As Coventry celebrates as UK City of Culture, a new map of the city sheds light on its fascinating past.
Few cities have been altered over the centuries as Coventry, known as a hub of Britain’s motor vehicle industries, for its Second World War destruction and its bold post-war reconstruction programme. Yet Coventry was also an important medieval city — fourth largest and wealthiest in the 14th and 15th centuries — with some of the most significant architecture, art and cultural achievements outside London. From 1451 it was awarded the status of a county, separate from the rest of Warwickshire, and for a while was the headquarters of the Lancastrian royal family during the Wars of the Roses, thus becoming the de-facto capital of England.
The early history of Coventry, from a medieval wool-producing town to the largest provincial cloth and cloth-finishing market with some of the wealthiest merchants in England, is written in the pattern of its streets. A surprising number of both monumental and minor domestic buildings survive in Coventry from its late medieval heyday and the new historical map, together with a gazetteer, puts these buildings in context. All were protected by strong defensive walls and towers, plotted on the map using evidence from recent archaeology and from old maps.
Uniquely, Coventry had three cathedrals in its history, including the current one consecrated in 1962. The exact positions of the previous two are identified on the map: St Mary’s Priory Cathedral, destroyed in the Reformation, and St Michael’s Church (cathedral from 1918 but destroyed in the war). Coventry’s Charterhouse and its boundaries are shown on the map outside the walls, taking account of recent archaeological discoveries during restoration work in 2021.
The map shows how the city looked just before the First World War and captures the moment when the city was changing rapidly from a town with a still-medieval streetscape to a modern, industrial city. Large parts of the central area of the city were given over to the manufacture of bicycles and motor vehicles, and the making of machine tools and components.
The map shows the locations of these factories, often positioned right next to ancient buildings and streets in the heart of the city. Many of these industrial premises, as well as many medieval buildings, have long since been demolished and their precise locations unknown except to a small number of experts. The map allows the reader to trace Coventry’s fascinating topography over time and there will be many long-gone names that Coventrians recognise.
The Historical Map of Coventry is the work of the Historic Towns Trust and the Medieval Coventry charity, published to coincide with the city’s status as UK City of Culture 2021. The historical information on the map has been researched by CovSoc member Dr Mark Webb, with input from a number of experts on the medieval and modern city, together with Professor Keith Lilley, Chair of the Historic Towns Trust, and cartographer Giles Darkes, all Coventry-born.
‘The map will be of interest to anyone wishes to understand Coventry’s history,’ says Mark Webb. ‘It’s aimed at a wide public and includes attractive colour illustrations and a gazetteer packed with interesting detail about the city’s buildings and streets.’
‘Working on the map has been a fascinating journey for me,’ says Giles Darkes. ‘We took an Ordnance Survey map of 1913 to create the basis for the historical map and then added the historical features. What is striking is the street pattern of the medieval city which was about to be changed for ever, and the remarkable jumble of industrial premises next to domestic and commercial buildings in the heart of the city.’
An Historical Map of Coventry was launched on Friday 12th November at Holy Trinity Church in the heart of the city. The event included talks from Professor Peter Coss on the early history of Coventry and Dr Miriam Gill on Holy Trinity’s magnificent Doom Painting.
The map, in full colour throughout, is priced at £9.99 and available from bookshops. ISBN 978-0-9934698-6-2