The Hospital of St. John

Our Chair, Peter Walters, told us the history of the Old Grammar School at the last CovSoc meeting on Monday 13th December. We had hoped to give this talk in the OGS but unfortunately it wasn’t to be. Peter writes…..

An unlikely partnership between sworn enemies in early medieval Coventry has left the modern city with one of its oldest standing buildings.

Back in the 1170s, the powerful Benedictine Prior Laurence gave land ‘between the bridges’ on which to found a hospital to offer care and shelter to poor travellers.

The driving spirit for the hospital, a mark of Coventry’s growing emergence as a town, was Archdeacon Edmund, a senior canon from Coventry’s new cathedral. And the monks and canons had been at daggers drawn for decades.

The Hospital of St John was established initially with ten staff from the Benedictine order to look after up to twenty travellers in need of help, and before long was ministering to local poor folk as well.

What survives is the hospital’s chapel, dating from around 1340, a fragment of a complex that once stretched from its Bishop Street frontage to Swanswell Pool.

As time went by, local benefactors played an increasingly important role in supporting the hospital. For example, in 1444 it was agreed that John and Margaret Blakeman should endow one bed near to the door of the church, although their covenant stressed that it was not for the use of ‘any mad, quarrelsome, leprous, infected or loose person wandering about at night’.

One hundred years later, on 4 March 1544, the hospital was surrendered to King Henry VIII’s commissioners, and the following year, John Hales, a former royal civil servant, bought it, along with the site of the Priory Cathedral and Whitefriars, for £400.

There was considerable local resentment at the purchase and Hales was accused of dragging his feet in founding a free school in the king’s name, a condition, it was said, of being allowed to buy monastic property.

That was almost certainly true, but by the 1550s the free school had been set up, first at Whitefriars and then in the old hospital, with fourteenth century choir stalls brought in to act as desks for the pupils.

Nevertheless, Hales was still under fire in 1565, when Queen Elizabeth I, making her only visit to Coventry, paused on her way into the city from the Bishop Street gate and made a small donation to the school library. The Queen had the claims investigated but they remained unproven.

By 1602, the school was offering scholars in the town, as well as its own pupils, access to its library, giving Coventry, alongside Norwich, a claim to be among the first towns to create what was in effect a public library.

Among the teachers at King Henry VIII School, from 1608, was Philemon Holland, dubbed England’s Translator General for his work in turning the texts of classical writers like Pliny and Plutarch into English.

Holland taught at the school for twenty years, numbering among his pupils John and Christopher Davenport, respectively a Puritan founder of the New Haven colony in America and the Franciscan chaplain to the wives of both Charles I and II, and Sir William Dugdale, antiquarian and fervent Royalist who as a royal herald had the uncomfortable task of banging on the city gates in 1642, demanding that King Charles I should be allowed to enter.

Over the next two hundred years, the building, and its library, experienced declining fortunes.

In 1794, as part of work to widen the Burges, the west front was demolished and re-built and part of the library was destroyed. By the 1830s it was said that boys were burning books from the library to keep warm, and in 1848 the imposing timber range to the south was torn down to create Hales Street.

Among the boys educated there in the Old Grammar School’s final decades was John Fisher, later much better known as ‘Jackie’ Fisher, First Sea Lord and the man credited with creating the modern Royal Navy.

Finally, in 1885, following the school’s relocation to Warwick Road, the building was put up for sale and thanks to a public appeal was purchased by Holy Trinity Church, although not before a wealthy American had expressed an interest in buying it and transporting it, stone by stone, to the United States.

The Old Grammar School became the St Katherine’s Mission Room for Holy Trinity and was later used by a number of organisations, including the Boys’ Brigade, before, in recent times, falling empty and at risk from vandals.

At least one attempt was made to set the interior on fire and for many years it remained on English Heritage’s ‘at risk’ register. It’s something of a miracle that it survived to undergo the restoration of the past ten years.

Let’s hope that a lot more uses can be found for it in the future and that more people in Coventry can get to know another wonderful example of the city’s medieval heritage.

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