A History of the County of Warwick: Volume 8, the City of Coventry and Borough of Warwick. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1969.
This free content was digitised by double rekeying. All rights reserved.
'The City of Coventry: Social history to 1700', in A History of the County of Warwick: Volume 8, the City of Coventry and Borough of Warwick, (London, 1969) pp. 208-221. British History Online https://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/warks/vol8/pp208-221 [accessed 29 February 2024]
SOCIAL HISTORY TO 1700
There is little evidence for the social history of Coventry before the mid 14th century. A rural society of unfree villeins in 1086, it had become, by 1280, a town of burgage-holders and cottagers holding per cartam, but the process is obscure. The transformation of villeins into free burgesses probably took place early in the 12th century, marked in the Earl's Half by the charters confirming burgess tenure and encouraging outsiders to settle in the town. Coventry's imitation of the Lincoln charters, particularly the clause allowing anyone who managed to stay a year and a day (fn. 1) unchallenged in the town to remain as a freeman, must have encouraged the most enterprising villeins from the surrounding countryside to seek their fortune in the town. In 1280 about 31 per cent. of the population were immigrants or the descendants of immigrants. By the mid 14th century the numbers were even higher. (fn. 2) This process seems to have been even more advanced in the Prior's Half where trading probably began, and certainly developed more rapidly, and where, even in 1280, there were more burgageholders in comparison with cottage-holders than in the Earl's Half. Apparently contradicting the innate conservatism of monasteries, particularly their reluctance to manumit unfree tenants, this may represent part of a deliberate attempt by the priory to win over the inhabitants during the period of its encroachment on the lordship of the town. By encouraging trade and offering favourable conditions of tenure, the priory may have hoped to contribute to a lapse of memory on the part of the inhabitants as to whom they held as lord. Where the priory's lordship was secure, in some of the outlying rural areas, such generosity was not necessary and villein tenure remained.
The priory's encroachment was probably helped by the absence of any powerful opponents during the earl's minority in the early 12th century. Unlike Warwick, Coventry does not seem to have attracted nobility and gentry from the outlying areas as burgage-owners in the town, while during the 12th and 13th centuries the townsmen themselves were not yet rich or powerful enough to challenge the church. Guilds, both merchant and craft, do not seem to have developed in Coventry until the 14th century, and, significantly, the first attempt, in 1267, to found one was made on behalf of the prior's tenants. (fn. 3)
The dominant factor in the life of the town during this period was the church, mainly the Benedictine priory, but increasingly the two friaries and the Carthusians outside the town. The religious houses contributed to the growing prosperity of the town, attracting visitors and pilgrims, and even on occasion providing lodging for royalty or accommodation for a parliament. (fn. 4) Chapters (fn. 5) brought religious, some of them rich and important, from other parts of the country, an opportunity for trade which was not missed by the townsmen. As late as 1498 the mayor had to keep a check on prices, to see that they were not raised for the Benedictine chapter held at Coventry Priory in that year. (fn. 6) Pilgrims also visited the town to see the relics at the priory. These supposedly included an arm of St. Augustine of Hippo, St. Osburg's head, various relics of Becket, St. Cecilia, St. James, St. George, St. Jerome, St. Andrew, St. Lawrence, and St. Katherine, part of the true cross, and 'a piece of the most holy jawbone of the ass that killed Abel'. (fn. 7) Whitefriars, which was dedicated to the Virgin, had a chapel near the London road, containing a picture or statue which became famous and probably gave its name to the inn nearby, the Salutation Inn. By the late 15th and early 16th centuries the cult of this statue had reached exaggerated proportions. Sir Thomas More, who visited his sister who lived in Coventry, became involved in a local controversy between a Coventry Franciscan and a secular priest. The Franciscan preached that whoever said the psalter of the Virgin daily could never be damned. The intensity of Marian devotion in Coventry provoked an equally exaggerated reaction and Coventry Lollards were especially indicted for scoffing at the Whitefriars image. (fn. 8)
Beneath the Christian devotion there lay a substratum of pre-Christian superstition which lingered on in a community that still retained its rural roots, and which was surrounded by dense woodland and springs, and by a peasantry which was among the most superstitious in the country. Superstition, however, was not confined to ignorant and backward peasants. Walter de Langton, Bishop of Coventry, was accused in 1301 of a more sophisticated kind of witchcraft, worshipping the devil in the form of a goat. Whether the bishop was guilty or not, the case demonstrates that either he or his accuser, a knight named Lovetot, were familiar with a cult that was spreading in Europe from Arab sources during this period. (fn. 9) Another case, not long afterwards, reveals the presence of a professional necromancer in the town. In 1323 a group of prominent Coventry citizens called on the help of John de Nottingham in their struggle with the prior, Henry Irreys. The sorcery took the common form of stabbing wax images of the victims. The citizens were tried and released but the prior himself was charged, at the pope's instigation, with 'sortilege'. (fn. 10)
The case was indicative of the strong feelings aroused during the struggle between the priory and the inhabitants of the town, which increasingly dominated the history of the first half of the 14th century. The townsmen, growing increasingly prosperous and consequently more impatient of the priory's political control, received just the help they needed when Queen Isabel acquired Cheyles more in 1330. The queen's successful challenge of the priory's rights led directly to the charter of 1345 and the tripartite indenture of 1355, upon which the prosperity of the next 200 years was founded. (fn. 11)
Coventry's greatest period was in the century and a half following the charter of 1345. Professor Hoskins's list (fn. 12) of the ranking of provincial towns gives some indication of their relative wealth and importance. According to this, in 1334 Coventry ranked nineteenth and in 1377 third. This was the period of great building activity, the foundation and growth of the guilds and crafts, the nationally-famous Corpus Christi plays, and civic pageantry. Coventry became one of the most beautiful cities in the country. The two great parish churches in the centre of the city were largely rebuilt. Whitefriars, the collegiate church of St. John the Baptist, and the Charterhouse were all founded in the later 14th century; the churches belonging to St. John's Hospital and the Greyfriars were also reconstructed at this period. St. Mary's Hall was first built in 1340-2 and rebuilt about 50 years later. The town walls, with twenty towers and twelve gates, enclosing the largest fortified area in the midlands, were begun after a licence to crenellate was granted in 1362. The streets were paved in 1407, when the mayor was John Botoner, a member of the family largely responsible for the rebuilding of St. Michael's. Behind this considerable building activity lay the skill and creative imagination of a host of anonymous artists and craftsmen. A certain amount is known about a group of glaziers in Coventry, one of whom, John Thornton, was responsible for the great east window in York Minster c. 1405. (fn. 13)
The prosperous, self-confident community which produced this spate of building in the century c. 1340-1440, can be loosely divided into three classes: an upper class of merchants and landowners, a middle class of manufacturers and shopkeepers, and a working class of journeymen, labourers, and those engaged in the humblest trades. (fn. 14) Most of the economic, social, and political power and prestige of the town was concentrated in the hands of the upper class of merchants, mercers, and drapers, which emerged as a result of the development of the credit system and the rapid growth of trade fostered by a series of charters in the 1330s and 1340s. (fn. 15) Among the most important developments of this period was the foundation of the guilds, beginning with the merchant guild of St. Mary's in 1340 and culminating in the amalgamation of four guilds as Holy Trinity Guild by 1392. (fn. 16) The corporate sense fostered by membership of the guilds found expression in the charter of 1345 which confirmed town government in the hands of the dominant merchant class. It was symptomatic of the allpervading power of this class that, of the twelve who obtained the charter of 1345, eleven were members of Trinity Guild and three were future mayors. One of these, Nicholas Mitchell, a merchant, was also an M.P. for Coventry. Of the 94 mayors from 1420 to 1547 whose occupation is known, 57 were wool merchants, mercers, or drapers. (fn. 17) The earlier mayors equally were drawn from this class: men like Jordan Shepey, the traditional builder of Jordan Well, Robert Shipley, John Cross, and John Onley, 'who did erect St. Mary's Hall', Adam and William Botoner, the builders of St. Michael's, and the merchants Richard Clerk and Richard Luffe who were also leet jurors and members of the peace commission. (fn. 18) The same names constantly occur as municipal officers, members of the twenty-four who elected the mayor and served on the leet jury, as members of the peace commissions and masters of the guilds. (fn. 19) Among important families were the Botoners, Braytofts, Bradmeadows, Saunders, Staffords, Onleys, and Wildgrices. (fn. 20) Most of them lived in Gosford Street and Earl Street, (fn. 21) the wealthy part of Coventry, and on plots newly leased out by Queen Isabel in Cheylesmore Park, (fn. 22) and many also held land in the outlying areas. Some, like the Keresley family, or the Crosses of Willenhall, retained their family holdings after they had become merchants in Coventry. Others, like the Frebernes, Shipleys, and Bristows, bought land and built up estates as an investment for the money earned in trade in Coventry. (fn. 23) One family, the Marlers, can be taken to illustrate the way in which merchant families developed. In the early 14th century the Marlers were small landowners, probably peasants, near Coventry. They first appear in Coventry in the 1460s and in the years from 1469 to 1540 provided three generations of merchants. Richard Marler, described as a grocer but more correctly a mercer, owned 50 houses in Coventry in 1522 and was wealthier than any Bristol merchant. (fn. 24)
Below the upper-class merchant oligarchy was a middle class of manufacturers and shopkeepers, master craftsmen who found some sort of corporate identity in the craft guilds. (fn. 25) The largest class consisted of apprentices, journeymen, humbler tradesmen, and the unemployed. The divisions between classes were never rigid. Journeymen became master craftsmen and the status of different crafts varied as their relative wealth and importance waxed and waned. The development of trade and credit enabled craftsmen to sell directly to London and abroad, by-passing the Coventry merchant. This was especially true of the dyers, many of whom had credit with London and Italian drapers, and the dyers formed the most formidable challenge to the merchant oligarchy. The position of the merchant was not assured - even the Marler wealth disappeared during the next generation (fn. 26) - and it was this that made the city government regulate and repress the lower classes.
