The birthplace of the Godiva legend and the motor car in Britain, a medieval walled city and 20th century industrial powerhouse, victim of blitzkrieg and a centre of international peace and reconciliation, Coventry is like no other British city. 

Coventry was a scattered settlement when Leofric, Earl of Mercia, and his wife Godiva founded a church which was dedicated here in 1043. By the end of the 14th century, Coventry had become the fourth most powerful city in England.

Enormous wealth, from the sale of high quality fleeces from Midlands sheep, had paved the streets and lined them with a number of handsome buildings in sandstone and timber frame. Coventry soon became a major centre of pilgrimage. The Benedictines, Carthusians, Carmelites and Franciscans all had religious houses in the city and Coventry's Royal Charter of 1345 was the first of its kind in England.

With a two-mile town wall to rival London's, trade guilds whose membership stretched right across Europe and royal patronage in the shape of Coventry-held Parliaments, the city's fortunes seemed secure.

Coventry's changing fortunes

It wasn't until the 16th Century that Coventry's economy fell into crisis marking the beginning of a cycle of boom and slump that has characterised the city's history right up to the present day.

During the Civil War, the city wall helped to guard Royalist prisoners - and gave us the term 'sent to Coventry'. But because of its parliamentary support, the city fell out of favour with the Stuarts and on coming to the throne Charles II ordered the town wall and defences to be destroyed.

As the industrial revolution crashed and hammered its way through Britain, creating new cities, Coventry remained with its ancient streets and an industry based on ribbon weaving.

But by the mid-1800s when the writer George Eliot came to know the city (Coventry was the model for her most famous novel Middlemarch) it was heading for bad times again.

Riots followed the introduction of mechanised looms into a weaving industry based on traditional skills, and by 1860 only soup kitchens were keeping many weavers and their families from starvation. Watchmaking sprang to the rescue, but within a generation, that too was on the decline because of foreign competition. 

Coventry's time-honoured ability to pull a new industry out of the hat when it desperately mattered threw up a new saviour in the shape of bicycles. From humble beginnings in the 1860s the city quickly became the home of the cycle industry in Britain, attracting inventive engineers and entrepreneurs by the train-load. By the last decade of the century, the bloom was rapidly fading from cycle manufacturing.  But then in 1896, the Daimler company began building cars in a disused Coventry cotton mill, and another new industry was born, one that would lay the foundations for the city's extraordinary 20th century expansion.

As cycle manufacturers turned towards the new-fangled 'horseless carriage' the old city was already bulging at the seams, its ancient street pattern and quiet suburbs increasingly under pressure from a tide of immigrants, newcomers like the Whittle family, tempted from bleaker economic climates further north by the distant sound of an engineering boom.

Coventry Archives

Address: Herbert Art Gallery and Museum
Jordan Well

Telephone: 024 7623 7578