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  • Writer's picturePhil

Coventry's historic lockdowns

Updated: May 1, 2020

As we are currently living under "lockdown" restrictions I am going to have a look at times past when Coventry would have restricted movement to citizens and visitors. I'll be returningn to look at impacts of the bubonic plague on our city but today consider military "lockdowns" of the past and briefly consider the impact of lockdown on our various religious communities at the current time.

Coventry was considered to be one of the four most important English towns during medieval times and was protected by the wall which allowed "lockdown" from outsiders. Construction on the wall began in the mid 1350s. When completed it was over two miles long, eight feet thick and twelve feet high. There were twelve gates allowing access into the city (of which only Swanswell Gate and Cook St Gate survive) and twenty towers along the circumference which roughly relates to the loop of today's ring road.

The gates were closed at night so late arriving visitors would stay overnight at the inns leading up to the gates.

Coventry served as England's capital during two periods of conflict in the 15th Century. Henry IV held parliament here in 1405 and the court of Henry VI resided in Coventry for six years later in that century - including during the sitting of the "Devil's Parliament" - a turning point in the conflict which we now call the "Wars of the Roses". The safety of "lockdowns" afforded by the wall were a major factor in the choice of Coventry as a seat of government in those turbulent times.

The famous saying "sent to Coventry" is also considered to stem from a period of lockdown - or rather lock in! At the time of the English Civil War Coventry was a parliamentary stronghold and royalist prisoners were held here. Soldiers captured at the Battle of Preston were held in St John the Baptist church in Spon Street within the security of the walls. The walls were considered so secure that the prisoners were released during daytime hours but shunned by the people of the city who would not talk to them.

The king himself, Charles I ,was not the first monarch to be denied access into the city. Eventually the wall was destroyed by his son, Charles II, on the restoration of the monarchy and only remnants remain. As and when we return to normality I would recommend Paul Curtis' "Medieval Wall Tour" to anybody the least interested in the subject. Also, my own Gosford St tour covers the site of Gosford St Gate and stories of how royalty had been kept at bay with extreme fortification measures.

A more recent lockdown followed the November 1940 blitz on Coventry. My then 12 year old father and 14 year old aunty having survived the night's intense bombing (which gave rise to the expression "Coventriziert" in the German language meaning "razed to the ground") were sent on an errand to make their way through the city's smouldering ruins, fires, unexploded bombs and general death and destruction. They were to report to relatives in Leamington that the family were all (relatively!) safe and alive. On their return they found that the army had put a cordon around the city with the instructions that nobody was allowed in or out. Despite this they eventually found a way back in.

One of the many casulaties of the bombing was my great aunty's wool shop which stood in Eagle Street. It stood on part of the bomb site which was aquired by Coventry's post war Muslim community for the construction of the City's first Mosque. As with everyone the usual devotees of that community have had to adapt their practices at the present time.

In recent weeks I have been looking at the history of religious buildings and communities in Coventry and shall be posting about them in coming blogs. All religions have been hit be the lockdown. Just in the last couple of weeks we have seen changes in to the traditional ways in which Easter, Passover, Ramadan, and traditional Hindu and Sikh traditions have been celebrated and planned.

One aspect of globalisation is living together and sharing cultures. In Coventry this is simply the natural state of affairs for most people (even as youth visiting houses with a group of mutual friends and some days hear up to five languages being spoken across those houses - we didn't call it multi-culturalism (just the way it was)!

However some less positive aspects of globalisation are now coming home to roost - reliance on supply chains / production based on greed, excessive profits and pushing down labour costs in "markets" for food, medical supplies and energy. We also see the senseless waste of resources going into goods being moved across the world on a huge scale - often from poorer countries with very poor populations catering firstly for export markets whilst more "advanced" countries have let their industries disappear as wealth is concentrated into the hand of global corporations.

On a more positive side we have seen large "field" hospitals spring up in a couple of weeks, homeless being taken off the streets and being sheltered, public and military services being diverted into social services where necessary and production being moved to deal with immediate needs. This all begs the question - why can this not be the norm? There would still be plenty left over for "enterprise" beyond the basics.

Whilst looking at some of the diverse cultures and beliefs across our city it might be worth reflecting on a few fundamentals - from the Hindu Mahatma Ghandi, "Earth has enough for everyone's need but not for everyone's greed", from Christianity "For what shall it profit a manif he shall gain the whole world and lose his own soul", from Buddhism the idea of "oneness" across all nature and creation. Coming from a Socialist tradition I don't personally see any contradiction with those sentiments and the famous quote from Karl Marx "Until now philosphers have only interpreted the world. The point is to change it,,,," That quote was on a large mural at my secondary school - Caludon Castle Comprehensive - don't think it would quite be allowed now!

Perhaps lessons could be learned as and when we come out of the current situation with guarantees of basic levels of income, housing, health care and energy. Enough preaching from me! Time for the daily ramble hour ......

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