Beneath a surface of civic pride and splendour in this period, the most dynamic and prosperous in Coventry's history, there were strong undercurrents of dissension and conflict. The craftsmen resented the concentration of political and social power in the hands of the merchants who used it for their own ends, living by usury, regulating trade through the decrees of the leet and depriving the people of their share in the common lands, which they managed for their own advantage, while, through Holy Trinity Guild, they exercised control as landlords over a considerable section of the population. Equally they resisted the pretensions of the journeymen and jealously guarded the privileges of Coventry craftsmen against outsiders. The merchant oligarchy was alarmed by the growing wealth and ambition of some of the bigger craftsmen and strenuously repressed the aspirations of the journeymen whom they feared, not without reason, as a potentially subversive and revolutionary force threatening the very structure of society. It was the interplay between the fears and ambitions of these three classes which provided the background to this period of Coventry's history.
Sometimes the merchant oligarchy used the journeymen as a counterbalance to the craftsmen. Thus they gave favourable terms to the men in a dispute in 1424 between master craftsmen and journeymen, and they recognised some of the journeymen's guilds. In 1435 when they were attacking the large employers in the metal trade, they encouraged the journeymen to work in their own houses. (fn. 27) But the encouragement was only relative, as a check to the wealth and power of the craftsmen. Any serious attempt by the journeymen to challenge the position of the master craftsmen was repressed by the city government. This was especially true of the 16th century when numerous orders of the leet testify to the government's policy of enforcing rank and position in society. In 1517 rough masons and daubers were told to remain as 'servants'. In 1528 the journeymen dyers were told to 'use themselves as servants and as no craft or fellowship'. Even the games and out-of-work activities of the 'common sort' of people were increasingly regulated during the first half of the 16th century. Sometimes the craftsmen combined with the lower class in common action against the town government. When they did, as in the dispute over enclosing the commons, the combination of a leader like Laurence Saunders, a dyer, and the mob could be formidable.
Riots over the price of bread and the inclosure of common land were frequent. Between 1370 and 1422 the city annals record seven occasions upon which 'the commons arose', two of them involving throwing loaves at the mayor. (fn. 28) The part played by Coventry in the Peasants' Revolt is obscure. John Ball was captured in Coventry, (fn. 29) but his presence there was probably due to the fact that he seems to have had relatives in the town, rather than to the status of Coventry as a revolutionary centre. Coventry in 1381 lacked the motives both of the peasant and urban rebels. Half a century earlier the priory might have been sacked. A century later, when the city oligarchy had become entrenched and when there was a leader and a substantial mob with grievances, there might have been an uprising. The Laurence Saunders affair, which lasted for more than two decades (c. 1469-96), did provide an explosive situation. Saunders himself was an instinctive rebel. He asserted that the people would never have justice until 'we have striken off the heads of three or four of these churls' heads that rule us'. (fn. 30) The inclosure of common lands had excited feelings of grievance for more than a century. But the situation in the 1490s was aggravated by a number of factors. Verses nailed to the door of St. Michael's in 1495 expressed a widespread feeling that the oligarchy was turning into a tyranny. They referred to leet orders to confine the cloth trade to the Drapery, to enforce payment for apprenticeship, and to restrict the Lammas riding, from which they concluded 'this city should be free and now is bond'. (fn. 31) Resentment against the rich rulers of the city was fostered by Lollard beliefs about social equality. Coventry had a considerable reputation as a Lollard centre, (fn. 32) especially during this period, and schemes for the disendowment of the church might well have been extended to include over-rich merchants. (fn. 33) The authorities were especially alarmed by the presence of 'vagabonds and idle persons' among the Coventry commons and throughout the 15th century the city government had tried to enforce the royal decrees against livery and maintenance.
In Coventry this took place against a worsening economic situation. The decay of Coventry is usually dated from the mid 16th century and was attributed by Dugdale to the Dissolution, but the seeds were there much earlier. In 1523, for example, there was a total of about 565 empty houses in the city, including 131 in Bishop Street ward, 107 in Spon Street ward, and 62 in Gosford Street ward. (fn. 34) The decline of the cloth trade was marked by a tendency for a few rich to get richer and for the growth of a large class living very near the poverty line. The fact that Coventry was still fourth in the list of provincial towns in the payment of the subsidy of 1523-7 is a misleading indication of the true wealth of Coventry society. An analysis of the list of tax-payers shows that just under two-thirds of the total taxable wealth in the city was owned by 7 per cent. of the population, and of this, 2 per cent. owned 45 per cent. Half the population paid no taxes at all, and of the remainder, half were paying at the lowest rate. Allowing for poor widows, about one-third of the population was without property of any kind, and another third was largely dependent on wages. Plague, a bad harvest, or an adverse movement of trade would have serious consequences for these people. (fn. 35) The reaction of the city government was to tighten their control in every department of life - from legislating against 'sturdy beggars' and restricting drinking in alehouses by the lower orders to minute regulations on the manufacture of goods and organization of the craft guilds.
