15.4.12

Monument to Endurance

Sunday, 29 May 1881 - Coventry, England

Today I attended the service of one of the oldest and newest churches in Coventry. Christchurch is Victorian but its spire is medieval and is one of the three spires, along with St. Michael’s and Holy Trinity, that loom above Coventry. This spot will also be the victim of the two worse attacks to hit Coventry.

Three Spires of Coventry
The first church built on this spot was Greyfriars Church, next to a Franciscan monastery, back in the 1200s. It started out humble but was added onto and decorated by nobility, hoping to get into God’s good graces.

The Greyfriars of Coventry were most famous for their mystery play held at the feat of Corpus Christi. The monks did The Bible in 42 acts, the first seven from the Old Testament, the rest from the New Testament. The various scenes were mounted on wheels and the stages drawn about the town for the better advantage of the spectators. Needless to say tourists and pilgrims (one and the same back then) flocked to Coventry to witness this spectacle. More than once the visitors included the reigning King.

Greyfriars Gate (long gone) and Steeple (still here)
It all came to an end in the 16th century. In 1533, when the Pope Clement VII told Henry VIII he would not annul his 24-year marriage to Catherine of Aragon, so the King could marry Anne Boleyn (who he beheaded 3 years later when he got bored with her.) Henry didn’t like anyone telling him what to do, so he broke away from Rome and started the Church of England with himself as the head.

Catholics were outlawed and the monasteries and nunneries disbanded. The Church’s property became his. Coventry at that time was not only home to the Franciscan Greyfriars and Whitefriars, but the even more powerful Benedictine priory and their Cathedral of St. Mary. Henry decided Coventry didn’t need a Cathedral since its population was now too small so St. Mary’s and Greyfriars church were torn down.

The reason why Coventry’s population had plummeted from 7,000 to 3,000 was because of Henry VIII. The kicked out monks not only made up a sizable chunk of the city’s body count, they also brought business to local merchants and craftsmen, as well as tourist money from pilgrims. In some ways, Henry’s destruction was more devastating to Coventry than Hitler’s Blitz!

A few churches were bought by locals and turned into Anglican churches, but not all of them could be saved. Those like Greyfriars were demolished, stone and wood salvaged for other building projects. But when they got to the tower and steeple, they stopped. No one could bring themselves to tear that down.

Christchurch
By the early 19th century, the tower was being used as a pig sty! Coventry was growing and needed a new church. The town decided to save the old steeple and make it part of a church once more. Christchurch was built in 1832, incorporating the tower. The new church was only 124 by 55 feet, nearly half the length of the original 240 by 60 foot Greyfriars Church. Still the steeple was once more part of a church

Then in April of 1941, a bomb dropped by the Luftwaffe destroyed Christchurch. This tragedy was overshadowed by the destruction of the larger St. Michael’s Cathedral in the first air raid five months before. Ten years later Christchurch's shell was demolished and a new church built elsewhere.

Christchurch after Blitz
Greyfriars/Christchurch
Spire 100 years from now
However the ancient steeple again survived. Neither Henry or Hitler could destroy it. The city will rebuild around it, careful not to disturb this monument to endurance.