Site of Cloister, Chapter House and Undercrofts of Coventry Priory

Overview

Heritage Category:
Scheduled Monument
List Entry Number:
1464516
Date first listed:
05-Jul-2019
Location Description:
Cloister Garden at Coventry Priory Visitor Centre, Priory Row, Coventry CV1 5EX Undercrofts under Youell House, 1 Hill Top, Coventry, CV1 5AB Site of Chapter House to rear of 6-7 Priory Row, Coventry, CV1 5EX

The scheduled area is centred on NGR SP 33548 79127

Map

Ordnance survey map of Site of Cloister, Chapter House and Undercrofts of Coventry Priory
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Location

The building or site itself may lie within the boundary of more than one authority.

Location Description:
Cloister Garden at Coventry Priory Visitor Centre, Priory Row, Coventry CV1 5EX Undercrofts under Youell House, 1 Hill Top, Coventry, CV1 5AB Site of Chapter House to rear of 6-7 Priory Row, Coventry, CV1 5EX

The scheduled area is centred on NGR SP 33548 79127
District:
Coventry (Metropolitan Authority)
Parish:
Non Civil Parish
National Grid Reference:
SP3355479132

Summary

The ruins and buried archaeological remains of the cloister, chapter house and two undercrofts of the former Cathedral and Benedictine Priory of St Mary.

Reasons for Designation

The site of the cloister, chapter house and undercrofts of Coventry Priory is scheduled for the following principal reasons:

* Historic interest: as a good example of a Benedictine priory, an urban monastic site which played an important role in the social, religious and economic evolution of Coventry's medieval landscape; * Survival: the site survives well, with the remains of the undercrofts forming the most substantial physical remains of the priory complex; * Potential: for the proven high level of archaeological potential retained within the scheduled area; * Documentation: the history and evolution of the priory is well documented both historically and archaeologically which adds considerably to its interest; * Group value: for its spatial and historic relationship with the other surviving areas of the priory complex and surrounding listed buildings which together form a cohesive group which contributes substantially to the knowledge and understanding of the evolution and development of the city of Coventry.

History

The first recorded event in the history of Coventry is the dedication of a church and abbey on 4 October 1043, when a Benedictine house for an abbott and 24 monks was established under the patronage of Leofric, Earl of Mercia, and his wife, Lady Godiva. There is a tradition of an earlier nunnery on the site, and excavations in the cloister found a burial dating from the late-C9; tradition has it that this nunnery was destroyed by Danish raiders in 1016. The abbey took on cathedral status in 1102 when Robert de Limsey transferred his See from Chester to Coventry; becoming the Cathedral and Priory of St Mary, referred to here as Coventry Priory, and then marked the beginning of the joint bishopric of Coventry and Lichfield.

As with most great monastic complexes, the construction of the buildings took many years. Little is known about the earlier buildings on the site, but building of the new cathedral is evident from the early C12, beginning with the chancel at the east end. Romanesque features have been found which date from around 1115-1140 and support this development. Work appears to have been halted in the mid-C12 when the site was partially fortified by nobleman Robert Marmion who laid siege to the nearby castle belonging to the Earl of Chester. Construction resumed after around 1150 and continued into the C13; the remains of the west end of the cathedral have been dated to the second quarter of the C13, with evidence from the nave showing it to have been in the Early English style.

The site of the cathedral and Benedictine priory covered approximately 13 acres of their hilltop site. At its greatest extent, the medieval cathedral measured approximately 130 metres in length: it stretched from the surviving remains of the west front to the exposed remains of the eastern chapels which are visible adjacent to the present cathedral. The west front of the cathedral had two towers, both thought to have had spires, there was a long nave and two transepts. The central crossing tower is also thought to have had a spire. To the north was the usual arrangement of cloister, chapter house and refectory, with infirmary and dormitory ranges beyond that. The site is stepped, with the cathedral itself the highest point of its site (Holy Trinity Church to the south stands at the top of the hill) and the other areas stepping down the hill to the north.

The bishop's seat at Coventry was transferred by the C14 to nearby Lichfield, lessening the importance of Coventry at that time. The Priory was dissolved by Henry VIII and the monks were expelled on 15 January 1539 when the last Prior surrendered the monastic house. Several unsuccessful attempts were made by the mayor and aldermen, as well as the Bishop of Coventry and Lichfield, to save the cathedral. These were in vain. The buildings were not immediately demolished, and it seems they were largely still standing when the site was sold in 1545, with the Crown retaining ownership of the materials of all the buildings. In the 1570s, the site was acquired by the Corporation of Coventry, who then set about selling off as much of the surviving material as they could. William Smyth's sketch of Coventry of 1576 suggests the crossing tower of the cathedral survived at that date, but by the time of John Speed's map of around 1610, the site is shown as a pile of rubble, although the precinct gate appears to survive.

From the Dissolution onwards, the site of the cathedral seems to have changed hands numerous times and been subject to various uses, including for animal storage by the proprietors of Butcher Row. The north-west tower of the cathedral survived and appears to have been a dwelling before later being used by the Blue Coat School. Other dwellings were built around the site, and the nave was partially used as garden space with a bowling green on the site of the cloister. The Bradford map of 1758 shows the north side of Priory Row entirely built upon. These properties were later acquired by Holy Trinity Church, demolished, and the site of the nave consecrated for use as a burial ground in around 1776. The burial ground covered the whole of the area of the former nave and aisles of the cathedral; in the mid-C19 a brick and timber bell tower was erected and later demolished.