The guilds - the great merchant and religious guilds of Holy Trinity and Corpus Christi, the craft guilds, and the journeymen's guilds - formed the framework of social life for almost all the citizens, except those of the very lowest rank. With the exception of St. Mary's Guild, the primary purpose of the foundation of the guilds - St. John's, St. Katherine's, Corpus Christi, and Holy Trinity - was avowedly religious: to maintain priests to say mass daily and perform obits for departed members, and to 'bestow alms and do other works of piety'. The guilds also served as friendly and insurance societies, giving help to members who had suffered financial loss and providing the security and social life of a fraternity. The corporate sense of the guilds was fostered by the wearing of livery and by the services and banquets at which the members met together. (fn. 36) Membership was in theory open to anyone but was restricted by the high entrance fee. (fn. 37) Holy Trinity Guild took over from St. Mary's Guild the functions of a merchant guild and the economic advantages of membership were undoubtedly the predominant motive of many who joined the guild, especially of those outside Coventry. (fn. 38) Others joined for political reasons. Among these were John of Gaunt and his brother Thomas of Woodstock who joined in 1378 after they had quarrelled with the Londoners. Kings and prominent noblemen probably joined when they needed money and political support, (fn. 39) since they knew that Holy Trinity Guild was a powerful and prosperous organization in its own right and in a strong position to determine the official policy of the corporation. Holy Trinity Guild was a considerable landlord, owning a large number of houses and shops in the main streets of the city and fields outside the walls. (fn. 40) This was partly due to the Black Death which impelled many people to make over their property to the guild in anticipation of their imminent death. If they survived they held their old property from the guild as leaseholders. Many, most of them already members of the guild, made transactions involving life tenancies or entails to widows and children, with reversion to the guild. In return for paying the annual farm of £10 to the priory in accordance with the 1355 agreement, the guild received part of the common lands held in severalty. (fn. 41) The guilds maintained chapels in St. Michael's and Holy Trinity and were wholly responsible for St. Nicholas's and St. John the Baptist's, Bablake. At the latter they maintained a college of priests and a grammar school (fn. 42) while from 1506 Holy Trinity Guild was responsible for Bond's Hospital. (fn. 43) The guild-hall of St. Mary's served as a civic centre for the whole community. Holy Trinity guild also regularly contributed to the stipends of several of the principal civic officials and advanced money to the city when it was especially in need. (fn. 44) The prestige of the guild was reflected in the rule dating from 1484 which gave precedence to the master of the guild over everyone except the mayor. (fn. 45)
The journeymen, in spite of the regulations against them, had their own guilds, such as St. Anne's and St. George's. They may have envied the feasting and sociability of their masters' guilds and they took care to give a religious and convivial covering to their meetings. (fn. 46) But the strongest motive was one of economic self-interest in the face of regulation and oppression by their masters, and it was on the grounds of fomenting unrest that the acts against new guilds were invoked.
The craft guilds, for the organization of which there is no evidence earlier than the 14th century, (fn. 47) exercised some of the same functions as the merchant guilds: they maintained priests and chapels; held property and acted as a fraternity, attending weddings and burials of members, and sharing in obits and communal meals. The main purpose was, however, economic, the combination for common interests of the members of the same craft or mystery. Members of craft guilds, particularly those of the highest rank - mercers, drapers, or dyers - might well also belong to Holy Trinity Guild or Corpus Christi Guild, while there was frequently rivalry among the various craft guilds. They did not, therefore, combine to form a united front against the oligarchy of the two merchant guilds. The organization of citizens into craft guilds had distinct advantages for the city government. It gave it an instrument through which it could regulate, not only the economic, but also the social life of the town, especially the nationally famous Coventry plays.
An entry in the city annals under the year 1416 states that 'the pageants and Hox Tuesday [were] invented wherein the king and nobles took great delight'. (fn. 48) There was, however, a reference to a pageant house in 1392 (fn. 49) and the plays had probably then been in existence for some time. Medieval mystery plays grew out of the elaboration of tropes and antiphons in the liturgy of the church. Although there is no evidence of this at Coventry, the large, wealthy Benedictine priory provided the ideal conditions for the development of religious drama, and it is known that at Lichfield under Bishop Hugh de Nonant (1188-98) there were Pastores and Peregrini, Latin plays which provided the kernel for the later Christmas and Easter cycles. (fn. 50)
The origin of the Coventry plays, however, was ascribed not to the Benedictines but to the Franciscans, according to a tradition deriving from Dugdale. Dugdale thought he had found the original Coventry plays in a manuscript now in the British Museum. (fn. 51) The manuscript, which had belonged to Robert Hegge of Durham, and which had been purchased by Sir Robert Cotton c. 1629, bore an inscription on the fly-leaf in the hand of Richard James, Cotton's librarian. The inscription reads:
Elenchus contentorum in hoc codice; Contenta novi testamenti scenice expressa et actitata olim per monachos sive fratres mendicantes vulgo dicitur hic liber Ludus Coventriae sive ludus corporis Christi. Scribitur metris Anglicanis. (fn. 52)
This, together with an entry in one version of the city annals (fn. 53) that in 1493 the king and queen came to see the plays acted 'by the Grey Friars' gave rise to the statement in Dugdale (fn. 54) that the plays were 'acted with mighty state and reverence by the friars of this house'. Although they realized that the ludus Coventriae or Hegge plays were not those acted by the craft guilds, neither Sharp (1825) (fn. 55) nor Halliwell (1841) (fn. 56) rejected Dugdale's statement. Poole (1869) (fn. 57) and Fretton (1878-9) (fn. 58) accepted the Hegge plays as belonging to the Coventry Franciscans and spoke of the Corpus Christi plays being performed under the direction of the friars. Even Burbidge, (fn. 59) writing in 1952, thought that the Ludus Coventriae might represent an early cycle of Coventry plays or plays performed by a wandering troupe of Coventry players. Burbidge did, however, discover the source of Dugdale's mistaken ascription to the Franciscans. He noted another version of the city annals which spoke of the plays being acted not 'by' but 'at the Grey Friars', the wide space outside the Franciscan house providing a suitable station for the pageants. Finally philological research cast doubt on the provenance of the Hegge plays, the dialect suggesting eastern England, probably Lincoln, rather than the midlands. (fn. 60)
There may have been an early, Latin liturgical drama performed by the Benedictine monks in the cathedral church, but the famous Coventry Corpus Christi plays were from the start secular and written in the vernacular and were almost certainly always the responsibility of the craft guilds. The feast and festival of Corpus Christi was first promulgated by Pope Urban IV (1261-4) and, with its procession and play, it spread rapidly during the first half of the 14th century. There is no evidence to show when the Coventry fair, granted in 1218 to be held 'during the octave of Trinity', became Corpus Christi fair, opened on the feast of Corpus Christi, the Thursday after Trinity Sunday. (fn. 61) It may well have coincided with the founding of Corpus Christi Guild in 1348. There are many examples of guilds being founded in the 14th century to provide processions on Corpus Christi day, and the accounts of Corpus Christi Guild (fn. 62) reveal the dominant part played by the guild in the Coventry procession. The guild provided the chalice bearing the sacrament, a canopy to hold over it, a processional cross, and images of the Virgin and St. John. The guild, while responsible for the procession, never seems to have presented plays.
