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  • Writer's picturePhil

The Winter Queen, the Weavers and the Workhouse

Walking back from town I broke my journey sitting on a bench on Binley Road backing on to the wall of the Stoke Park Estate. This is just a stone's throw away from the ancient city boundary marker Jabet's Ash. The tree featured in my last blog post "The Silence, the Gunpowder and the Scots" part of which covered the role played by King James I's daughter Princess Elizabeth in the gunpowder plot.

The princess was resident at Coombe Abbey at the time and would return there in later life. As a young girl it seemed that Elizabeth enjoyed her time at Coombe. She had several companions to keep her company and she had a big say in her surroundings. The princess had her own farm at Coombe - she called it a "fairy farm" as it contained breeds of miniature cattle and sheep. She also persuaded Lord Harrington to build a thatched cottage on an island in a lake on the estate and to employ and house a poor widow and her children to look after the wild birds there.

The intention of the gunpowder plotters was to kidnap Princess Elizabeth and to blow up her father the king along with his parliament. Both parts of their plans failed. The princess was taken into Coventry to the protection of Palace Yard (which was on a site opposite the present day Council House and guarded by a party including the mayor who were armed with weapons borrowed from the armoury which was housed in St Mary's guildhall.

Elizabeth became more staunch in the protestant beliefs that had been encouraged at Coombe through the guardianship of the Harrington family. The attempts to murder her father and to kidnap her had a profound affect on her future life. She is quoted as having said "What a queen should I have been by these means? I had rather have been with my royal father in Parliament House than wear his crown on such conditions".

Elizabeth did go onto became a queen however - although not of her native country. She was third in line (after her brothers Henry and Charles) to reign over England and Scotland and was sought after by royal families across Europe as desirable marriage material. Several offers were advanced and she eventually married Frederick V, Elector Palatine (the hereditary ruler over several of the Germanic lands). As a Calvinist and staunch protestant Frederick was considered to be a more acceptable match. They were married just weeks before the untimely and sudden death of her brother Henry in 1613.

On 4th November 1619 Frederick and Elizabeth were crowned King and Queen of Bohemia against a backdrop of religious and political strife. Their reign was short lived ending at the "Battle of the White Mountain" just outside Prague in November 1620, lending Elizabeth the name of "Winter Queen".

Coombe was eventually sold by Lucy Bedford (Lord Harrington's daughter) to Lady Elizabeth Craven, widow of the "tycoon" Sir William Craven who had made his fortune through trading in cloth and money lending on a huge scale. The estate would remain with the family well into the 20th century. Sir William and Lady Elizabeth Craven's son (also William) inherited the estate and was to become the first Earl of Craven. This younger William went on to offer his support to (the then overthrown and exiled) King and Queen of Bohemia and to fight for the protestant cause in Europe. William was wounded on the battlefield shortly before the death of Frederick (of plague) in 1632.

The "Winter Queen" Elizabeth was later to return to Coombe under its new ownership amid rumours of a relationship with William, Earl of Craven who had become a benefactor to her. To read the fuller story I would recommend Derek Winterbottom's "Coombe Abbey, A History through Ten Centuries".

Getting back to sitting on the bench facing Binley Road - the site of another Craven connection. Horse races were held on the course here between 1834 and 1849. One of the more auspicious races to be held here was the Craven Stakes. This race was sponsored by the Craven family and acted as a trial for the Epsom Derby. It was a version of the Craven Stakes which was (and still is) held annually at Newmarket,

From the bench I imagined the horses thundering passed. As a tour guide I have pointed out the rough circuit of the track and many times imagined the horses without really conjuring up a detailed image of the surroundings at the time. Now pondering a horse race with thousands of spectators it seemed obvious that the course would surround mainly open fields.

Nearby buildings standing at the time of the racecourse would be a coaching inn on the site of the present day Rose & Crown on Walsgrave Road, grange houses and Stoke St Michaels church. Next to the race track on the site of the present day Empress Buildings were various properties including a forge, Further to the North East was Henley Manor Farm (at that time owned by the Craven family) and the Craven Colliery. The locality became more heavily populated as miners moved into the area.

Across the road form my present day bench were the National School (now used by Pattersons Academy) and the weavers cottages which still remain. The school had also served as a workhouse during a time of slump in the weaving and watchmaking industries.

It is easy to imagine crowds including colliers, watchmakers and weavers watching those races alongside their more affluent neighbours from Coombe and interesting to ponder on how their relative fortunes would change under the local economic slump which was soon to come.

A coming post will look at the booms and slumps which have affected Coventry's industries over the centuries......

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