Coventry

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Coventry

The town of Coventry is known chiefly for its stark-modern cathedral, for its industry, and for the legend of Lady Godiva.

Lady Godiva  In 1043, Leofric, a Saxon nobleman, and his wife Godiva founded a Benedictine monastery which became one of the riichest in England, so much so that the seat of the bishopric was moved from Lichfield to Coventry to enjoy a more splendid setting.

The legend of Lady Godiva, whether true or not, reveals something of the character of these times. Leofric lived in great splendor by imposing heavy taxes on his people. Godiva frequently implored him to ease their burdens, but he always refused. One day, in jest, he promised to do so if Godiva would ride naked on horseback through the streets. To his surprise, she did so, and Leofric kept his promise, reducing the taxes. Lady Godiva became the town's popular heroine. A statue of her stands in the main square of the city.

Peeping Tom  This expression dates from these events. The townspeople had pledged to remain behind shuttered windows during Godiva's ride, out of respect for their benefactress. But a tailor named Tom broke the pledge by peeping through a window. According to the legend, the hapless Tom was blinded for his audacity.

Industrial Growth  Rapid expansion of industry began around 1875, making Coventry the center of the modern bicycle and auto industry. In 1869, the first English bicycle was built in Coventry, and in 1896 the Daimler Company (a German subsidiary) built the first car. Today, the famous Jaguar is assembled in Coventry.

World War II  With all this industry concentrated in one place, Coventry presented an inviting target to the Nazis. Several heavy air raids took place between 1940 and 1942: Coventry was the most-bombed British city after London. Overall, some 67,000 houses were damaged, and the city center was devastated. The most famous air raid occured on November 14, 1940; it was the first German air raid on an English town. After several hours of bombardment by over 600 planes, the priceless 14th-century cathedral was gutted. There was no rebuilding it again; a new one had to take its place.

Coventry Cathedral (The ruins of the original and the new cathedral stand side by side.)  The new cathedral was built, partly with West German funds, and dedicated in 1962. It is one of the most remarkable cathedrals of modern times, and is still the subject of controversy. Its daring innovations in architectural design, decoration, and stained glass are unparalleled. The main feature is the huge altar tapestry by Graham Sutherland, said to be the largest tapestry in the world. The stained glass windows are full of abstract designs, some of them startling; modern secular heroes like Albert Schweitzer and other humanitarians take the place of the usual medieval saints in the windows. (After visiting the new cathedral, you should roam through the ruins of the old, next door.) The motto, "Father Forgive," has been carved above the original altar, and there is a massive abstract sculpture by the artist Epstein.

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