There is nothing in the office of Corpus Christi to explain the widespread Corpus Christi cycles, and it is probable that the custom was invented in one place, probably Italy, and spread for fashionable rather than liturgical reasons. The plays grew out of the coalescence and filling-in of earlier cycles like the Christmas and Easter plays, and the process was facilitated by the translation into the vernacular of New Testament apocrypha like the Gospel of Nicodemus, which provided the basis for the Harrowing of Hell and Assumption plays. The cycle of plays running from the Fall of Lucifer to Doomsday thus provided, found an ideal framework in the organization of craft guilds, each of which could present an episode in the cycle. Coming at a time of growing civic consciousness, when the vernacular was gaining ground, and drama, like other arts, was freeing itself from clerical control, the Corpus Christi procession, already in the hands of a lay guild, provided the focus for the performance of a cycle of plays. The plays were established at Chester by 1327-8 and were at Beverley before 1377 and at York by 1378. They probably reached Coventry between 1348 and 1392. (fn. 63)
Only two of the Coventry Corpus Christi plays (fn. 64) survive - the shearmen and tailors' pageant, dealing with the events from the Annunciation to the Slaughter of the Innocents, and the weavers' pageant covering those from the Presentation in the Temple to the Disputation with the Doctors. Of the other pageants, it is known that the smiths were responsible for the events centring round the Passion, the cardmakers, until 1531 when they were replaced by the cappers, for the Resurrection, and the drapers for Doomsday, while the mercers were almost certainly responsible for the Assumption of Mary. Since, from 1456 at least, there were probably ten pageants, this leaves four, those of the girdlers, pinners, tanners, and whittawers, unaccounted for. Various hypothetical lists have been compiled (fn. 65) based on the supposition that all the plays dealt with New Testament subjects. The latest research on Corpus Christi plays in general, however, has demonstrated that Old Testament subjects presenting the Fall were as important in the cycle as the New Testament subjects of the Redemption of Man. Of New Testament subjects only the events from the Baptism to the Passion are not represented among the known pageants. Since each of the Coventry pageants embraced a number of stories, this would only provide material for one, or at the most, two pageants. The remaining two or three, therefore, must have centred round Old Testament subjects. (fn. 66)
When the Corpus Christi cycle was first presented, the units were probably smaller and the number of pageants greater, one episode being presented by one or at the most two crafts. Thus in 1414 the pinners and needlers presented the single episode of the Deposition. (fn. 67) The structure of the shearmen and tailors' pageant suggests that it originally consisted of two plays -the Annunciation, Nativity, and Shepherds being presented by the tailors, and the Visit of the Kings, Flight into Egypt, and Slaughter of the Innocents by the shearmen. The seal of the shearmen, representing the Virgin and Child receiving gifts from the Magi, is additional evidence for this suggestion. (fn. 68) Similarly, the seal of the mercers, representing the crowned Virgin rising out of clouds, reinforces the probability that the subject of their pageant was the Assumption and that it had always been their responsibility. (fn. 69)
In the course of the two centuries during which they were presented there were considerable changes in the structure of the plays themselves and in the organization surrounding them. There were numerous redactions, some simply adding material or modernizing language, some involving more or less complete rewriting. The 'invention' of the pageants recorded in the annals in 1416 probably represents one such redaction. So does the notice of 'new plays' in 1490 and 1519. (fn. 70) Robert Croo was responsible for the version in which the only extant plays have come down to us. The shearmen and tailors' play was 'newly correct' and the weavers' play 'newly translate' by Robert Croo in 1534, (fn. 71) while the same man appears to have revised the drapers' plays in 1557 (fn. 72) and the smiths' in 1563. (fn. 73) The discovery of two leaves of an earlier version of the weavers' pageant allows comparison with the 16th-century version. It confirms what had already been suspected - namely that revisions were never complete, preserving large sections of earlier versions. The core of the plays, telling the story in a simple, straightforward way, was usually primitive, while the didactic embellishments reveal the work of late-15th- and 16th-century redactors. The plays also show the influence of, and possibly even their origin in, the Chester and York plays. In the case of the latter, the borrowing must have taken place before 1390. (fn. 74)
Unlike the Chester and York cycles, however, the responsibility for the revision of plays seems to have been that of the crafts alone. In York, a great ecclesiastical centre, there was always careful supervision and the municipal authorities kept a register containing all the plays in the cycle. There is no evidence of any such register in Coventry. The craft guilds had copies of their own plays and seem to have had complete freedom in providing for revisions in the text (fn. 75) and in appointing pageant-masters to direct the plays. There was, however, rigid supervision by the council over the organization of the guilds presenting the plays. The plays were soon felt to be a burden by the crafts and they frequently tried to drop them. But the council, concerned with the trade and prestige that the plays brought to Coventry, made strenuous efforts through orders of the leet and heavy fines to force crafts to continue. To counteract the plea of poverty made by individual guilds, they provided for contributions to be made by other guilds. Thus there were constant combinations and dissolutions in the groupings of crafts, groupings often affected by the rise and decline in the wealth and importance of the various occupations. Only the drapers and mercers were wealthy enough to maintain their pageants without any help, partly because, in the case of the latter at least, they included several minor crafts. In an account book of the company, the mercers are divided into five groups: mercers, linen-drapers, haberdashers, grocers, and hat-makers. (fn. 76) After their early union, the shearmen and tailors maintained their play without any subsidiary help, in spite of the loss of the walkers or fullers in 1448. (fn. 77) The weavers, because of the decline of the cloth trade, were in difficulties in 1529 when the leet ordered the transfer of their pageant to the cappers, making them merely contributory to it. (fn. 78) The scheme does not seem to have materialized, however, for the fullers and skinners were told to contribute to the weavers' pageant in 1531. (fn. 79) The whittawers' company which included glovers, fellmongers, and parchment-makers, was joined by the butchers in 1495. (fn. 80) The butchers must have been reluctant for in 1507 they were again ordered by the leet to contribute to the whittawers' pageant. (fn. 81) In the same year the corvisers or shoemakers were ordered to support the tanners' pageant. The order was repeated in 1509 and seems to have been observed by 1552 when the tanners, though 'not as prosperous as they used to be', were supported by the corvisers and later by the butchers. (fn. 82) The pinners and needlers, who alone presented the single episode of the Deposition in 1414, had been joined by the wrights and tilers before 1436. The carpenters were added in that year and the coopers in 1459. A number of people, mainly wheelwrights, were ordered to contribute in 1495. (fn. 83)
The smiths and cutlers appear to have had a joint pageant before 1420 when the smiths asked to be discharged. In 1427 at the request of the mayor, the smiths took over the pageant for that year. But when they asked to be discharged in 1428, they were forced to continue. (fn. 84) The smiths' craft, however, embraced a variety of metal-workers - goldsmiths, pewterers, cutlers, and wiredrawers as well as ordinary blacksmiths. Chandlers were made contributory in 1493 and cooks in 1494, and possibly earlier, while bakers were added in 1507. (fn. 85) The smiths' pageant covered the important subject of the Passion. Equally important was the Resurrection, presented by the cardmakers, to whom the saddlers and painters were made contributory in 1435. (fn. 86) In 1444 the craft of cardmakers, saddlers, painters, and masons, said to 'have long been one fellowship', were breaking up and the mayor had to order them to remain united. (fn. 87) Although the skinners and barbers were made contributory in 1495, (fn. 88) the situation was critical in 1531, the craft 'being now but a few persons' unable to bear the expense of the pageant. The cappers, 'now being in number many wealthy and honest persons', were therefore associated with the cardmakers. They replaced the barbers and part of the payment made by the painters. (fn. 89) By 1536 the wealthy cappers replaced the cardmakers who, together with the saddlers, walkers, skinners, painters and joiners, remained merely contributory. (fn. 90) From 1495 until their association with the cardmakers' pageant in 1531, the cappers had been contributory to the girdlers' pageant. The girdlers had also been helped by the fullers since 1495, and, after the reorganization of the cardmakers' pageant in 1531, by the barbers and painters. (fn. 91)
