The Spire That Pointed at Hitler; Chris Upton on the Surprising History of Coventry Cathedral and Ross Reyburn, below, on Its Contemporary Face

Article excerpt

To lose one cathedral might be considered unlucky; to lose two can only be construed as carelessness. Such, however, has been the regrettable experience of Coventry.

The tale of three cathedrals does not go back to the bombing raids of November 14 1940; it goes back many centuries before that and it is, in many ways, unique in the annals of ecclesiastical history.

The story really goes back to the Normans, whose forward plan (which included such items as conquer England, build castles, subjugate the peasants) also contained the proposal to reorganise the Anglo-Saxon church, and to ensure that all its cathedrals were based in major towns and cities.

Since Lichfield hardly qualified as more than a village yet was too venerable (because of its link with St Chad) to be abandoned entirely, the late 11th-century bishop, Robert de Lymesey, won approval from the pope for a unique arrangement in English Christendom.

He would have not one cathedral, but two: one in the old diocesan headquarters at Lichfield and one in the growing town of Coventry, covering a diocese that stretched from Lancashire down to Warwickshire.

The church chosen by Bishop Robert for his supplementary seat was the Priory of St Mary's, founded by Leofric and Godiva only 60 years before. And far from being overawed by its more ancient sister, the priory swiftly gained enough riches and relics to look its colleague straight in the aisle.

Whatever the crowd-pulling potential of an assorted collection of saintly relics in the Middle Ages, by the 1530s they were more of a liability. Across the country, by order of Cromwell and Henry VIII, shrines toppled and abbeys were flogged off.

Only one cathedral in England, however, was entirely destroyed at the Reformation and that, sadly, was Coventry. By the 1580s the whole show had gone.

The last bishop of Coventry and Lichfield was the wonderfully named Accepted Frewen, and he (ironically) was only accepted as such at Magdalen College, Oxford, and only there because he was the college president. The unique joint diocese was dead.

For the next 300 years Coventry was a cathedral city without a cathedral, the finally indignity of which (in 1836) was when it was detached from Lichfield altogether and handed to Worcester. But by the end of the century, the leading churchmen of the West Midlands, stimulated by a mixture of civic pride and industrial muscle, were lobbying for proper recognition of the urban giants, still ignominiously attached to the more sedate city of Worcester. …