A Trio of Cathedrals
Photos by Rob Tysall, Tysall’s Photography.
Ann Evans tells us about her home city of Coventry and its three cathedrals.
Most people are aware that the City of Coventry has two cathedrals: the ruins of the old cathedral – the medieval parish church of St Michaels, destroyed during the Blitz of November 14th 1940; and the awe inspiring new cathedral, designed by Sir Basil Spence and consecrated in 1962.
Long before these came into existence, however, there was St Mary’s Priory and Cathedral which would have stood in the same vicinity. Some of its excavated stonework and pillars are on view to the public nearby. More of the excavated Priory are locked away in what was the Priory Visitors’ Centre – which closed in May 2019 due to lack of funding. A tragic – and unbelievable loss to the city, particularly as Coventry won the bid to become UK City of Culture 2021.
Coventry is actually the only city in the country to have three cathedrals and from 2021 – providing Covid-19 permits, Coventry will be having more visitors than ever. It’s sad that they won’t be able to explore the Priory ruins in more depth particularly as the Priory is linked to the city’s most famous lady – Lady Godiva.
St Mary’s Priory was founded in the 11th century by Earl Leofric and his wife, Godiva, (Godgifu, the Anglo Saxon meaning – Gift of God). It was consecrated in 1043. Some historians believe it may already have been in existence, and that Leofric and Godiva merely endowed it with their wealth to ensure its survival and prosperity.
The cathedral of St Mary would have been an immense 425 feet long, although there are no records in existence now showing its exact dimensions or appearance. Comparisons are made between St Mary’s and Lichfield cathedral, its sister church built around the same time. St Mary’s is also believed to be the burial place of Lord Leofric in 1057.
The Priory and Cathedral of St Mary stood for 400 years until King Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries in the mid-16th century. It was the only cathedral to be demolished by Henry VIII during the Reformation. Masonry and other items were taken and used elsewhere, but some parts survived such as the north-west tower. which was used as a house until the charity school of Blue Coats was built there in 1856. Some remains of the 11th century cathedral were discovered during the construction of the school.
In 1960 an excavation of the site made more discoveries, and in 1999 the Coventry Archaeological Team and Channel 4’s ‘Time Team’ programme began an excavation of the site. The 4-day dig plus another visit by the ‘Time Team’ in 2001 and the work since by Coventry Archaeology and Northamptonshire Archaeology have unearthed fascinating artefacts from those Medieval times.
Amongst its notable discoveries was a male skeleton. Forensics showed this to be of a middle aged, overweight, diabetic man, thought to have been a Prior of St Mary’s. It also discovered remnants of a 14th century wall painting and a 14th century tiled floor.
The Priory Visitors’ Centre, built above the Undercroft of the Priory, was run as a social enterprise venture, providing for a few years a wonderful opportunity for people to see the amazingly preserved remains of Coventry’s first cathedral and to learn of its history.
While the Priory Visitors’ Centre has been closed this past year, there is still much to see and admire around these ancient parts of Coventry and we can still walk in the footsteps of the city’s medieval ancestors.
10 Fascinating Coventry Cathedral facts.
- Shortly after the Blitz which destroyed the old cathedral, Jock Forbes, the cathedral stonemason noticed that two charred medieval roof timbers had fallen in the shape of a cross. They were later placed on an altar of rubble with the words ‘Father Forgive’ inscribed on the Sanctuary Wall.
- Incredibly, the towering spire of the old cathedral of St Michael’s survived the Blitz. It stands at 295 feet tall.
- St Michael’s Church (the old cathedral) built between the 13th and 14th centuries was elevated to cathedral status in 1918. The city had been without a cathedral for almost 400 years.
- On the night of November 14th 1940, 450 German bombers dropped 500 tons of high explosives, 30,000 incendiaries, 50 land mines and 20 oil mines on Coventry. Many thousands of homes and factories were destroyed or damaged. 554 men, women and children died that night, 865 were injured.
- The day after the Blitz, the cathedral provost Richard T Howard declared that a new cathedral would be built beside the ruins of the old. Her Majesty the Queen attended its consecration in 1962.
- In 1950 a competition was held, open to any architect from the British Commonwealth, to submit a design for the new cathedral. This was won by Sir Basil Spence. His unorthodox design however, has created a great deal of controversy over the years.
- The new cathedral, like the old, is called St Michaels.
- The tapestry of ‘Christ in Glory’, by Graham Sutherland, is the largest tapestry in the world made in one piece. It measures 75 x 38ft (23 x 11m) and weighs just over a tonne. It was made in France by 12 women and one foreman.
- The imposing bronze statue of St Michael and the Devil was sculpted by Sir Jacob Epstein. He sadly died in 1959, never seeing his work mounted on the cathedral walls a year later.
- The opening ceremony of the consecration of the new cathedral, saw the premiere performance of Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem.
Discover more about Coventry’s three cathedrals at https://www.historiccoventry.co.uk
Writer Ann Evans has hardback copies of her illustrated book A Children’s History of Coventry. Priced £4.99 + P & P. Contact Ann to arrange for a signed copy. www.annevansbooks.co.uk)