Whilst it is known that there was a Roman fort in the Baginton area to the south of the city, the history of Coventry city really begins in 1043 when Leofric the Earl of Mercia and his wife, Lady Godiva, founded the Benedictine Abbey on what was the site of a nunnery sacked by the Danes in 1011, this was adjacent to what is now the site of Coventry cathedral. (NB. Recent research is now leading some historians to believe the abbey could have been established some twenty years earlier in 1022.)
The famous ride on horseback through the streets of Coventry by the naked Lady Godiva probably took place around the same time. She did it as part of a bargain to ensure that her husband lowered the taxes that the poor of the city were struggling to pay. Today the event is commemorated annually by a procession through the city centre.
Following the founding of the abbey a weekly market was established in the town, which also marked the beginning of Coventry’s trade in wool. On the back of the wealth created by the wool trade, 1102 saw the Bishop of Chester create a ‘See’ at Coventry and the establishment of its first cathedral.
By 1150 there were at least twelve textile mills in the town and the trade in woollen textiles was to create and thereby prosperity and growth for the city into the future. Within three hundred years that growth was allowing wool merchants to build large timber framed houses with cellars. Also, by this time Coventry had become the fourth most important city in the country, due to the fantastic wealth generated by its trade in fleeces from Midlands’ sheep. The wool merchants expanded their operations and began trading internationally, further building on the reputation of the town’s merchandise.
Happy shopping in Coventry
Not only was Coventry involved in trading fleeces and woollen textiles, but it also became famous for its dyes and in particular a non-fading cloth dye known as ‘Coventry Blue’. It is from the town’s dyes that the term ‘true blue’ originates – meaning a cloth dyed blue that stays true and will not fade. In 1345 the merchants had become powerful enough to petition for – and were granted – a charter allowing them to elect a Mayor to administer the town’s affairs. By the end of the 14th century Coventry had established itself as the most important town in England for wool production and trade.
In the 16th century the wool trade in Coventry began to decline, fortunately for Coventry other trades were starting to rise to prominence in the city that allowed the prosperity and growth of the town to continue. These trades included cap making and silk weaving, using locally produced silk. During the English Civil war the city was a Parliamentarian strong-hold, it remained in the hands of Cromwell’s men for the duration of the war and even refused entry to King Charles I and his army in 1642. However, in 1662 King Charles II ordered the demolition of the city walls, built in the late 14th century with ‘wool money’, undoubtedly an act of revenge for his ancestor’s humiliation.
By the late 17th century, as they became more fashionable, Coventry started to become a noted city for making watches and clocks. Some 200 years later as many as 2000 people were employed as watchmakers, but due to cheaper imports from America the trade started to decline at that time. However, the engineering skills learned and used in clock and watch-making became transferable ones into new mechanical trades and industries that were then beginning to grow. Starting as the Coventry Sewing Machine Company in 1863 it evolved into Swift Cycles in 1896 and capitalised on the ‘new fashion’ for bicycling.
The shopping continues…
Coventry became somewhat of a capital for cycle production, with the Premier Cycle Company being the largest cycle producing company in the world at one point, producing 20,000 bicycles a year. In turn these workers in the bicycle industry went on to become the engineers and innovators in the motor bike and motor car industries, which were starting up at around the same time. Indeed 1896 saw the registration of the Daimler Motor Company of Coventry, the first of some 120 motor car firms established in the city over the next thirty years or so. The production of cars in Coventry peaked in the late 1950s and 1960s, with names such as: Hillman, Triumph, Standard and Jaguar cars being built in the city.
During World War I some of the production facilities of the motor industry were converted to armaments and munitions production. With the outbreak of World War II, the city again became a centre for the production of military vehicles, armaments and munitions. It was subsequently heavily bombed – November 1940 being referred to as the Coventry Blitz. The destruction of the cathedral at this time is well known. The firestorm arising from the bombing also destroyed many other historic buildings in the city as well as 43,000 homes. The post-war rebuilding programme, known as the Gibson Plan, culminated in 1962 with the opening of the new Coventry Cathedral.