Economic decline is clearly apparent in an order of the leet in 1494 which states that crafts had been 'more wealthy, rich and more in number than now be' and that they needed help in discharging the burden of pageants 'for the worship of the city'. Dyers, skinners, fishmongers, cappers, corvisers, and butchers were listed among those who had hitherto not been involved in the pageants, but who were henceforth to contribute to the cost. A similar order involving fishmongers, bowyers, and fletchers was enacted in 1533. Fishmongers, at least in the first half of the 15th century, may have been included in the craft of cooks, and so have been contributory to the smiths' pageant, but there is no evidence that the relatively wealthy dyers were ever contributory. They probably regarded the pageants as yet another area of conflict with the council. (fn. 92)
In 1539 the mayor told Cromwell that the expense of the pageants left the 'poor commons' badly off for the rest of the year. (fn. 93) The costumes and properties were kept in pageant-houses with the pageants, the moveable vehicles which served as stages. The pageant-houses of the weavers, shearmen and tailors, and cappers were in Mill Lane, those of the mercers and drapers in Gosford Street and of the whittawers in Hill Street. (fn. 94) The equipment had to be kept in a good state of repair and the account books of the various crafts are full of payments for costumes and properties, some of which, like the satin for Herod's gown or the Hell-mouth for Doomsday, could be very expensive. The two-storied pageants were very elaborate, embellished with carved crests and gilt vanes, and hung with curtains. Other expenses included the hire of a place for rehearsal, usually at St. Mary's Hall, St. Nicholas's Hall, the Bishop's Palace, or the park, and refreshment for the players and pageant-master. (fn. 95)
The Corpus Christi procession started early on the morning of Corpus Christi, the crafts, dressed in livery, proceeding in twos, preceded by torchbearers and attended by their journeymen. The senior company, the mercers, came last, immediately before the Host, which was the special responsibility of Corpus Christi Guild. Trinity Guild was also represented, its priests bearing equally valuable processional crosses, canopies and candlesticks. The mayor and civic dignitaries, probably robed in their scarlet and green gowns, armed guards and some of the principal actors also took part in the procession. The streets were decorated with boughs and noisy with the ringing of bells and the music of the waits. The plays were probably performed after the procession, the heavy pageants being dragged into position in places where there was enough space for the spectators and for performances which sometimes spilled over into the street. Gosford Street, Greyfriars, New Gate, Jordan Well, the Conduit, Cross Cheaping, Little Park Street end, and Richard Wood's house provided such stations and it has been suggested that there were ten stations, one for each ward, (fn. 96) although in his latest work on the subject, Hardin Craig thought ten were too many. (fn. 97)
There were other plays outside the Corpus Christi cycle. A play of St. Katherine was given in the Little Park in 1490 or 1491 and a play of St. 'Crytyan' in 1504 or 1505, although this may also have been the St. Katherine play. (fn. 98) The plays provided Coventry's chief claim to national renown. (fn. 99) So well-known were they that it has been suggested that 'Coventry plays' became a generic term for mystery plays in general, a suggestion which would explain the inscription ludus Coventriae in the Hegge plays. Kings and nobles came to see them. In 1457 Margaret of Anjou, surrounded by lords and ladies nibbling green ginger, pippins, oranges, and 'two coffins of comfits', saw all the plays except Doomsday performed outside Richard Wood's house, where she was staying. (fn. 100) Richard III and Henry VII also saw the plays, the latter twice, once on St. Peter's day. (fn. 101) This may refer to the festivities which took place on St. Peter's eve or a special performance of the plays may have been put on for the king's benefit. Frequently royal visits were greeted with special pageants, written or chosen for their appropriateness to the distinguished visitor. Margaret of Anjou was welcomed in 1456 by speeches from Isaiah, Jeremiah, St. Edward, and St. John and the four cardinal virtues. But the highlight of the entertainment was the pageants of the nine conquerors written by John Wedurby of Leicester, and a representation of St. Margaret slaying the dragon. (fn. 102) A pageant featuring Samson greeted Edward IV in 1460, (fn. 103) and in 1474 his son, though only four years old, in addition to pageants of Jacob's sons, the three kings of Cologne, and St. George, had to listen to King Richard II and Edward the Confessor who made speeches alluding to the legitimacy of the Yorkist dynasty. (fn. 104) When Prince Arthur visited the city in 1498 he saw a pageant of the nine worthies and was welcomed by speeches from King Arthur, the Queen of Fortune, and St. George. (fn. 105) Henry VIII and Katherine of Aragon saw three pageants in 1511, one 'with nine orders of angels', another 'with divers beautiful damsels'. (fn. 106) Princess Mary's entertainment when she visited Coventry in 1526 was more modest. She saw the mercers' pageant, doubtless chosen because it honoured her name-saint. (fn. 107)
Music was often an important part of the pageants. At Prince Edward's reception in 1474, the four pageants were accompanied by minstrelsy 'of the waits of the city', 'of harp and dulcimer', 'of small pipes' and 'of organ playing'. (fn. 108) The pageant to welcome Prince Arthur in 1498 included 'angels censing and singing, with organs and other melody'. (fn. 109) Songs, like the well-known Coventry carol in the shearmen and tailors' pageant, (fn. 110) were probably an integral part of most of the plays and there are payments for singers and musicians in the accounts of the cappers, drapers, smiths, weavers, and carpenters. The singers were often clerks and there were probably some independent minstrels, (fn. 111) but most of the music was provided by the city waits. The earliest reference to the waits is an entry in the leet book under 1423, recording the appointment of four men as city minstrels and giving details as to their payment. Although this entry is sometimes cited as evidence for the first appointment of city waits, it clearly implies the existence of earlier waits. The 1423 men were to have 'as others have had afore them'. They were paid by quarterage, a rate of 1d. from every hall and ½d. from every cottage each quarter. (fn. 112) Trinity Guild provided them with rent-free cottages, (fn. 113) and they also received payment from the guilds and crafts for each occasion upon which they were hired. These included, besides playing in the pageants and processions on Corpus Christi day, festivities on Midsummer eve, and the annual feasts held by each guild. (fn. 114) Any occasion calling for general rejoicing included the waits, from the reception of royalty to the triumphal procession of the rioters who had torn down Bristow's enclosures at Whitley in 1469. (fn. 115) The waits must have been in demand throughout a wide area, for in 1467 a leet order restricted them to within 10 miles of the city, unless high-ranking ecclesiastics should ask for them. (fn. 116) One of the places which sometimes employed them was Maxstoke Priory. (fn. 117)
There were probably always four waits, the chief of whom was a trumpeter, (fn. 118) and the rest played pipes, and probably drums and a stringed instrument - perhaps a dulcimer, later a violin. Organs and regals or small organs were favourite instruments in the 16th century. The waits wore the city's livery - coats or cloaks of green and red and silver escutcheons and collars or chains. (fn. 119)
There were many occasions throughout the year for feasting, ceremonial, and general festivity. The year began with the twelve days of Christmas, conducted by a Lord of Misrule. (fn. 120) St. George's day on 23rd April and Hock Tuesday, the second Tuesday after Easter, were followed soon after by May day. Most festivities fell in the summer - Corpus Christi on the Thursday after Trinity Sunday, then Midsummer day and the Nativity of St. John the Baptist on June 24th, St. Peter's day on June 29th and Lammas day on August 1st. May day involved the usual decoration of the streets and setting up of maypoles with accompanying rites. (fn. 121) Hock Tuesday, which was originally celebrated by very primitive and boisterous customs, seems to have been turned into a play in 1416, representing the defeat of the Danes by the English. (fn. 122) St. George's day, St. Peter's eve, and Lammas day were marked by feasting and ridings, in the case of the latter to open the common fields. (fn. 123) But, apart from Corpus Christi, the biggest occasion was Midsummer eve. The Midsummer eve torchlit procession, called a 'watch', involved the mayor and civic officials in scarlet and velvet robes, the city's armed guard, the crafts proceeding in the same order they observed in the Corpus Christi procession, bearing huge straw figures of giants which were probably burnt in the bonfires in which the celebrations culminated. The streets were decorated with flowers and branches, mainly of birch, and there was much eating and drinking, (fn. 124) although in 1545 the mayor and sheriffs were ordered to restrict their drinking to before the watch. (fn. 125) Holy Trinity Guild also held processions, although there is no indication of feasting, on Shire Thursday, Whit Sunday, and Holy Rood day (14 Sept.). (fn. 126)
