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Examining the Guildhall in Dugdale’s Antiquities of Warwickshire

April 20, 2023
Author: Frankie Rhodes, Volunteer Co-ordinator.

William Dugdale writes about Coventry as a city of ancient significance – with St Mary’s Guildhall as a place of ‘magnificence and state’.[1] His description of the building in The Antiquities of Warwickshire is one of the earliest examples in print, giving us an interesting insight, but also provoking us to question some of his alleged facts.

Born in 1605 in Shustoke, Warwickshire, Dugdale was educated in Coventry at the King Henry VIII school, now known as the Old Grammar School.[2] In 1641, he started recording monuments, inscriptions and coats of arms in major churches and monasteries across London and the midlands.[3]

While he travelled, he created rough sketches of the monuments he saw, which were transformed into engravings. One of the most famous examples is his drawing of Shakespeare’s grave at Holy Trinity Church in Stratford-Upon-Avon, which was the first ever published account.[4] While this captured vital information, Tom Reedy has pointed out that Dugdale’s drawings often contained ‘monumental inaccuracies’, leading Shakespeare’s bust to be interpreted for many years as a wool-trader, rather than a playwright.[5]

In the Antiquities of Warwickshire, Dugdale dedicates over 100 pages to Coventry, beginning with the origins of the region’s name. He links ‘Coven’ to a monastery of nuns associated with St Osburga, invaded by King Canute in the year 1016.[6]

He begins his discussion of the hall by explaining the history of the guilds. ‘The guild proceedeth from the Saxon word geld and gild, which signifieth money’, he writes, and groups formed based on charity, religion or merchandise, ‘for the public support of their own common charge’.[7] When several guilds formed together to make up the ‘Guild of the Holy Trinity’, they required a ‘fair and stately structure for their feasts and meetings’ – St Mary’s Guildhall.[8]

Based on ‘the form of its fabric’, Dugdale speculates that the Guildhall was built at around the beginning of Henry VI’s reign.[9] We now understand that the guildhall was actually built by the Merchant’s Guild in the 1340s, and enlarged in the early fifteenth century, when Henry VI was King.[10] So while Dugdale was perceptive in noticing the era suggested by the décor – especially as the Guildhall acted as Henry VI’s court during the war of the Roses – he was not aware of its earlier medieval foundations.[11]

Many antiquarians at the time relied heavily on the biased accounts of other writers, but Dugdale established the importance of charters as a primary source of medieval history for the first time.[12] Today, we can use archaeological evidence to create an even sharper understanding of a building’s history, and to reveal for example the Norman castle that formed the Guildhall’s earliest stone.[13]

Antiquities are a valuable source of information to illuminate the Guildhall’s past, and William Dugdale is not the only figure – Thomas Sharp published another major work about Coventry in 1871.[14] However, it is important to cross-reference these writings with modern archaeological methods, and to notice the personal agenda of each author.

Sources

William Dugdale, The Antiquities of Warwickshire, 1656

Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, https://www.oxforddnb.com/display/10.1093/ref:odnb/9780198614128.001.0001/odnb-9780198614128-e-8186;jsessionid=8448B12A16F8C85A4EB0293A07A334DA

Tom Reedy, William Dugdale’s Monumental Inaccuracies and Shakespeare’s Stratford Monument, 2016

St Mary’s Guildhall: Timeline, https://www.stmarysguildhall.co.uk/timeline/

Joan C. Lancaster, St Mary’s Hall, Coventry: A Guide to the Building, its History and Contents, 1948 The National Archives, https://discovery.nationalarchives.gov.uk/details/c/F60591

Footnotes

1] William Dugdale, The Antiquities of Warwickshire, 1656, page 121.

[2] https://www.oxforddnb.com/display/10.1093/ref:odnb/9780198614128.001.0001/odnb-9780198614128-e-8186;jsessionid=8448B12A16F8C85A4EB0293A07A334DA

[3] Ibid.

[4] William Dugdale, The Antiquities of Warwickshire, 1656, page 520.

[5] Tom Reedy, William Dugdale’s Monumental Inaccuracies and Shakespeare’s Stratford Monument, 2016, page 381.

[6] William Dugdale, The Antiquities of Warwickshire, 1656, page 85.

[7] William Dugdale, The Antiquities of Warwickshire, 1656, page 119.

[8] Ibid, page 120.

[9] Ibid, page 120.

[10] https://www.stmarysguildhall.co.uk/timeline/

[11] https://www.stmarysguildhall.co.uk/timeline/

[12] https://www.oxforddnb.com/display/10.1093/ref:odnb/9780198614128.001.0001/odnb-9780198614128-e-8186;jsessionid=8448B12A16F8C85A4EB0293A07A334DA

[13] Joan C. Lancaster, St Mary’s Hall, Coventry: A Guide to the Building, its History and Contents, 1948, page 4.

[14] https://discovery.nationalarchives.gov.uk/details/c/F60591

[1] https://www.stmarysguildhall.co.uk/timeline/

[1] https://www.oxforddnb.com/display/10.1093/ref:odnb/9780198614128.001.0001/odnb-9780198614128-e-8186;jsessionid=8448B12A16F8C85A4EB0293A07A334DA

[1] Joan C. Lancaster, St Mary’s Hall, Coventry: A Guide to the Building, its History and Contents, 1948, page 4. [1] [https://discovery.nationalarchives.gov.uk/details/c/F60591

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