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The Monks, The Sheep and The Pilgrims

In my last post I looked at some aspects of Coventry's coal mining and motor industries. Today I move on to retail and tourism - two sectors which would hope for a boost through our upcoming "City of Culture" status but which have been hit hard by the recent lockdown and retrictions on trading practices.


Tourism is not new to Coventry. There are accounts of "crushes of pilgrims" who would visit the city's first (of three) cathedrals - St Mary's which was destroyed alongside the associated Benedictine Priory at the dissolution of the monastries under King Henry VIII. It was the only cathedral in England to be destroyed under that regime.


The pilgrims would visit in the hope of cures of ailments, good fortune and salvation rubbing off on the from miracles associated with "saintly" relics kept on the site. These included the jawbone of an ass purportedly the bone used by Cain to kill his brother Abel in the Bible story of the first ever case of murder.


Another of the relics was the head of St Osburg, encased in silver. Osburg is believed to have been the Abbess of an Anglo-Saxon nunnery on the site which she founded in the 7th century and which was believed to be destroyed during a viking eaid during the reign of Canute in the early 11th century. Canute's conversion to Christianity saw him attempting to atone for his earlier works which contributed to the establishment of Godiva and Leofric's church on the site around the mid 1020s - eventually consecrated in 1043 which is considered to be the "birth" date of our city.


Below is a reference to St Osburgs’s tomb within the priory church quoted from https://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/warks/vol2/pp52-59#p3 :


"Houses of Benedictine monks: Priory of Coventry:

There was another remarkable gathering in the priory during Prior Crosby's term of office. A requisition from the clergy of the diocese was presented to Bishop Burghill in 1410, asking that the memory of St. Osburg, the virgin saint of the seventh century, whose nunnery had stood upon the same site as the priory, and in whose honour the priory was jointly dedicated, might be specially observed. It was claimed that many weak and infirm people visiting her tomb within the priory church had recovered. Whereupon the bishop summoned a synod of clergy of the archdeaconry of Coventry to be held in the priory church on 13 October of that year, at which it was determined that henceforth her birthday should be solemnized as a double festival yearly throughout the archdeaconry. "



Other relics at the site were the arm of St Augustine, bishop of Hippo and an

Image (i.e. staue) of the Virgin Mary decorated with a chain embedded with precious jewels bequeathed by Godiva. Godiva was said to have decorated the church with adornments made of precious metals and jewels and endowed the site with more on her death.


Godiva died just after the Norman invasion and her church eventually fell into the hands of the Bishops of Chester (with the Earls of Chester holding sway over Leofric's former Mercian lands). Given the wealth associated with the site it shouldn't be a suprise that Bishop Robert de Limesey moved his seat from Chester to Coventry converting the church into a cathedral and relegating the associated abbey to the status of a priory. This was the beginning of long running disputes between the bishops and the monks (not always regarding heavenly matters!). It was also the prompt for building work to begin on one of England's largest and most impressive Cathedral structures.


Coventry was divided between the "Earl's half" and the "Prior's half" - much of the land and properties in the Prior's half being owned by the church or priory. This included agricultural land which was usually farmed by tenants. The Cistercian Order at Coombe and Stonleigh Abbies, although an offshoot of the Benedictines, considered themselves less "worldly" and tended to farm their own lands having a reputation as able sheep farmers. The wool from their Warwickshire sheep was much sought after and played a big part in the establishment of a market for luxury goods linked to the Coventry weaving industry and the export of local material around the country and beyond (Coventry cloth being recognised and valued by merchants across Europe).


Market places became established close to the Cathedral and Priory - one controlled by that estabishment immediately outside its main gates - around modern day Trinity Street and the Earl's market just across at Cross Cheaping. "Cheaping" is an ancient word meaning "market place" and Coventry's market remained on the site into the twentieth century.


The markets contributed to Coventry's position as one of England's most important medieval towns and the economy centred around the Cathedral and Priory which regularly attracted royal visits across its five centuries of existence. The pilgrims and marketgoers ensured that Coventry thrived and grew financially and the city's economy took a hard hit at the dissolution of the monastries. There are displays of "pilgrim badges" at the Herbert Art Gallery and Museum. These are the medieval equivalent of tourist "tat" - souveniers to show that a pilgrim had visited a site.


A more recent point of interest regarding Coventry's retail history is the development of the local Co-operative movement. I shall be covering this in my next blog post.


I'll be looking at themes mentioned in this post during my guided walk "The Bard, the Blitz and the Tudors" on both Saturday (August1st) and Sunday (August 2nd) in the City Centre this weekend. Groups are limited to five for social distancing but there are still places available on both days, Visit my website here for details and to book.






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