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Coventry Family History Society

Member of the Federation of Family History Societies

A Very Brief History of Coventry

Coventry is an ancient City with surviving Royal Charters dating back to 1182.  It is famous for the legend surrounding Earl Leofric and Lady Godiva and for its three spires which have been a prominent landmark for many centuries.

The name Coventry is believed to have derived from the Anglo-Saxon Cofantreo or Cofa's Tree.  Its rise to prosperity began when Leofric, Earl of Mercia, and his wife Godiva founded a Benedictine monastery here in 1043, dedicated to St Mary.  A market was established at the abbey gates and very soon a small town began to develop, which soon acquired its own church, Holy Trinity.  The prosperity of the abbey encouraged the Bishop of Chester to move the diocesan see to Coventry and thus the abbey became a cathedral priory.  Coventry was part of the Earl of Chester's estate but the northern half was acquired by the Bishop by a series of forged charters, thus creating the "Prior's half" and the "Earl's half".  The Earls of Chester had a castle near what is now Earl Street but this seems to have disappeared by the 14th century. Franciscan monks settled in Coventry in the 1230s and Carmelite monks, the Whitefriars, in the 1340s.  The city wall was begun in the 1350s but was not completed until well into the 15th century.  It was demolished in 1662 on the orders of Charles II.

The dominant industry throughout the medieval period was the woolen textile trade with fulling mills along the River Sherbourne and the Radford Brook and many weavers and dyers in the town.  The town's dyers became famous for "Coventry Blue", a cloth highly valued for it's non-fade qualities, and many international wool traders took up residence in the centre of the town.  From the 14th century Coventry was a major centre of the wool trade.  Craft guilds developed to look after the interests of the different trades, but eventually contributed to the demise of the wool trade in the 16th century with their monopolies and restrictive practices.  The prosperity of Coventry then declined, compounded by the destruction of the monasteries brought about by Henry VIII.  The population of Coventry then hardly changed in two centuries, apart from a sharp decline in 1603 when bubonic plague claimed the lives of nearly 500 people in Coventry out of a population of about 6500.

In 1647, during the English civil war, several hundred royalist prisoners, taken at Cannock Chase, were confined in the crypt of the Bablake church, now St John the Baptist.  It is popularly believed that this gave rise to the saying "sent to Coventry".

The 18th century saw an upturn in the city's prosperity brought about largely by the introduction of two major new industries, ribbon weaving and watch making.  The population doubled during the first half of the century and other notable events included the first edition of The Coventry Mercury in 1741, the extension of the canal system into Coventry and the establishment of regular Coventry to London stagecoaches.

At the beginning of the 19th century the city was flourishing but competition from cheap foreign imports was soon to blight the silk ribbon weaving industry, which by the middle of the century was in a desperate state.  Add to this the dreadful overcrowding in parts of the city and life for the common man was hard.  In 1832 there was an outbreak of cholera. By 1860 many weavers were leaving the area, some emigrating.  Watch making continued to prosper for a while but by the end of the century this industry was also in decline.  Coventry's saviour in the second half of the 19th century was the cycle industry pioneered by men such as James Starley.  This industry prospered and with the invention of the internal combustion engine developed into the highly successful motor-cycle, motor car and aircraft industries of the first half of the twentieth century.

Peter Hunnisett

For a very interesting web-site about historic Coventry visit www.historiccoventry.co.uk