Vikings, Destruction & Leofric's Visions
Updated: Jan 5
Over the Christmas period I've been starting to take a look at history of some of Coventry's religious buildings - surviving and lost. I shall be posting about various institutions aligned to diverse religions and time periods around the city but today look at those around the city centre "Cathedral Quarter" where I shall be conducting some guided walks from early January (booking links below).
Tradition has it that Coventry grew up around the nunnery founded by St Osburg (who became the Abbess of the institution) around the Hill Top area of the city (close to the Cathedral). St Osburg is also referred to as Osburga and Osburh of Coventry.
Excavations around the area have found evidence of Anglo-Saxon burials from around the 7th century - the supposed period of the founding of the nunnery. It is believed to have survived until its destruction by Viking raiders led by Eadric Streona and under the ultimate command of Cnut (King Canute) in the early 11th century.
The purported Viking destruction of Osburg's nunnery was only one of a series of destructions in the immediate vicinity of Hill Top (now often referred to as "The Cathedral Quarter") over more than a thousand years.
It is said that after his conversion to Christianity Cnut went about redressing the destuction caused to religious institutions by his forces - this included influence over the founding of a new monastic community and place of worship at Hill Top by Godiva and Leofric. Their church was consecrated in 1043 (eight years after Cnut's death) and this is often quoted as the date of Coventry's "foundation".
Godiva (or to give her actual Anglo-Saxon name of Godgifu - "god's gift") was one of the major landowners across the Anglo-Saxon lands and her husband Leofric was Earl of Mercia.
During their time Mercia extended form the point that the Avon joins the Bristol Channel in the South West up to the site of Stockport in greater Manchester. Although it was split between the Danelaw (to the North and East) and Anglo-Saxon control in the South and West (the split being along the line of Watling Street), Leofric was allowed by Cnut to rule over the whole territory. Despite his Anglo-Saxon background (his father, Leofwine - of the Hwicce people - was Ealdorman in Southern Mercia with the backing of both Cnut and his predecessor Aethelred II). Leofric had been appointed by Cnut as Earl and showed some diplomatic skill in maintaining his position.
Coventry is famous as the scene of Godiva's legendary naked ride to relieve the people of Coventry from taxation imposed on them through her husband Leofric. The story goes that he agreed to remove the tax if she were to ride naked through the town - which she did and the tax was lifted. I shall be exploring the roots, intepretations and roots of this story on my guided walk, "A stroll in Godiva's footsteps" on the morning of January 9th. Book here:
It is known that the taxation "heregeld" was opposed in Mercia. Following Cnut's death in 1035 he was suceeded by his son Harold Harefoot. Harold died early in his reign (1040) to be replaced by his half-brother (son of Cnut and Emma of Normandy), Harthacnut. Two of this king's men were murdered in Worcester when sent to collect the heregeld tax. Leofric and his family were personally involved in harsh recriminations against his own Hwicce people and religious institutions there. When Harthacnut met an early death in 1043 he was replaced by his own half-brother, Edward the Confessor (son of Emma of Normandy).
Leofric and Godiva were however involved in the support of many religious institutions. It is thought that like Cnut, Leofric sought redemption from his previous deeds against Christian institutions. It is recorded that along with Edward the Confessor, Leofric experienced visions of a "blessing hand" - taken to be that of Jesus, but also experienced visions of the infant Jesus and of St Paul which are considered to have moulded his future deeds.
The growth of the Priory and St Mary's Cathedral continued after Godiva's time. Following the Norman invasion of 1066 (Godiva died in 1067) her lands eventually fell into the hands of the new Norman Earls of Chester and the Priory site eventually to Norman bishops from 1102 when expansion of the site saw the chapel being replaced with a magnificent stone cathedral (125 years under construction in its original form) until its eventual destruction at the disolution of the monastries under Henry VIII. Godiva and Leofric's grandaughter Aldgyth was queen to King Harold at the time of his defeat at Hastings.
The story of the "Time Team" excavations of the priory site can be seen at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=74cLBrWpQWw
The cathedral was a centre for pilgrimages with reports of crushes of pilgrims hoping for miracles assoicated with relics held there. These included an image of the Virgin Mary adorned with Godiva's necklace and the head of St Osburg encased in copper and gold.
Next door to the site of St Mary's and the Benedictine Priory is Holy Trinity Church. Holy Trinity was the parish church of the Prior's part of the city as St Mary's Cathedral did not cater for the local population but rather acted as a magnet for pilgrims and activity around the monastry was central to the city's economy.
Holy Trinity houses an impressive "apocalypse" painting said to have been inspired by a local earthquake. The apocolypse seems to have featured strongly locally as excavations of the Priory site turned up masonery decorated with scenes from the apocalyptic visions of St John the Divine. This masonery originated from the building's chapter house which had held English parliaments during the troubled and often violent times of the 1400s.
There are literary connections with Holy Trinity - Mary Ann Evans (George Eliot) being a regular attender as a young woman despite her turn towards athiesm. Her father, Robert, worked at the church and encouraged her to attend services whilst accepting that she would be contemplating her own thoughts.
Holy Trinity sits between two ruined cathedrals - St Mary's (the only cathedral to be destroyed at the dissolution of the monastries under Henry VIII) and St Michaels (destroyed by German bombing during the blitz of November 14th 1940). The November blitz saw the most intense ariel bombing of any town up to that date and led to a new word,"coventriziert" meaning "razed to the ground", entering the German language. That Holy Trinity was able to survive the raids whilst St Michaels burned was largely due to Rev Graham Clitheroe (buried inside the church) and others who manned the church roof removing incendiary and explosive devices as they landed. If you would like to learn more about these themes I shall be explaining more on my guided walk , "The Bard, the Blitz and the Tudors" on the morning of Friday 10th January. Book here: https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/the-bard-the-blitz-and-the-tudors-tour-tickets-83180833111
More to follow about all things Coventry in upcoming posts...........