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The Coventry Cross: a recurrent revival    

July 24, 2023
Author: Laura Keep, Volunteer Blogger.

If you’ve visited Coventry city centre over the past few months, you’ve probably noticed the unusual monument under construction opposite Holy Trinity Church. Underneath the layers of scaffolding is a landmark harking back to Coventry’s days as a thriving medieval market town – the Coventry Cross. To celebrate the unveiling of the new cross on 13July 2023, let’s take a look at the story of this iconic piece of history and how St Mary’s Guildhall played an important part in its past.

The Coventry Cross is an example of a market cross, a medieval structure which can still be found up and down the country in various forms. These crosses were installed in towns and villages to denote the location of a market or fair, typically after the monarch or local lord had granted permission for trade to take place. Crosses varied from simply carved wood or stone structures, to grander, more ornate monuments. Given Coventry’s reputation as a bustling centre of trade in medieval times, it comes as no surprise that it has had a market cross in different forms and at different locations over its history.

The first known reference to the Coventry cross can be found in a deed from the 1270s, which was transcribed by P. R. Coss in 1986. The record is an agreement of rent and landholdings between Peter be Bassinges and John de Wykewane, including a residence ‘opposite the cross in the Market-place of Coventry’. Deeds from 1280, 1282, 1300 and 1320 all reference a cross in a marketplace. Charters from Holy Trinity Church and St Mary’s Priory from the fourteenth and fifteenth century place the location of the cross as on the boundary of Broadgate and Cross Cheaping, almost exactly where the replica is being constructed today. At this point, it is likely the cross was a simple structure, made out of local sandstone and consisting of a small number of steps and a cross atop a podium.

It is at this point in the cross’ history where St Mary’s Guildhall comes in. By 1423, the original cross had seen better days, so the mayor, Henry Peyto ordered a meeting be held at St Mary’s Hall to authorise the building of a new monument. It was here that the request was granted and £50, roughly £32,000, was allocated to its construction. The mayor himself also made a person contribution.

The new, eight-pillared cross that had been born in the Guildhall remained intact until 1537, when the top section had to be dismantled for safety reasons. The monument sat in a state of disrepair until 1541, until Sir William Hollis, a Coventry-born Mayor of London, left £200 in his will for the construction of a new cross. The new, Tudor cross was written to be gilded, brightly coloured and magnificent. Made out of a more hardwearing stone and materials from the demolished St Mary’s Priory, the cross stood at 57ft and featured figures of kings, saints and monks, including Henry VI, St Michael and St George. The seventeenth century antiquary, Sir William Dugdale, wrote ‘it is one of the chief things wherein this city most glories, which for workmanship and beauty is inferior to non in England’.

This incarnation of the cross stood until around 1778, when it was decreed the forlorn and abandoned monument be dismantled. The stone and figures were distributed to various people. The image of Henry VI was saved and stored in the Guildhall, appropriate given its homage to the Lancastrian king in its stained glass window and tapestry. The figure survived and can now be viewed in the Herbert Art Gallery. Two further figures can be viewed today in the Great Hall of St Mary’s, in the Oriel window to the left of the tapestry, although their identity is disputable. T. W. Whitley wrote in 1880 that the figures represented ‘St Christopher’ and ‘Sir Thomas Holleys’, although this is hard to verify due to decades of wear.

Cross figures at St Mary’s Guildhall. Images taken by Volunteer Photographer Jennifer de Sousa.

Lack of interest and demand for a new cross persisted until the 1970s, when a replica was unveiled outside Holy Trinity Church. The cross mimicked the Tudor structure, including the figures of kings and saints. This cross was demolished in 2015 to make way for Turtle Bay.

And now, in 2023, we meet the new cross. Back in its original spot, the monument provides a sightly reminder to Coventry’s medieval bustling marketplace and the kings and saints revered in the Tudor era. It dominates over the landscape of Broadgate and Cross Cheaping, just as it did 600 years ago. The latest incarnation of the Coventry Cross is something for the city to be proud of for years to come, until future generations continue the tradition and construct their own version. But regardless of where its located or which figures it features, it will still always be the Coventry Cross.

Sources

Coss, Peter R. The Early Records of Medieval Coventry / Edited and Introduced by Peter R. Coss. Edited by Peter R. Coss. London: Published for the British Academy by Oxford University Press, 1986.

McGrory, David. A History of Coventry. Gloucestershire: The History Press, 2022.

JN 731.36 (Coventry Archives), ‘The Coventry Cross’ by T. W. Whitley (Warwick, 1880)


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Please note: the Guildhall will close early at 2pm on 13th June. Additionally, it will be closed all day on Monday 3rd June and Friday 7th June, for private events. The Tales of Tea restaurant will remain open during these times. Due to unforeseen circumstances, the Kilo Sale due to take place this Sunday, 26th May, at the Guildhall has now been cancelled. Therefore the Guildhall will be open as usual. We are sorry for any inconvenience this has caused.
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