Blog Post

Coventry: Ancient City, Contemporary Times

On November 14th, I had the pleasure of visiting Coventry, United Kingdom. I knew little about this town until the ruins of the former Cathedral Church of St. Michael were listed on the 2012 World Monuments Watch.

Coventry has had three cathedrals in the past 1,000 years: the twelfth-century Priory Church of St. Mary, the fourteenth-century Parish Church Cathedral of St. Michael, and the twentieth-century Coventry Cathedral, also dedicated to St. Michael. The earliest church is the Benedictine Priory of St. Mary, founded by Leofric, Earl of Mercia, and his wife Lady Godiva in 1042 and dissolved in the sixteenth century during the Dissolution of the Monasteries under Henry VIII. Only the excavated ruins remain.

The second, and perhaps most well known, is St. Michael’s, a fourteenth-century Gothic cathedral. While many destroyed churches in the United Kingdom were the outcome of the dissolution in 1539, the ruins of St. Michael’s are unique because they represent the devastation of modern warfare, when the city of Coventry was bombed by the Luftwaffe during World War II. Having been hit with incendiary devices, only the ruined shell of the cathedral remains.

The third church is the new St. Michael’s Cathedral, designed by Basil Spence and consecrated in 1962. Rather than rebuilding the old cathedral after the bombing, Spence believed that the ruins should remain as they are, as a symbol for reflection and remembrance, while the new cathedral would be built alongside it. Together, they act as one living cathedral as visitors move from the ruins, through the canopy that unites them, and into the modern church of red sandstone. Spence commissioned the baptistery window of stained glass by John Piper and Patrick Reyntiens, a bronze sculpture of St. Michael by Jacob Epstein, and the tapestry behind the main altar by Graham Sutherland.

During my day in Coventry, I visited Spon Street, a shopping district occupying a range of renovated historic buildings. Many of them are not original to the street, having been rebuilt there after being saved from demolition. While the practice leaving a building in situ is preferred, I was impressed by the way these Tudor buildings that played an important role in the prosperity of Coventry could still do so in contemporary times.

At dusk, a small group of WMF Britain trustees and members, Lincoln University’s conservation team, and other interested professionals met at the nave of the new cathedral for a walking tour led by George Demidovich, a retired conservation officer, author, and member of Coventry Cathedral’s Fabric Advisory Committee. Demidovich, who aided in the excavation of the priory, provided invaluable information about this important church, which was our first stop on the tour. We later moved on to the old cathedral ruins, which were lit from below, showing the remarkable amount of detail of the structure. The ruins open up to the sky, clear and crisp and dotted with stars.

That night marked the 71st anniversary of the bombing of the church. To commemorate the event, more than 200 people gathered in the nave of the new cathedral as Jonathan Foyle, Chief Executive of World Monuments Fund Britain, and David Porter, the cathedral’s Canon for Reconciliation, hosted an evening entitled “Exploring the Past, Embracing the Future.” 2012 will mark the cathedral’s Golden Jubilee, and the community is using this milestone to commence new initiatives to protect the ruins. A fundraising campaign of £1 million was launched to reinvent the ruins of Coventry Cathedral by opening three underground crypts, displaying pieces of stained glass created by medieval glazier John Thornton, and making urgent repairs, such as stabilizing and fixing a crack in the ancient sandstone walls.

Later that night, a small group gathered for dinner at St. Mary’s Guildhall, one of the most remarkable surviving medieval guildhalls in England. The Great Hall features medieval stained glass, an intricately carved ceiling, and the “Coventry Tapestry,” which dominates the north wall, where it has hung for the past 500 years. Woven at the end of the fifteenth century, the tapestry portrays, around the central figure of the Virgin Mary, members of the royal court, angels, saints, and apostles.

Similar to my experience on Spon Street, I found that the excavated remains of the priory, the ruins of St. Michael, and the post-war cathedral coexist, displaying the incredible range of history that Coventry represents in such a small area. Coventry has transformed itself from a medieval hub of commerce, a seat of power in the reign of Henry VI, an industrial city, then a post-war city of reflection and inspiration, and now a university city attracting students from around the world. It was an honor to visit the city on such a symbolic day and to witness the launch of new initiatives to preserve Coventry’s history in the future.