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Cathedrals, A Castle, Raiders and a Minster - Debunking History!

Although most of my recent efforts have been focused on researching Coventry’s political history (which will be the focus of upcoming posts) I thought that it was worth reflecting on some points raised during George Demidowicz’s presentation at last night’s Coventry Society meeting. George spoke about the architectural history of the old (St Michael’s) cathedral and described some of the work he had been involved in during excavations of the site.


The Coventry Society is about to enter its fiftieth year with plans ahead for commemorative events. Anybody interested in local history should join the society – it provides excellent value and informative speakers at regular meetings and also acts as a campaigning group in the protection and promotion of local heritage. To find out more visit their site at https://www.coventrysociety.org.uk/


This week sees the seventy ninth anniversary of the Coventry blitz of November 1940 which saw the destruction of the cathedral. It was an event that impacted heavily on the city as a whole – a scroll down through my blog posts to a year ago gives my description of stories passed down through my family of the aftermath. George’s speech touched on many aspects of Coventry life over the centuries which I have discussed on here and has also shown that some assumptions concerning the city’s history need to be questioned.


George began his speech by showing various major developments (and outline plans) of the cathedral over the centuries and suggested that the building started life as a 12th century chapel within the grounds of the old castle on the Earl’s side of the city. It was suggested that further development of the site saw the redrawing of boundaries between the Earl and Prior’s parts of the city centre to accommodate the church and its grounds.

There are parts of a redevelopment from around 1300 still present in the walls of more recent crypts – including original external walls and window sills hidden below the cathedral floor and a walk around the cathedral shows how older walls have been incorporated into newer developments and expansions over the years. Much of this is reported in George’s book “St Michael’s Coventry – The Rise and Fall of the Old Cathedral” available in the cathedral bookshop and online (another one on my list!).


I have posted much on here about the history of Caludon Castle and the resident Berkeley family (particularly descriptions of great cultural activities during the renaissance period). George showed images of the monuments to Lady Katherine Berkeley and her son Thomas which were destroyed during the 1940s raids. Their burials are at the North East end of the Draper’s Chapel in the Cathedral. It is strongly believed that Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” was commissioned for the wedding of Thomas Berkeley and Elizabeth Carey. Both were godchildren to Queen Elizabeth I and both had family connections to literary greats of the time. The more I have looked into this the more I believe the link to the play to be accurate.


During a redevelopment of Caludon the Berkeleys resided at Hales’ House (the former Whitefriars Monestery taken over by John Hales at the dissolution of the monesteries). Hales also took ownership of the Cathedral Church of St Mary’s (Coventry’s very first Cathedral – St Michael’s not becoming a cathedral until 1918) and the associated priory as well as St John’s Hospital (which went on to house King Henry VIII School in what is now known as Hales Street).


The Hales family crypt is another burial place for prominent Coventry residents below St Michael’s.


During the discussion George mentioned the possibility that there was an Anglo-Saxon minster church on the site of Holy Trinity.


One version of early Coventry history is that the settlement grew up around St Osborg's Nunnery (around the Hill Top area). The story goes that this establishment was overrun and destroyed by Scandanavian raiders (under the ultimate command of Cnut (King Canute). On converting to Christianity Canute is said to have been involved in the founding of another religious establishment on the site with the backing of Leofric and Godiva. Their chapel was replaced by the much larger St Mary’s Cathedral (stonework would have been started just a few years after the time of the building of the original chapel at the neighbouring castle site which went on to include St Michael’s).


I questioned how the idea of the Minster church would have fitted with the “history” outlined above. George’s answer was that it “totally debunks” the story. Another reminder that in the absence of contemporary records that history can be rewritten – a sort of ancient version of “false news”! All of this is very worthy of more investigation – ideally with the unearthing of actual contemporary accounts from somewhere (don’t know where don’t know when......).


George went on to “debunk” another false story – that some of the stained glass which had been removed from the old cathedral for its own protection had found its way to Iceland after being sold by an unscrupulous London dealer. George’s own examination of the traceries of St Michaels windows showed that the glass which went to be used in an Icelandic church just didn’t fit (and turned out to be poor standard Victorian glazing anyway!). As George said in his speech – when considering history, “buyer beware”!

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