There were, however, other occasions for communal feasting. Besides Midsummer eve and St. Peter's eve, Holy Trinity Guild celebrated the feasts of St. John Lateran (6 May), the Trinity, the Decollation of St. John (29 Aug.), St. Matthew (21 Sept.), Michaelmas (29 Sept.), and St. Luke (18 Oct.), as well as numerous obits. (fn. 127) Corpus Christi held a Lenten dinner, a breakfast on the morning of Corpus Christi, a goose dinner in August and a venison dinner in October. In 1492 the guild spent £26 in feasts, only 13s. less than the annual stipend of its five priests. (fn. 128) The craft guilds also enjoyed refreshment, both on special occasions like Corpus Christi day, and after general meetings of the craft. The members of Holy Trinity Guild consumed a variety of wines - white wine, 'wine of Tyre', claret, malmesey, sack, and muscatel. The more prosperous craft guilds like the dyers had red and white wine while the most common drink of all was ale. St. Mary's Hall was used for feasting not only by Holy Trinity Guild but by some of the more important crafts, such as the drapers and mercers. Corpus Christi Guild seems to have held its celebrations at St. Nicholas's Church though it may have dined in Mill Lane as well. The other craft guilds hired rooms in one of the religious houses - Bablake, Greyfriars, and especially Whitefriars, but they probably also met in inns and alehouses, like the Gascoyne tavern where the smiths met in 1468-71. (fn. 129)
Other inns which existed in the 15th century were the 'Bear', (fn. 130) the 'Star', (fn. 131) the 'Angel' where the Duke of Buckingham stayed in 1460, (fn. 132) the 'Rose', originally the 'Red Rose', headquarters of the Lancastrian party, the 'White Rose' or 'Roebuck', meeting-place of the Yorkists, (fn. 133) and the 'Cardinal's Hat' in Earl Street. Some inns were really private houses owned by wealthy citizens who lodged visitors to the city. The 'Cardinal's Hat' was thus originally 'Langley's House', (fn. 134) and the 'Bull' in Smithford Street (fn. 135) belonged to Robert Onley. Henry VII lodged there after Bosworth in 1485 (fn. 136) and Mary Queen of Scots stayed there as a prisoner in 1569. (fn. 137) The 'Peacock', mentioned in 1447, (fn. 138) contained fifteen beds in 1487-8. (fn. 139) Part of it is said to have been converted into the Mayor's Parlour in 1574-8, and was demolished in 1878. (fn. 140) Other visitors to Coventry could stay at the priory guest house and the Hospital of St. John the Baptist provided accommodation for poorer travellers. (fn. 141) Inns mentioned in the 16th century include the 'Red Lion' in Greyfriars Lane, (fn. 142) the 'George' in Gosford Street, (fn. 143) the 'Ram' in Smithford Street, (fn. 144) and probably also the 'Golden Cross'. (fn. 145) In addition to the inns which provided accommodation, there were numerous alehouses. When a census of people and grain was taken in 1520 there was a total population of 6,601. There were 68 brewers brewing 146 quarters of malt a week and 43 bakers baking 132 quarters of wheat a week. From this it has been calculated that the consumption of ale or beer was a quart a day for each member of the population, man, woman and child. (fn. 146)
The council tried to control the ale and wine trade, restricting the number of alehouses, fixing prices, and attempting to reduce drunkenness. According to the mayor's proclamation in 1421 the price of ale was fixed at 1¼d. and 1½d. a gallon, of White Rochelle at 6d., red and white Gascony at 8d., and Malmesey and 'Romeney', a sweet Greek wine, at 16d. a gallon, while no one was to sell the Spanish wines 'Algarbe' or bastard, or 'Osey' from Alsace until the mayor had inspected them. (fn. 147) But it was in the 1540s and 1550s that the problem of excessive drinking assumed considerable importance. In 1544 prices were again fixed and the council enacted that nobody was to brew or sell ale without a licence from the mayor and J.P.s. This was prompted by the large number of people who left their occupations to become brewers and tapsters, and who charged high prices after forestalling and regrating barley when it was brought into the city on market days. The effect of this, according to the leet book, was that 'Almighty God is highly displeased, the commonwealth of this city greatly decayed and vice, idleness and other innumerable mischiefs nourished and increased'. (fn. 148) It seems to have been the latter which especially incensed the council. In 1547 they complained that 'those of the poorest sort' sat all day in the alehouse drinking and playing cards and 'tables' when they should be at home giving part of their earnings to their wives and children. The leet, therefore, forbade any labourer, journeyman, or apprentice to resort to any inn, tavern, or alehouse to eat or drink on a workingday. (fn. 149) In 1553 they enacted that no alehouse-keeper was to allow any Coventry inhabitant to eat or drink in his alehouse, except on market or fair days and then only in the company 'of an honest stranger', and no inn-holder was to allow any handicraftsman, labourer, journeyman or apprentice to eat, drink, or play except in the company of a stranger. (fn. 150) This legislation was a typical example of the determination of the upper-class oligarchy to keep the restless and ambitious lower class in subjection. Merchants, mercers, and drapers, unlikely to resort to common alehouses, would be unaffected by the first part of the legislation, while the second part, relating to inns, specifically exempted them. There were frequent enactions to curb the number of alehouses, which in 1552 were considered 'excessive', leading to 'an increase of vice and decay of the commonwealth'. At the same time there was an attempt to separate the functions of brewing and selling ale. (fn. 151) The efforts of the council, however, seem to have been in vain. The number of alehouses did not diminish and tippling remained the chief recreation for the majority of the inhabitants.
For those who liked more strenuous pastimes there was archery, racing, bowls, quoits, hunting, and the baiting of animals - bulls, bears, and cocks. One of the grievances of the inhabitants against the inclosure of common land was that it deprived them of their recreation ground where they could shoot arrows, wrestle, run races of men and horses, dance, and hold feasts. (fn. 152) That they did not always confine these recreations to commons is evident from the complaint of the prior in 1480 that his corn and grass had been damaged by the citizens during their 'roving' expeditions. (fn. 153) Roving, a popular but dangerous sport consisting of shooting at moveable targets, had been forbidden by the leet in 1468. At the same time butts were ordered to be made around the city (fn. 154) in accordance with Edward IV's decree ordering butts to be set up in every township, the inhabitants to shoot there on all feast days. (fn. 155) In 1496 every craft was ordered to make its own butts. (fn. 156) The position of some of these is known: Drapers' and Skinners' Butts stood outside New Gate, (fn. 157) and Barkers' Butts to the west of the city. (fn. 158) Other butts mentioned are Somerles, near Spon, and Childrous. (fn. 159) Shooting at butts, however, never seems to have been as popular as roving, which survived the decrees against it, (fn. 160) and by the 16th century gaming in alehouses had largely replaced it. A leet order of 1517 empowered aldermen to stop 'unlawful games' and to see to the exercising of long bows. (fn. 161)
Cock-fighting, mentioned in 1441, remained a favourite sport at Coventry until recent times. (fn. 162) A rather curious leet order was enacted in 1423 and again in 1474 that no butcher could kill a bull, unless it had been baited at the accustomed place. The penalty was a fine and forfeiture of the bull. (fn. 163) The chamberlains were ordered in 1424 to make a ring at the bull-ring so that bulls could be baited 'as they have been heretofore'. (fn. 164) The bull-ring, next to the Great Butchery, was near Holy Trinity Church. (fn. 165) Evidence for bear-baiting exists in entries in chamberlains' and wardens' accounts of payments to Sir Fulke Greville's bear-ward. (fn. 166)
Cheylesmore originated as a hunting lodge and when Roger de Montalt left for the Holy Land in 1249-50 and granted part of the manor to the priory, he specifically reserved the right for himself and his heirs to hunt and hawk when they came to Coventry. (fn. 167) The park was stocked with deer during the late 14th century and retained its reputation for venison well into the 17th century. (fn. 168) The proximity to Cheylesmore Park and the commons surrounding the city provided the citizens of Coventry with plenty of opportunity for hunting and hawking. This, however, was frowned upon by the authorities when it was indulged in by the lower classes. Greyhounds were forbidden to anyone below the rank of a 40s. freeholder in 1510. (fn. 169) In 1525 the prohibition was extended to hawks, hounds, ferrets, nets, or any other hunting aids. The reason for this was alleged to be the excessive hunting by inhabitants 'disposed to idleness not having 40s. of freehold', which destroyed the beasts and fowls of the warren and chace, 'whereby much idleness and poverty is greatly increased within the city'. (fn. 170) The order was probably ineffective, however, for it was repeated in 1550, the hunting of ducks in other men's waters being then added to the other prohibited sports. (fn. 171) Duck-hunting was still, about 1800, a popular sport around Coventry. (fn. 172) In 1518 bowls and quoits were forbidden to 'poor craftsmen' although bowling at St. Anne's by the Charterhouse was permitted to 'honest persons that will make little noise'. (fn. 173)
The Reformation wrought a profound change in the life of Coventry's inhabitants far beyond questions of dogma or forms of worship. Although the citizens had spent much of their history in conflict with the great Benedictine priory in their midst, its dissolution, and that of the Charterhouse and two friaries, brought a deep sense of shock. Since the Dissolution coincided with a period of economic depression and social unrest, many connected the two events and attributed the loss of Coventry's former glory to the disappearance of the monks. It was felt that the priory had attracted visitors and trade to the city and the end of the hospitality and almsgiving of the friaries was especially regretted. But all efforts to reprieve the religious houses were disregarded by the Crown; the great priory decayed (fn. 174) and the other houses passed out of clerical hands. The dissolution of the religious houses was followed in 1545 by that of the chantries and guilds. The power of the great guilds had already begun to decline by 1535 when Corpus Christi united with Holy Trinity Guild, (fn. 175) and although there was some opposition to their suppression in 1547, it was feeble and was readily appeased by the passing of an Act of Parliament in the following year which enabled the corporation to purchase the guilds' property. (fn. 176) Nevertheless, the removal of Holy Trinity Guild left a gap in the pageantry and social life of Coventry which was not wholly filled by the craft guilds or by the corporation, in spite of the latter's effort in 1555 at display in 'scarlet and velvet' on principal days. (fn. 177)
