History of Coventry

Two of Coventry's three spires
Two of Coventry's three spires


Early history

Coventry is traditionally believed to have been established in the year 1043 with the founding of a Benedictine Abbey by Leofric, Earl of Mercia and his wife Lady Godiva. Current evidence suggests that this abbey was probably in existence by 1022, therefore Leofric and Godiva most likely endowed it around 1043. In time, a market was established at the abbey gates and the settlement expanded.

By the 13th century Coventry had become a centre of many textile trades, especially those related to wool. Coventry's prosperity rested largely on the dyers who produced "Coventry blue" cloth, which was highly sought after across Europe due to its non-fading qualities.

Due to its textile trade, by the 14th century and throughout the medieval period, Coventry was the fourth largest city in England, with a population of around 10,000, only Norwich, Bristol and London were larger.

Due to its commercial and strategic importance, in 1355 construction began on city walls. The walls were completed in around 1400 and were an impressive feature, they measured nearly 2 1/2 miles (4km) around and consisted of two red sandstone walls infilled with rubble 9 feet (3 metres) thick, with five main getehouses where roads entered the city. With its walls, Coventry was described as being the best defended city in England outside London.

On several occasions Coventry briefly served as the "second capital" of England. firstly in 1404 King Henry IV summoned parliament in Coventry, he needed money to fight rebellion and wealthy cities such as Coventry lent it to him. During the Wars of the Roses the Royal Court was moved to Coventry by Margaret of Anjou the wife of Henry VI. On several occasions between 1456 and 1459 parliament was held in Coventry, which for a while served as the effective seat of government. This came to an end in 1461 when Edward IV was installed on the throne.

Due to its importance, in 1345 Coventry was granted a city charter by King Edward III, and in 1451 King Henry VI granted Coventry a charter, which made Coventry a county in itself, a status it retained until 1842, when it reverted to being a part of Warwickshire. During the county period it was known as the County of the City of Coventry. The original city hall is still known as "County Hall" as a relic of this period.

In the 16th century due to the restrictive practices and monopolies of the trade guilds, the cloth trade declined and the city fell into hard times.

Civil War and aftermath

Swanswell gate, one of the few surviving fragments of Coventry's city walls
Swanswell gate, one of the few surviving fragments of Coventry's city walls

During the English Civil War Coventry became a stronghold of the Parliamentarian forces. On several occasions Coventry was attacked by Royalists, but on each occasion they were unable to breach the city walls.

Coventry was used to house Royalist prisoners. It is believed that the phrase "sent to Coventry" grew out of the hostile attitude of residents of the city to either the troops billeted there or the Royalist prisoners held there in St. John's church, for whom being "sent to Coventry" was quite an ordeal.

In 1662, after the restoration of the monarchy, in revenge for the support Coventry gave to the Parliamentarians during the Civil War the city walls were demolished on the orders of King Charles II. Now only a few short sections survive.


In the 18th century Coventry became home to a number of French immigrants, who brought with them silk and ribbon weaving skills, which became the basis of Coventry's economy. Coventry began to recover, and again became a major centre of a number of clothing trades.

During the 19th century Coventry became a centre of a number of industries, including watch and clock making, manufacture of sewing machines, and from the 1880s onwards bicycle manufacture, which was pioneered by James Starley. Due to this industrialisation Coventry's population grew rapidly.

In fact, one of the first modern bicycles was invented in Coventry. The Starley Safety Bicycle invented by John Kemp Starley and produced by Rover in 1885, was the first bicycle to include modern features such as a chain driven rear wheel with equal-sized wheels on the front and rear. Prior to this, most bicycles had been of the Penny-farthing design.

By the 1890s the cycle trade was booming and Coventry had developed the largest bicycle industry in the world. 248 cycle manufacturers were based in Coventry, and the industry employed nearly 40,000 workers.