The cathedral site has been investigated and excavated numerous times since the 1850s. During work for the rebuilding of the Blue Coat School and restoration of the Lychgate Cottages around this time, the remains of the west front of the cathedral were discovered and exposed. They lay in a deep ditch due to the adjacent the burial ground. Further limited excavations took place in the mid-C20, before a substantial excavation as part of the Phoenix Initiative between 1999 and 2003. This involved the excavation of the nave to the west of the crossing, including the removal of nearly 2000 burials from the churchyard, parts of the crossing and north transept, and parts of the cloister, refectory and chapter house. Excavation of the nave found evidence pointing to the architecture of the nave arcade changing from Romanesque to Early English, and for the vaulting of the north aisle roof. Painted stonework was recovered with expensive pigments of the late-medieval period including vermillion and gold leaf. Much rubble was found in the space of the nave itself, but no stone vaulting, suggesting that the nave had a timber roof. Much floor material was recovered, including floor tiles and sandstone flags, and a number of burials.

During this project, the extensive undercrofts north of the chapter house were discovered and conserved for display, with a new building built above. Following the project, the nave was laid out as a public garden with a new visitor centre built in the cloister, and the cloister garth serving as a garden for the visitor centre. The areas of the crossing and north transept were returned to use as private gardens to the buildings on Priory Row. The choir and eastern end of the cathedral have not been excavated, apart from the Chevet chapels at the far end which were exposed during the construction of the present cathedral in 1955.

Details

PRINCIPAL ELEMENTS: the monument includes the ruins and buried archaeological remains of the cloister, chapter house and two undercrofts of the former Cathedral and Benedictine Priory of St Mary which lie north of Priory Row, within a parcel of land defined to the east by the lane known as Hill Top.

DESCRIPTION: the cloister of the priory lies on a terrace at a lower level than the site of the adjacent ruins of the cathedral itself. Investigation has shown that the cloister was irregular on plan with passages of varying widths ranging from between 2.4m and 3.2m to all four sides. The area here assessed, now a garden associated with the Priory Visitor Centre, roughly corresponds with the site of the cloister and is laid out with a gravelled central area planted with trees around the edge and paved paths around the perimeter. The floors of the cloister passages, which are known to have been tiled, were roughly 1.25m lower than the floor of the cathedral itself, with a door from the north wall of the cathedral giving access to the cloister down a flight of steps.

On the eastern side of the cloister, a door gave access to the chapter house which is known to have been rebuilt in the early C14. The internal dimensions of the chapter house measured around 8m by 22m, with an apsidal east end, and excavations have shown that the building was divided into four bays with a tierceron vaulted roof. Window tracery was found with ballflower decoration. The north wall survives to a substantial depth where it forms part of the terracing and its external face is visible as a retaining wall for the adjacent level which contains the undercrofts. Some fragments of stone with painted decoration from the chapter house were found, including one depicting scenes of the Apocolypse from the Book of Revelations which was dated to around 1360-1370. The site of the chapter house is now buried beneath grass in the garden of 6 Priory Row.

To the north of the chapter house stand the remains of two undercrofts which were discovered during the excavations for the Phoenix Initiative. These are rectangular in plan, one is aligned east-west, measuring roughly 4m by 17.5m, and one north-south, at roughly 6.5m by 11.5m, with a courtyard enclosed by the former dormitory which stood to the north and infirmary to the east.

The east-west undercroft is the earlier of the two, thought to have been built originally as a storage area in the early C13. It stands on the northern side of the dividing wall between it and the chapter house. This wall survives to almost full height on this side, and has filled-in arches with vault springers in situ and the surviving lower courses of some internal partitions. At the west end of this undercroft are two arched doorways, one blocked, and its north wall survives to mid-height with window openings and evidence of chamfered ashlar surrounds.

The later undercroft, built in the later-C13, stands to the west and is aligned north-south, with a newel stair and its southern end and partial remains of vaulting, including piers in the centre of the space. It has a fireplace with projecting surround with polygonal jambs and an external masonry plinth which projects into the courtyard. The presence of a fireplace suggests this may have been a warming room. The floor spaces in and around the undercrofts are now laid with modern paving.

EXTENT OF SCHEDULING: the scheduled area does not fully represent the extent of the original priory precinct. Nationally important archaeology is likely to survive in other areas, most notably the site of the crossing and choir of the cathedral, but evidence for its survival is less obvious. Many of the surrounding buildings are listed so these areas are best managed through a combination of listed building controls and the provisions of the National Planning Policy Framework.

EXCLUSIONS: all modern walls, paving surfaces, lamp posts, drainage covers and lighting are excluded from the scheduling, although the ground beneath all these features is included. Youell House is also excluded; the undercrofts beneath it and the ground beneath these is included.

Sources

Books and journals
Demidowicz, G (Ed.), Coventry's First Cathedral, (1994)
Rylatt, M, Mason, P, The Archaeology of the Medieval Cathedral and Priory of St Mary, Coventry, (2003)
Other
Coventry City Council Historic Environment Record ref. MCT16304

Legal

This monument is scheduled under the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Areas Act 1979 as amended as it appears to the Secretary of State to be of national importance. This entry is a copy, the original is held by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport.

End of official listing

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