The burning in Coventry of several Marian martyrs (fn. 178) strengthened the anti-Catholic and Puritan tendencies in the city, which erupted during the 1560s in an orgy of iconoclasm. 'Good ministers' were sent to Coventry in 1559 and the mayor and aldermen passed an act of the leet to make a levy on every house to maintain them. (fn. 179) Under the influence of the new ministers and the Puritan council, the mass was suppressed, images and relics were beaten down and burnt in the streets, organs were removed from the churches, paintings whitewashed, and in an excess of zeal even the registers of St. Michael's were burnt because they contained 'some marks of Popery'. (fn. 180) Only Coventry Cross was spared, and that was because the Puritans who set out to destroy it were met by butchers with cleavers. (fn. 181)
Although religion in Coventry was of a strongly Protestant tone, fanatical Puritanism seems to have been resisted by the majority of the population. It was, however, the creed of the ruling oligarchy and of the clergy, who would have been happy to move in the direction of a Calvinistic theocracy. They were frustrated, at least for almost half a century, by the resistance of the people who clung, in spite of their Protestantism, to the pastimes and festivities of a pre-Reformation society, and by the policy and inclinations of the queen. Thus the Puritan council in the first flush of its iconoclastic enthusiasm 'put down' Hox Tuesday in 1561 and the Midsummer eve procession c. 1563. (fn. 182) But the Corpus Christi plays survived after the Chester and York cycles had been suppressed. This was probably partly due to the queen's interest. When she visited the city in 1565, Elizabeth I saw four pageants and was greeted by the recorder, John Throgmorton, who told her the story of Hock Tuesday, adding that 'a certain memorial whereof is kept to this day, by certain open shows in this city yearly'. (fn. 183) Whether this means that the 'putting-down' of 1561 had been ineffective, or whether it was a hint to the queen is not known, but the Hock Tuesday play, as well as the Corpus Christi plays, was certainly being performed again in 1567. (fn. 184) It was probably suppressed again soon afterwards for when it was played before the queen at Kenilworth in 1575 it was described as 'now of late laid down ... by the zeal of certain of their preachers: men very commendable for their behaviour and learning, and sweet in their sermons, but somewhat too sour in preaching away their pastime'. The players, wishing the preachers would confine themselves to preaching and leave matters of 'government' to the mayor and magistrates, requested the queen that they should have their play again. (fn. 185) The request seems to have been granted, for an entry in the city annals records that Hock Tuesday, which 'had been laid down 8 years', was played again. The annals, notoriously inaccurate on the question of dating, give 1575 for this entry, (fn. 186) but it should probably be dated a year later since the queen's visit to Kenilworth took place in July, that is later than Hock Tuesday.
With the single exception of 1575, which was a plague year, (fn. 187) the Corpus Christi plays were regularly played until 1580 when they were 'laid down'. This seems to have caused considerable discontent among the people and players, however, for in 1584 a new play, dealing with the theologically respectable subject of the Destruction of Jerusalem, was commissioned from John Smythe of Oxford, who was paid the large sum of £13 6s. 8d. for it. The play, which was probably based on Josephus, seems to have been a very elaborate one, involving all the crafts. (fn. 188) No plays were performed again until 1591 and several of the pageant-houses and properties were sold during the 1580s, although the weavers rebuilt their pageant-house in 1587. (fn. 189) Their optimism was justified to some extent for in 1591 'at the request of the commons of this city' the council gave permission for the Destruction of Jerusalem and the Hock Tuesday play to be played on the pageants on the following Midsummer day and St. Peter's day, 'and none other plays'. By this time the plays had broken completely with tradition, in subject, in the days upon which they were played, and even in the responsibility of the craft guilds. A general contractor, Thomas Massey, managed the plays, being paid by crafts, many of which had already sold their equipment. (fn. 190) This was the last occasion upon which any plays were performed although Massey tried to revive them to celebrate the coronation of James I. He spread the rumour that the king's daughter, Princess Elizabeth, was coming from Combe Abbey to see the plays. The Puritan council referred the question to two local preachers who vetoed the plays and Massey was imprisoned. (fn. 191) Thus by 1628 the pageants could be spoken of as 'put down many years since' and about the same time Sir Robert Cotton's librarian wrote his misleading inscription on the Hegge plays. (fn. 192)
The 1590s and 1600s were marked by another period of activity on the part of the Puritan council. The same council meeting which gave permission for the last performance of plays in Coventry ordered all the maypoles in the city to be taken down 'and not hereafter to be set up'. With the suppression of the last of the public festivals, life became very drab, and, moreover, trade probably suffered. Ben Jonson's description of the Puritan tradesmen of Coventry, though written in 1625, (fn. 193) doubtless applied equally to the 1590s:
'A pure native bird This: and tho' his hue Be Coventry Blue Yet is he undone By the thread he has spun For since the wise town Has let the sports down Of May games and morris For which he right sorr' is, Where their maids and their mates At Dancing and Wakes, Had their napkins and posies . . .'
Jonson ends by suggesting that the only use left for the Puritan's thread is 'to hang or choke him'.
Sabbatarianism was also growing during this period. In 1588 the opening of shops, playing games, or idly walking about were forbidden during servicetime on Sundays. (fn. 194) In 1599 these orders were intensified, indoor games and idly sitting in streets or fields being added to the other forbidden activities. (fn. 195) Football in the streets would incur gaol after 1595 and children's games in the street were forbidden in 1605. (fn. 196) This suggests that the earlier prohibitions were being disregarded, as does the complaint of churchwardens that, in spite of their efforts, many 'do lie in bed', while others went to neighbouring villages where they could spend the Sabbath profanely, drinking and enjoying themselves 'to the great dishonour of God and the offence of others'. (fn. 197) In the same year church attendance on Sundays was made compulsory (fn. 198) and listening to sermons and theological debates replaced the more frivolous recreations of the past. The first weekly lecture, which was to become a feature of the Commonwealth period, was established in 1609. (fn. 199)
The Puritans found that James I, like Elizabeth, disappointed their expectations. In 1611 they were ordered, in a letter from the king himself, to receive the sacrament kneeling, 'to the grief of many'. Ten years later James refused to approve the new charter until he was satisfied that the orders of the church were being observed. The bishop informed him that there were 'not above seven of any note who do not conform themselves'. This was almost certainly an understatement and Laud's measures caused particular dismay. After recording the order in 1635 to turn the communion table into an altar, the writer of the city annals remarked 'God grant it continueth not long'. (fn. 200) During part of the 1630s and early 1640s there were orders for the wearing of scarlet on festival days, defined in 1640 as All Saints day, Gunpowder Treason day, Christmas day, New Year's day, Candlemas, Easter day, Whitsun, Trinity Sunday, Coventry Fair day, and both Great Leet days. (fn. 201) These 'festival days', however, must have been drab affairs compared with those of the past. Even the waits, who had survived longer than the rest, had been discharged in 1634 for being 'troublesome'. (fn. 202)
The Puritans were back in the ascendancy in 1641 when the altar of Holy Trinity was replaced by the table. Two Presbyterians, Obadiah Grew and John Bryan, became vicars respectively of St. Michael in 1642 and Holy Trinity in 1644. The covenant was taken in 1643 (fn. 203) and Coventry remained staunchly Parliamentarian throughout the Civil War period. It is possible that the phrase 'sent to Coventry' derived from the unbending attitude of the townsfolk to Royalist prisoners sent there. (fn. 204) The diary of Robert Beake (mayor, 1655) gives some indication of the strict Sabbatarianism in force in Coventry during the Commonwealth period. Offenders were put in the stocks or the cage for travelling on Sunday, and even the man who was travelling 'to be a godfather' was fined. Beake seems to have been very zealous in his duties. He was active in suppressing disorder and the selling of unlicensed ale and personally visited all the unlicensed alehouses in three wards, while he spent his Sundays in the park, to observe 'who idly walked there'. (fn. 205)