20th century

By the 1930s bicycle making had evolved into motor manufacture, and Coventry had become a centre of the British motor industry, Jaguar, Rover and Rootes being just three of many famous British manufacturers to be based in the area. The city remained prosperous and largely immune to the economic slump of that decade. In fact during the 1930s the population of Coventry grew by 90,000.

As late as the 1920s, Coventry was being described as "The best preserved Mediaeval City in England". However the narrow medieval streets proved ill suited to modern motor traffic, and during the 1930s many old streets were cleared to make way for wider roads.

On the 25 August 1939, Coventry was the scene of an early mainland bomb attack by the IRA. At 2.30 in the afternoon, the bomb exploded inside the satchel of a tradesman's bicycle which had been left outside a shop on Broadgate. The explosion killed five people, injured 100 more and caused extensive damage to shops in the area. Five IRA members were put on trial for murder and two were hanged in February 1940, although the identity of the man who rode the bicycle to the Broadgate and planted the bomb was never discovered. The bomb plotters had been operating out of a house at 25 Clara Street. Coming nine days before the outbreak of World War II, the IRA bombing was an omen of what was to about to happen in the City at hands of the German Luftwaffe.

Coventry's darkest hour came during World War II when Adolf Hitler singled out Coventry for heavy bombing raids, due to the fact that it was a major industrial centre providing the manufacture of aeroplanes, tanks, engines and armament. Large areas of the city were destroyed in a massive German bombing raid on November 14, 1940.

568 people were killed, 4,330 homes were destroyed and thousands more damaged in the attack which destroyed most of the city centre and the city's medieval cathedral. Industry was also hit hard with 75% of factories being damaged although war production was only briefly disrupted with much of it being continued in shadow factories around the city and further afield.

The ruins of Coventry Cathedral
The ruins of Coventry Cathedral

The devastation was so great that the word Koventrieren -- to "Coventrate" or devastate by aerial bombing -- entered the German and English languages. In response, the Royal Air Force intensified the carpet bombings against German towns.

On the 8th April 1941 Coventry was hit by another massive air raid which brought the total dead to 1,236 with 1,746 injured.

A common myth surrounding the bombing is that Coventry was deliberately sacrificed in order to prevent the Germans knowing that Enigma cipher machine messages were being read by British codebreakers. This has been proven untrue — Winston Churchill was aware that a heavy raid was to take place, but it was not known where, and was expected to be in London.


After the war, the city was extensively rebuilt. The new city centre built in the 1950s was designed by young town planner Donald Gibson and included one of Europe's first traffic free shopping precincts (in 1946 the first one was realized in Rotterdam, the idea of which was copied throughout the world.) A new modern cathedral was also built. The rebuilt Coventry Cathedral was opened in 1962 next to the ruins of the old cathedral. It was designed by Basil Spence and contains the tapestry, "Christ in Majesty" by Graham Sutherland and the bronze statue of St. Michael and the Devil by Jacob Epstein.

The city was twinned with Dresden, which had suffered an even more devastating bombing attack by the Royal Air Force later in the war, and groups from both cities were involved in demonstrations of post-war reconciliation. Today Coventry has a strong partnership with Dresden and is deeply supported by the populace in both cities; representing the entire English people, Coventry took part on the reconstruction of the Frauenkirche in Dresden by manufacturing a copy of the roof cross in 2003.

The population of the city peaked in the late 1960s at around 335,000. However during the 1970s and 1980s the city fell into recession with factory closures and high unemployment, the population of Coventry declining by around 10% during this time. In the early 1980s a hit record was made about Coventry called "Ghost Town" by a local band called The Specials, which summed up the grim economic situation in the city.

In recent years Coventry has begun to recover, with new high tech industries locating in the city. The city centre has also undergone further re-generation to bring it up to date.

Historic population

  • 16,000 (1801)
  • 62,000 (1901)
  • 220,000 (1945)
  • 335,238 (1971)
  • 300,800 (2001)

World War II city bombing a survivor
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