as we shall see later.
Nearly stands the first of today’s sculptures, The Phoenix by George Wagstaffe. Unveiled in 1962 by the late Princess Margaret, this sculpture symbolises the rebuilding of Coventry from the fiery ruins of the war. (The soft toy is a later and, I assume, temporary addition.)
In the town’s centre stands this imposing and, I think, beautiful equestrian sculpture by Sir William Reid Dick. Now Grade II listed, it represents a myth of Coventry that continues, rightly or wrongly, to be much emphasised in the city still today. The story is well known but here is an outline.
Lady Godiva was the wife of Leofric, Earl of Mercia in the 11th century. She repeatedly tried to persuade her husband to reduce the punitive taxes he imposed on his tenants until, faced with his continuing obduracy, she proposed to ride naked through the streets of Coventry in return for the granting of her wish. The bargain was struck, but the citizens were warned not to look upon Lady Godiva as she passed by. A later addition to the story has it that the blacksmith Tom, called “Peeping Tom” for his misdeed, disobeyed the injunction and covertly spied upon her, whereupon he was struck blind.
The story, which was not attested before the 13th century is clearly a fiction. Attempts have been made to “explain” it as a fanciful elaboration of real events but in the absence of supporting evidence they remain mere speculation. For obvious reasons, the story remains popular and Coventry seems determine to extract full value from it.
In the square is the now (in)famous Godiva Clock. This would be nothing more than a run-of-the-mill public clock but for what happens when the hour is struck. Two doors then open in the façade and a figure emerges from one door to “ride” through the other. The figure is a kitsch representation of Lady Godiva upon her horse but, whereas the bronze sculpture in the square is noble, this effigy is grotesque, resembling an inflatable doll.
Happily, there are nicer things to see not too far away in Priory Row. There was once the Priory of St Mary here but precious little of it remains today. This building was perhaps part of the complex. I say “perhaps” because there seems to be some disagreement between English Heritage, whose Grade I listing dates it to the 17th century, and the city’s plaque which gives it an older date, assigning what are now three separate dwellings, called Lychgate Cottages, to the early 15th century, citing tree-ring data as evidence. Either way, it is a handsome building.
Nearby, and poised above the old Priory sunken gardens which are in the process of restoration, stands this extravagantly styled Blue Coat School. The school was founded in 1714 but this building dates from 1856-7. It is in the Victorian Gothic manner but is styled like a French chateau and its towers take as their foundations those of the original towers of the monastic church. The school itself closed in 1940.
Just the other side of Priory Row is what I consider one of the highlights of our visit. This is Holy Trinity Church. It was originally built in the 13th and 15th centuries, though there are some later additions and restoration work, and the spire, 237 feet (72 m) tall, was raised in 1667 after the original had been blown down. What captured my attention, however, was the interior of the church.
Restoration work on the building was carried out in the 1840s and Gilbert Scott redid the interior in 1855. The result is a building of great beauty and soaring proportions. The decoration is elaborate but tasteful with exquisite attention to detail. The church is not a time capsule, however, and some of its most beautiful features are relatively modern.
One of these is the Great East Window showing Christ in Majesty, accompanied by a vast array of people who are all identified in an information panel nearby. Whatever one’s religious beliefs, of lack thereof, one must recognize the splendour of the conception and the luminous beauty of the finished work.
One of the treasures of the church is its collection of stained glass windows. There are too many to show each separately, so I have made a slide show of some of them. Click the above still to see it.
This second slideshow from Holy Trinity shows examples of church decor, including the alter piece, sections of the ceiling and another stained glass window.
There was a grand piano in the nave just before the choir stalls and a pianist was practising. One of the pieces he played was the first Gymnopédie by Erik Satie which in this ancient and yet modern interior seemed entirely appropriate.
We made our way to the Cathedral but before we quite arrived, I spotted this sculpture. It is by Philip Bentham and was unveiled in 1966. On the base is the following inscription:
THIS BOY HAS NO NAME
BUT REPRESENTS ALL BOYS OF
ALL TIME WHO ARE PROUD TO
BELONG HERE REACHING OUT AS
ALWAYS FROM ROUGH SPUN TO CLOSE
WEAVE FOR FAMILY AND FOR CITY
In harmony with this, the boy wears one shoe and has one foot bare, has one sleeve rolled up and one fastened with a cuff-link and holds a scroll in one hand while in the other a spanner, resting on a model of a factory.
Across the road is Coventry Cathedral or perhaps I should say Coventry Cathedrals (plural) because we have both the third and most recent one (shown in part above) and the remains of the second. Starting with the above, it was designed by Sir Basil Spence, which may be why it looks more like a power station than a church. It was built between 1951 and 1962 and is dedicated, as were the preceding two, to St Michael. The one relieving feature on the blocky exterior is the sculpture by Jacob Epstein.
