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  • Writer's picturePhil

Two Halls, Bombs,Berkeleys and the Subterranean Link

I spent Monday evening attending a virtual zoom meeting of the Coventry Society which featured a positive presentation by Mark Webb of the Historic Coventry Trust on the current development and history of the Drapers Hall. I would highly recommend the Coventry Society to anybody interested in our local history and current developments in the city. Annual fees are very low given the high quality of presentations at monthly meetings (currently virtual), online articles and the possibility of influencing policy decisions on the future of the city.

Mark described how the current (and third) Drapers' Hall is being renovated and as far as possible restored to its original state with reference to archive material which records decoration,colur schemes and furnishings (some of which have been donated back by the Drapers). The hall will be givien a new lease of life primarily as a venue for musical performances and the training of musicians.

Coventry cloth had been both highly valued and counterfeited over the centuries and the merchants of the Drapers Guild employed a quality control system to protect their merchandise from cheaper inferior goods. A sign of authenticity was the seal that portrayed the city's elephant and castle emblem. Coventry was also famous for a "true" blue dye which would maintain it's colour after washing leading to the expression "as true as Coventry blue".

The "Drapiery" was a permanent feature and the second most important cloth market in the country and ran along Half Moon Lane - now replaced by St Mary Street. This lasted until the demolition of the first Drapers Hall in the 18th century. The replacement was short lived and the current hall was built in 1832 and was considered to be a "gentlemen's club" and meeting place of those prominent in business, civic affairs and trend setting social circles of the time.

The Drapers Hall is the starting point of my fortnightly Saturday morning guided walk "The Bard, the Blitz and the Tudors". I shall be using the next few postings on this blog to discuss some of the themes and connections which I highlight during the walk.

Below the hall is a vaulted cellar. These are typical of this area of the city centre and one close by can be viewed as a virtual tour as part of the September's "heritage" events.

Like many Coventry cellars the one under the Drapers Hall was used as an air raid shelter during World War II (including on the night of November 14th / 15th 1940 when the neighbouring St Michael's Cathedral was destroyed. The interior of the cellar had been left with the 1940s decor and fittings untouched - including the kitchen and toilet areas and public health and information posters on the walls. It was reassuring to hear that this element of the building's history will not be neglected and that will still be promoted whilst the cellar's kitchen area will be used as an education and practice area for young musicians.

The Drapers Guild had their own chapel within the walls of the bombed St Michael's cathedral and the tombs of two prominent Coventry residents who lived through Tudor times and had close Royal connections were housed in the crypt below that chapel.

Lady Katherine Berkeley and her son Thomas were patrons to the Drapers Guild. Both had connections to William Shakespeare and to some of those who influenced the Bard (there will be more of this in my next blog entry where I shall look at their lives and connections).

The tombs were destroyed during the November 14th / 15th raid as the Cathedral succumbed to the onslaught of the bombs, incendiary devices and mines dropped by the Luftwaffe. Despite the brave efforts of the Cathedral's Provost, team of volunteers and the work of firefighting teams the heavy wooded vaulted ceiling acted as a fuel source for the incendieries and brought down much of the masonery with it.

Another ceiling which was lost that night was that in St Mary's Hall (another building currently under renovation). Fortunately one of England's best preserved medieval Guildhalls remains together with an historic tapestry and restored ceiling. There is also a virtual tour available of the guildhall as a heritage "open days" event.

Thomas Berkeley served in that building as Alderman for the Gosford Street district (carrying out the role of a modern day councillor). The Hall had seen prolonged Royal visits over the centuries and also witnessed visits by Shakespeare's troupe - the King's Chamberlain's Men - later known as the "King's Men" under reign of James I.

Thomas Berkeley's bride was Elizabeth Carey whose father and grandfather were patrons of the troupe and there is overwhelming evidence that "A Midsummer Night's Dream" was commsioned for their wedding. Thomas and Elizabeth were both godchildren of Queen Elizabeth I who for a period had her cousin Mary Queen of Scots held at St Mary's Hall. In later years Thomas was a prominent supporter of Mary's son, James Stuart, ascending to the English throne.

There will be more to come on the Berkeleys' Shakespearean and royal connections in the next post....

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