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Twenty things you never knew about Coventry

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If becoming the UK’s City of Culture in 2021 does anything for Coventry, it ought to dispel the notion that the city that sits astride the centrefold of England is a shadowy, dull place that has contributed very little to the nation's history. On the contrary, Coventry holds plenty of events and characters that have shaped its story and made the city one of England’s hidden jewels. Read on to discover some fascinating titbits from the rich history of Coventry.

1. Lady Godiva was a real person but never rode naked through the streets to free the people from taxation. The story emerged 250 years after her death, probably invented by Benedictine monks.

2. Coventry has two universities, Warwick and Coventry, and three cathedrals – the ruins of St Mary’s, destroyed by Henry VIII, St Michael’s, blitzed in November 1940, and Basil Spence’s new cathedral, consecrated in 1962 and voted Britain’s most popular 20th century building in a national Millennium poll conducted by English Heritage and Channel Four.

3. Coventry pioneered town twinning in Europe and now has 26 towns and cities, including Volgograd (formerly Stalingrad), Dresden and Jinan in China. Its first German twin city was Kiel in 1947.

4. The first smokeless zone in Britain was introduced in Coventry in 1948 and the city is also the birthplace of the Green Party in this country, originally called the People Party and founded by two solicitors.

5. Legend has it that the city was the birthplace of St George, dragon-slayer and patron saint of England. St George was a central figure in Coventry’s medieval processions, long before Godiva featured.

6. Coventry was also the birthplace of jet pioneer Sir Frank Whittle and the poet Philip Larkin. Whittle patented his ideas for a jet-powered engine while living in the city in 1930.

7. Two-Tone music, British ska, came out of Coventry in the late 1970s, through bands like The Specials and Selecter. Ghost Town, the Specials’ biggest hit, was actually written about Glasgow, not Coventry.

8. The writer George Eliot lived and went to school in Coventry. Her greatest novel Middlemarch, set in an old weaving town on the cusp of modernity, was modelled on the city she knew in the 1830s and 40s

9. In 1966, Britain’s first ethnic minority policeman, Mohammed Daar, started work out on the beat in Coventry.

10. All modern bicycles are descended from JK Starley’s Rover safety cycle, invented in Coventry in 1885. A decade later the city became the birthplace of the British motor industry, producing the first cars under licence from Gottlieb Daimler in Germany.

11. Sir Henry Parkes, five times Premier of New South Wales and the father of modern Australia, was born at Canley, then just outside the old city, in 1815. Parkes in New South Wales is one of Coventry’s twin towns.

12. The phrase Sent To Coventry had its origins during the Civil War, when captured Royalist soldiers from the King’s defeated Scottish army were imprisoned in the heavily fortified and strongly pro-Parliament city and given a hard time by locals.

13. In 1948, work started on Coventry’s traffic-free shopping centre, the first in Europe. Rotterdam’s opened for business months later.

14. The 500-year-old Coventry Tapestry, on the north wall of the city’s medieval guildhall of St Mary, is the oldest in the country still hanging on the wall for which it was made. It features King Henry VI and his wife Margaret of Anjou, surrounded by many of the people they knew in life.

15. Weavers in 14th century Coventry invented a high quality dye that gave rise to the expression ‘true blue’. By the 1370s Coventry was the fourth wealthiest town in England, after London, York and Norwich.

16. As a young actor, William Shakespeare performed in St Mary’s Hall and as a boy is thought to have been among the crowds to witness Coventry’s famous cycle of Mystery Plays, which also entertained every ruling monarch from Henry V to Elizabeth I, except the boy king Edward VI.

17. Film star Clive Owen and pop impresario Pete Waterman were born in Coventry, while Labour politician Mo Mowlam, architect of the historic Northern Ireland peace accord, spent her childhood in the city.

18. The spire of St Michael’s Church, the old cathedral, at 295 feet is the third tallest in England, after Salisbury and Norwich. The city now has three spires. In the Middle Ages it had six.

19. Joseph Paxton, creator of the Crystal Palace, was Liberal MP for Coventry in the 1860s. In the 1840s, his architectural practice designed the city’s London Road cemetery, now regarded as one of the top five Victorian cemeteries in Britain.

20. Coventry once boasted the only unfortified royal palace outside London. The palace’s surviving gatehouse, parts of which date back to the 13th century, is the oldest building in Britain to be used as a Register Office.

 

By Peter Walters

 

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