On this date in 1940, Coventry cathedral was bombed almost to destruction by the German Luftwaffe during the Coventry Blitz. The bombed-out shell of the 14th century cathedral was preserved as hallowed ground, and a new ultra-modern cathedral was raised beside it. The new cathedral raised eyebrows at first, but is now generally admired, and certainly loved by many locals.
The first cathedral in Coventry was St Mary’s Priory and Cathedral, 1095 to 1102, when Robert de Limesey moved the bishop’s see from Lichfield to Coventry, until 1539 when it fell victim to Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries. Prior to 1095, it had been a small Benedictine monastery (endowed by Leofric, Earl of Mercia and Lady Godiva in 1043). Shortly after 1095 rebuilding began and by the middle of the 13th century it was a cathedral of 142 yards in length and included many large outbuildings. Leofric was probably buried within the original Saxon church in Coventry. However, records suggest that Godiva was buried at Evesham Abbey, alongside her father confessor, Aefic.
St Michael’s Church was largely constructed between the late 14th century and early 15th century. It was one of the largest parish churches in England when, in 1918, it was elevated to cathedral status on the creation of Coventry Diocese. This St Michael’s cathedral now stands ruined. Only the tower, spire, the outer wall, and the bronze effigy and tomb of its first bishop, Huyshe Yeatman-Biggs, survive. Following the bombing, provost Richard Howard had the words “Father Forgive” inscribed on the wall behind the altar of the ruined building. The spire rises to 90 m (295 ft) and is the tallest structure in the city. It is also the third tallest cathedral spire in England, with only Salisbury and Norwich cathedrals rising higher.
The current St Michael’s Cathedral, built next to the remains of the old, was designed by Basil Spence and Arup, built by John Laing and is a Grade I listed building. The selection of Spence for the work was a result of a competition held in 1950 to find an architect for the new Coventry Cathedral; his design was chosen from over two hundred submitted. Spence (later knighted for this work) insisted that instead of re-building the old cathedral it should be kept in ruins as a garden of remembrance and that the new cathedral should be built alongside, the two buildings together effectively forming one church. The use of Hollington sandstone for the new Coventry Cathedral provides an element of unity between the buildings.
The foundation stone of the new cathedral was laid by Elizabeth II on 23rd March 1956. The unconventional spire (known as a flèche) is 80 feet (24 m) tall and was lowered on to the flat roof by a helicopter. The cathedral was consecrated on 25th May 1962, and Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem, composed for the occasion, was premiered in the new cathedral on 30th May to mark its consecration. When I first visited in 1968, the cathedral was still considered “controversial” but I loved it.
Coventry’s modernist design caused much discussion when it was first opened, but it rapidly became a hugely popular symbol of reconciliation in post-war Britain. The interior is notable for its huge tapestry (once thought to be the world’s largest) of Christ, designed by Graham Sutherland, the emotive sculpture of the Mater Dolorosa by John Bridgeman in the East end, and the Baptistry window designed by John Piper (made by Patrick Reyntiens), of abstract design that occupies the full height of the bowed baptistery, which comprises 195 panes, ranging from white to deep colors. The stained glass windows in the nave, by Lawrence Lee, Keith New and Geoffrey Clarke, face away from the congregation. Spence’s concept for these nave windows was that the opposite pairs would represent a pattern of growth from birth to old age, culminating in heavenly glory nearest the altar — one side representing Human, the other side, the Divine. Also worthy of note is the Great West Window known as the Screen of Saints and Angels, engraved directly on to the screen in expressionist style by John Hutton. (Although referred to as the West Window, this is the ‘liturgical west’ opposite the altar which is traditionally at the east end. In this cathedral the altar is actually at the north end.) The foundation stone, the ten stone panels inset into the walls of the cathedral called the Tablets of the Word, and the baptismal font were designed and carved by the émigré German letter carver Ralph Beyer.
The Charred Cross and the Cross of Nails were created after the cathedral was bombed during the Coventry Blitz of the Second World War. The cathedral stonemason, Jock Forbes, saw two wooden beams lying in the shape of a cross and tied them together. A replica of the Charred Cross built in 1964 has replaced the original in the ruins of the old cathedral on an altar of rubble. The original is now kept on the stairs linking the cathedral with St Michael’s Hall below.
The Cross of Nails was made of three nails from the roof truss of the old cathedral by Provost Richard Howard of Coventry Cathedral at the suggestion of a young friend, The Rev. A.P. Wales. It was later transferred to the new cathedral, where it sits in the center of the altar cross. It has become a symbol of peace and reconciliation across the world. There are over 330 Cross of Nails Centers all over the world, all of them bearing a cross made of three nails from the ruins, similar to the original one. When there were no more of these nails, a continuing supply has come from a prison in Germany. They are co-ordinated by the International Centre for Reconciliation.
One of the crosses made of nails from the old cathedral was donated to the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church in Berlin, which was destroyed by Allied bombing and is also kept as a ruin alongside a newer building. A replica of the cross of nails was also donated to the Chapel of Reconciliation (Kapelle der Versöhnung) which forms part of the Berlin Wall Memorial. A copy of the Stalingrad Madonna by Kurt Reuber that was drawn in 1942 in Stalingrad (now Volgograd) is shown in the cathedrals of all three cities (Berlin, Coventry and Volgograd) as a sign of the reconciliation of the three countries that were once enemies.
A medieval cross of nails has also been carried on board all British warships who subsequently bear the name HMS Coventry. The cross of nails was on board the Type 42 destroyer Coventry when she was sunk by enemy action in the Malvinas War. The cross was salvaged by Royal Navy divers, and presented to Coventry Cathedral by the ship’s Captain and colleagues. The cross was subsequently presented first to the next Coventry in 1988 until she was decommissioned in 2002, and then to HMS Diamond, which is affiliated to Coventry, during her commissioning ceremony on 6 May 2011 by Captain David Hart-Dyke, the commanding officer of Coventry when she was sunk.
In five plus years I have never repeated a recipe, but today I have no choice. I cannot let today pass without a tip of the hat to Coventry godcakes. I mean GODcakes and Coventry cathedral. Seriously – I have no choice. Besides, Coventry godcakes are great. When I lived near Coventry I ate them ALL THE TIME. My original recipe is here — http://www.bookofdaystales.com/jets/ Here is a video that is fun and also contains the recipe.