Most of Coventry's chief citizens remained Protestant and anti-Royalist in sympathy, (fn. 206) and many of the measures of the Puritan years, like the compulsory attendance at church and the closing of shops on Sunday, remained. (fn. 207) Nevertheless, there was a conscious reaction against Puritan repression at the Restoration, at least on the part of those in power, and probably among many of the people as well. The Restoration was celebrated with feasting, bonfires, and conduits running wine. Grew and Bryan were ejected, the lectures suppressed, and maypoles brought back. (fn. 208) In 1662 the font and organ were restored to St. Michael's and the king's brother, later James II, was entertained by the city council. (fn. 209) The pageants were never revived but there was some attempt to recreate the pageantry and gaiety of an earlier period. Waits were appointed in 1674 'to play in the city as the waits formerly did, during the pleasure of the house' and the Great Show Fair, the successor of the Corpus Christi Fair, was celebrated by feasting at about the same time. (fn. 210) The year 1678 saw the permanent establishment of two institutions - the waits and the Godiva procession. The four waits, whose instruments were two trebles, one tenor, and a double curtell, were placed on a regular footing. They were to be paid 20 nobles a year, given cloaks every two years, and were to wear the city's badge. Their duties were to play at all public feasts and fairs and to play through the streets from 2.0 a.m. until dawn during the winter from Michaelmas to April 22. (fn. 211) The waits continued on this basis until 1706, when their wages were stopped, and after that on a voluntary basis. (fn. 212)
The Great Show Fair procession, which was also instituted in 1678, attained, during the next 150 years, something of the national fame of the religious Corpus Christi celebrations it replaced. In place of the mystery plays, the apparently secular, and therefore respectable, subject of Lady Godiva became the focal point of the procession. The particular interest in Godiva during the late 17th and 18th centuries may have been fostered by the struggle of the city government with Charles II. Godiva, as the traditional originator of the city's liberties, provided an ideal focus for city pride and patriotism. As in the pre-Reformation Corpus Christi celebrations, the craft guilds or city companies provided, together with the city council, most of the pageantry. They furnished followers to march in procession with streamers bearing the company arms, following the city's streamers of the elephant and castle and cat-a-mountain, the mayor, and the boy, or later the girl, who represented Lady Godiva. (fn. 213)
Processions to greet royal visitors to the town were similarly composed of the mayor and aldermen, the city companies, and the waits, supplemented by trumpeters and drummers. When James II visited the city in 1687 the streets were decorated with branches, Turkish carpets and tapestries hung from the newly white-washed houses, and the mayor and aldermen and companies, all in their gowns and carrying streamers, conducted the king to St. Mary's Hall, where he was confronted with such a feast of fish and sweetmeats that the table collapsed under the weight. (fn. 214)
James's visit was a deliberate attempt to win the goodwill of Protestant Coventry which had rapturously received the Duke of Monmouth in 1682. (fn. 215) In spite of the official pageantry, however, Coventry remained obdurate. Richard Hopkins, the prominent citizen whom James had hoped to win over in 1687, offered his hospitality to Princess Anne when she fled from London in 1688. James's expulsion in that year was celebrated by the 'rude people' of Coventry and Birmingham in destroying the property of Roman Catholics and hunting down priests. James's welcome in 1687, therefore, was partly due to the genuine delight of dissenters who welcomed the Declaration of Indulgence, and partly the expression of the citizens who welcomed pageantry and feasting, irrespective of its object. (fn. 216)
Feasting, and especially drinking, seems to have survived all the repressive legislation against it. The measures of the 1550s (fn. 217) were succeeded by an effort in 1622 to exclude strangers from the trades of brewer, maltster, and victualler, (fn. 218) but in 1625 it was reported that there was too much resorting to alehouses and aldermen were empowered to visit alehouses twice a week to punish offenders. (fn. 219) Yet even the efforts of the conscientious Robert Beake in the 1650s (fn. 220) to suppress unlicensed alehouses had little effect, and in 1661 there were said to be 137 inns and alehouses in the city. (fn. 221) After the suppression of the religious houses, inns became even more important as the meeting-places of the city companies. Fretton lists fifteen public houses at which the fullers' company held its meetings and feasts. (fn. 222) Some companies owned or rented rooms in which to meet. The weavers were meeting in Leather Hall for feasting on Midsummer eve in the middle of the Commonwealth period. (fn. 223) The butchers held their feast in St. Mary's Hall in 1661. (fn. 224) The companies remained as dining clubs long after they had lost their economic functions. When Poole wrote in 1869 the butchers, fullers, mercers, drapers, clothiers, worsted weavers, and cappers still survived, but in most cases they were represented by gentlemen who held property in a corporate capacity, sometimes performed charitable functions, and met annually to dine, but who had no connexion with the trade which they represented. (fn. 225)
The grammar school and its library provided Coventry with some literary pretensions during the 17th century. One of the ushers of the school was Dr. Philemon Holland, who had practised medicine in Coventry from c. 1585-1608. Holland was the most famous translator of the early 17th century, translating Camden, Livy, Pliny, Plutarch, Marcellinus, and Suetonius into English. His pupils included the two Davenports, Christopher and John, one a Catholic, the other one of the Puritan founders of Newhaven (Connecticut). Another pupil was Sir William Dugdale, the historian of Warwickshire. (fn. 226) Coventry had a modest record as the home of historians, from Geoffrey, the chronicler of the priory in the 13th century, to Richard Grafton (fn. 227) in the 16th century and Dugdale and Humfrey Wanley, the antiquary and cataloguer of the Harleian collection, in the 17th century. (fn. 228)
The grammar school library is usually dated from 1601, when the building was begun at the expense of the corporation and the headmaster, John Tovey, made an appeal for books. (fn. 229) There seem to have been earlier libraries in Coventry: the libraries of the religious houses, (fn. 230) a house in Well Street mentioned among Trinity Guild property in 1532, (fn. 231) and a library belonging to the grammar school which Elizabeth I visited in 1565. (fn. 232) But the 17th-century library was the first to qualify as a public library since it was open to scholars in the town as well as to those of the school. In this respect it vies with Norwich in being the earliest municipal public library in England.
The library was housed in a large timber-framed room on the south side of the school until it was demolished when the street was widened in 1794. In 1615 William Wheate devised a yearly rent-charge of 13s. 4d. 'to the use of such person as should keep the library lately built in the city of Coventry, for their careful looking to the books thereof'. The library-keeper, usually one of the senior boys, continued to be paid 13s. 4d. until 1832. Most of the books were acquired by donation. Early donors included Humphrey Fenn, the Puritan divine, Vicar of Holy Trinity in 1578 and 1585-90, Richard Butler, mayor in 1601, Elizabeth, Lady Berkeley (d. 1635), John Hales, nephew of the founder of the school, Basil Feilding, Earl of Denbigh (d. 1675), recorder, 1647-51, and Dr. Ralph Bathurst, Vice-Chancellor of Oxford University, who gave a copy of the Bodleian Library catalogue in 1676. Among the earliest gifts to the school were two volumes on Egyptian hieroglyphics, given by the coroner, Richard Randell. Most of the books, however, were theological - a number of bibles and histories of the bible, the works of Luther and Melanchthon, and, surprisingly in such a Protestant town, the letters of St. Ignatius. Secular books included Occleve, On the Education of Princes, Lydgate's poems, the works of Livy, and volumes in Greek, Hebrew, Syriac, Spanish, Italian, French, Russian, Irish, and Welsh. Few of these can have found any readers, and doubtless they were valued as incunabula and rarities. In 1628 the corporation ordered that boys were not to be allowed access at their pleasure, but marginalia and other additions to those books which survived in 1908 show that they were in fact allowed to use the books fairly freely.
The care taken of the books in the 17th century was not maintained and the library, like the school itself, was one of the many victims of neglect during the 18th and early 19th centuries. The Charity Commissioners' report of 1833 stated that 'the books seem to have been entirely neglected and exposed to distruction', and that some of them had even been used to light fires. Part of the damage was due to storage in a damp room - St. Mary's Hall - after the library building had been demolished in 1794. Various committees of the council were appointed to view the library in the 1820s and 1830s but they seem to have contributed little to stopping the decline and in 1908 the remaining books were sold by the governors for £70. Some of the books, including the original donation list and catalogue, were acquired by Cambridge University Library. (fn. 233) Seven volumes were acquired for the Coventry and Warwickshire Collection of Coventry Public Libraries in 1951. (fn. 234)