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A brief history of St. Mary's Guildhall


St Mary's Guildhall and Bayley Lane

Rich in atmosphere and stunning medieval architecture, St. Mary's is widely considered among the finest surviving medieval guildhalls in the country. 

Early history

Building started on part of the site of the former Coventry castle around the year 1340, and was completed by the time of the first recorded meeting of the guild of St. Mary in 1342. The building grew in size and embellishment during subsequent decades, as Coventry's richest merchant guilds amalgamated, and selected the building as their common administrative and ceremonial base. By 1414, as home to the united guild of the Holy Trinity, the Guildhall had reached its present size.

The merchant guilds were fraternities for the city's leading businessmen, which regulated trade in the city, influenced civic government, and promoted sound moral and religious principles among the townsfolk through charitable acts and the cycle of 'mystery' plays. The Guildhall acted as the focus of guild business, chiefly as a ceremonial space, meeting place, and banqueting hall. 

Guilds and guests 

Amongst the members of the guild of the Holy Trinity was Coventrian Richard Marler, the third wealthiest merchant in England, but a relative pauper compared with other guild members such as Kings Henry V, VI and VII, all of whom were entertained at the hall. Another noted member of the guild was Dick Whittington, three times mayor of London. One non-guild member, however, who had the rare pleasure of staying overnight at the hall was Mary Queen of Scots, who spent nearly two months detained at various locations in the city of Coventry during the winter of 1569-70.

Later monarchs were entertained at the hall as guests of the city leaders, including King James II, who was received at the hall with such a quantity of food that the monarch's table collapsed, showering the royal party with 'Corporation Custard', a local delicacy.

A versatile venue

From the mid fourteenth century onwards, the hall's secondary use was as a Council House, with Coventry 's first mayor, John Ward, being created in the Guildhall in 1349. This annual ceremony of 'mayor making' continued practically uninterrupted in the hall until 2002, when growing attendance required it to be moved to the larger space of the new Cathedral.

After the guilds were dissolved in 1552, the hall remained in use by the council, although by the late nineteenth century most day-to-day council business had moved to new buildings, and some rooms at the Guildhall were even being rented to tenants. 

Alongside civic meetings and banquets, the hall also functioned on occasions as a theatre, its size, acoustics and profile making it an ideal location for such entertainment. It is almost certain that Shakespeare came to the city as a performer during his acting career and the Guildhall would have provided the main venue for these performances. In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century the Guildhall witnessed frequent performances by the famed actress Sarah Siddons.

Through its history, the building served the council in a number of unusual ways, including as an Armoury during the English Civil War, and even as a soup kitchen for weavers who had been left destitute by a collapse in their trade in the nineteenth century. In 1779 John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, had requested to preach in the Guildhall rather than outdoors during a thunderstorm. The Mayor refused permission in favour of a dancing master's class.

Into the modern age 

Miraculously the Guildhall largely survived the devastation of the Blitz, and continues in its role as the primary venue for prestigious civic functions, whilst also welcoming visitors from around the world, and hosting weddings and celebrations for the people of Coventry and beyond.