This huge and powerful sculpture was made by Jacob Epstein shortly before his death. It shows the martial angel St Michael triumphing over the Devil who lies subdued before him with hands and feet bound with chains. This represents the Day of Judgement and the much anticipated final triumph of Good over Evil.
This is not the only work by Epstein on this theme. I have seen several other versions of St Michael triumphing over the Devil though whether this was a favourite theme of the sculptor or he did it merely because he was commissioned to do so, I do not know. I admire the sculpture while disliking the theme, though the result is highly dramatic.
We could have visited the new Cathedral and perhaps we will another time. You have to pay £6 each for admission which, though not exorbitant, nonetheless gives one pause.
The new Cathedral has been built beside the old one and is attached to it by a tall but simple arch which, though modern, manages to look as if it is part of the ruin. The old Cathedral, of course, can be visited free of charge.
Once inside I was struck by the vast size of the building. This impression is partly caused by the emptiness of it, of course. If it were furnished and roofed and the side aisles were still in place, the size might be less striking.
What was to become Coventry’s Cathedral in 1918 was built in 1300 as a parish church and survived into the 20th century when an air raid on November 14th 1940 destroyed it almost completely, though the tower and spire survived. (There are a number of other cases where this apparently counterintuitive situation – destruction of the body of the church and survival of the spire – has occurred including, for example, St Mary’s Church, Islington.)
The tower was completed in 1374 and the spire was added in 1433, the total height being 295 feet (90 m). It was built on the ground, not in the body of the church as is most common, but this ground, near a quarry, provided a poor foundation, leading to deterioration of the tower over the centuries, and requiring a full restoration in 1855. A peculiarity of the design is that the tower is not situated in the centre of the west façade, as might be expected, but is offset towards the south. It was greatly admired by such figures as Ruskin and Christopher Wren who described it as a masterpiece in the art of Gothic building.
Within this torn precinct stands Ecce Homo, a sculpture by Jacob Epstein. The sculptor worked on it between 1934 and 1935 and, as you might expect. when first exhibited, it met with controversy. It is designed to be seen from the front and shows the influence of Toltec art. Epstein himself wrote of this work as follows:
I wished to make in “Ecce Homo” a symbol of a man, bound, crowned with thorns and facing with a relentless and overmastering gaze of pity and prescience on our unhappy world. Because of the hardness of the material I treated the work in a large way, with a juxtaposition of flat planes, always with a view to retaining the impression of the original work.
We continued are explorations for a while in the streets around the Cathedral. Here there are a number of historic buildings that demand more attention than we could afford in the time available.
One such attention grabber was a golden angel with its body and wings framing a large clock. We soon discovered that this belonged to the Council House.
The Council House (Grade II listed) is a striking and, I think, unique building. Dating from the period of the First World War (it was built between 1913 and 1917) it is designed in the Elizabethan manner in red sandstone and decorated with heraldic figures.
Above the door are heraldic devices including (on the lintel) a golden elephant. Of the three human figures, the top one is allegorical and labelled Justitia (Justice), while the others are that famous pair, Leofric and Godiva, the latter clothed this time.
At the base of each of a pair of columns of heraldic symbols, stalks a big cat, though I am not sure of its species. It probably refers to the cat on Coventry’s coat of arms.
On the entrance gate appears a fine representation of the coat of arms of Coventry. In the centre of the shield is the golden elephant that symbolises Coventry and on top a feline animal said to be a wildcat. The accompanying motto (not visible here) is the puzzling Camera Principis, usually translated as “The Prince’s Chamber”. It is thought that this refers to Edward, the Black Prince, who owned the nearby Manor of Cheylesmore. You will find more information on the coat of arms here.
Our last investigatory visit was to Ford’s Hospital, a picturesque and historic almshouse. The establishment was endowed by will of William Ford in 1509 though some additional work was done in 1517 by William Pisford. Sadly, this beautiful building was badly damaged in the air raid that destroyed the Cathedral but not too badly to be rebuilt using the original timbers in 1951-3. Such careful attention has earned it a Grade I listing.
The establishment is also known as Greyfriar’s Hospital, not because of any religious connections, but because it resides in Greyfriars Lane. Inside the building is a fine courtyard.
Coventry is an ancient city which, despite the series of bombing raids that it suffered, still retains much that is of both historic and aesthetic interest. As usual, our visit merely dipped into its treasures without exhausting them. While the fanciful story of Lady Godiva’s naked ride add a touch of amusement, Coventry has far more than this to recommend it to the visitor.