Blog post

Coventry: city of change and movement

Exploring the 2021 UK City of Culture

colour photograph of Coventry city centre in the evening
Adrian Murphy (opens in new window) (Europeana Foundation)

City of culture projects are growing across the world, inspired in part by the success of the European Capital of Culture programme.

In the United Kingdom, a new city of culture is chosen every four years - highlighting art and cultural communities in that city. In 2021, that goes to Coventry, a city in the UK's midlands.

Let's take a virtual trip to Coventry, tracing connections found in Europe's cultural heritage collections.

black and white illustration of a map of Coventry

Lady Godiva

If there's just one name to be associated with Coventry, it's Lady Godiva.

colour photograph of a statue of a woman on horseback

Godiva was an 11th century noblewoman, known in her time as Godgifu.

Godiva and her husband Leofric, the Earl of Mercia, were known for being generous religious benefactors. Together they funded and built monasteries and convents, by granting lands and through other donations.

However, Godiva is mostly remembered today for legend describing an act of rebellion.

It is said that Lady Godiva sympathised with the people of Coventry who had to pay the high taxes imposed by her husband. She implored him to lower the rates, but he refused. Eventually, after much discussion, he agreed to bring down the taxes - if she rode a horse naked through Coventry.

And so she did. Lady Godiva sent word to the town that everyone should stay indoors, and rode through the town - her modesty protected by her long hair.

painting of a naked woman on horseback

This legend was first told in the 13th century.

Historians now feel that, if true, it is unlikely that Lady Godiva was fully naked. Nonetheless, this has not stopped artists and authors who have and has been told and re-told the story of Lady Godiva and her horse ride for centuries.

clock on a brick wall with blue tiles and figure of woman on horseback
painting of Lady Godiva on horseback
black and white photograph of statue of a woman on horseback

Textile trade

Coventry's role in the cloth and textile industires in England stretches back as far as the Middle Ages. The lands around the city were suited to sheep farming, thus fuelling trade in wool.

Silk weaving companies began to be established in Coventry in the 17th century, in part helped by Huguenot refugees who arrived in the city.

In the early 19th century, industrialisation led to thousands being employed in textiles - J&J Cash's, a silk weaving company founded in the 1840s, were just one of many major employers.

colour photograph of a booklet of Cash's Coventry Frillings with illustrated cover

The ribbons below were made by Coventry manufacturers for the 1851 Great Exhibition, which celebrated advances in culture and industry.

colour photograph of a piece of dark textile with flower motif
colour photograph of a piece of blue and white textile with flower motif

Transport Town

From the 19th century industrial age, Coventry has been associated with various forms of transport - from bicycle companies to the motor industries and jet engine manufacture.

The history of cycling owes a lot to Coventry.

In the early 1860s, James Starley established a company making sewing machines. Several years later, in 1868, having seen a velocipede, he began to manufacture this new type of pedalled bicycle. Starley, however, developed the design which led to the 'penny farthing' style of bicycle. Starley's nephew - John Kemp Starley - continued this development, to invent the first modern bicycle, the 'Starley Safety Bicycle'.

colour photograph of a memorial statue with trees in the background
black and white photograph of a man with moustache
black and white advertisement for Imperial Rover Cycles with a vertical illustration of a bicycle

By the 1890s, the bicycle industry was booming in Coventry. Thousands were employed in hundreds of factories, companies and manufacturers in the city.

colour advertisement for Swift Cycles with illustration of a man and woman cycling

Moving forward in transport history, Coventry became a centre for the motor industry. In 1897, the Daimler Motor Company made the first British motor car there.

colour wrapper of a chocolate bar with illustration of a 1897 Coventry Daimler car

Onwards through the 20th century, many different car companies - including Jaguar, Rover and Standard-Triumph - have been based in or near Coventry which gained the nickname 'Motor City'.

black and white photograph of men in a factory canteen

During World War II, many of these motor companies changed their production to aircraft engines, establishing this as an industry in the city.

black and white photograph of people working on machines in a factory
black and white photograph of an aircraft engine

Coventry Cathedral

World War II had a devastating effect on Coventry.

Given its industrial strength, the city was singled out for bombing by the German Luftwaffe. Repeated raids led to Coventry being one of most damaged British cities during World War II.

black and white photograph of three women standing in rubble and ruins

Large areas of the city were destroyed in a bombing raid in November 1940.

The historic heart of the city was destroyed, as was Saint Michael's Cathedral - the only British cathedral to be destroyed in World War II - which had stood since the 14th century.

colour painting of elements of cathedral architecture on fire
black and white photograph of crowds standing near bombed ruins with smoke

After the war, Coventry began to re-build.

The damaged ruin of the 14th century cathedral was kept, with a new modernist cathedral built alongside it. Designed by Basil Spence and Arup, its foundation stone was laid in 1956 with the cathedral consecrated in 1962.

black and white photographer of a woman painting stained glass panels
colour photograph of Coventry cathedral

Coventry cathedral has come to symbolise regeneration and growth onwards from the devastation of World War II. The city has established twinning relationships with German cities Kiel and Dresden (which was similarly destroyed during World War II), as a gesture of peace and reconciliation.

black and white photograph of a group of people in a classroom, adults sit around the edge of the room with children at tables in the middle

Culture from Coventry

As we have seen in this blog, Coventry is a city of change and movement. From the city's founding role in the cycling industry to the rebirth of Coventry Cathedral, the city offers cultural inspiration.

In 2021, as UK City of Culture, Coventry will show itself as a city that uses the past to forge new futures.

Coventry History Industrial heritage United Kingdom