The City of Coventry: The outlying parts of Coventry, Introduction

Pages 40-43

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.

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(fn. 1) There is no reference to any place in the Coventry district, apart from Coventry itself, before 1086 when Ansty, Foleshill, Coundon, Sowe, and Binley appear in the Domesday Survey. (fn. 2) Coventry, Ansty, and Foleshill were then held of the king and had been part of Godiva's estates; Coundon and the larger part of Sowe were held by Coventry Abbey, later the priory. (fn. 3) The first detailed description of the area is the list of places the parochial rights in which were granted or 'regranted' by Ranulf de Gernon, Earl of Chester, to the priory in the early 12th century. It comprised the vills of Ansty, Binley, Exhall, Foleshill, Shilton, Stivichall, Stoke, and Wyken, all of which were to become parishes, the vills of Bisseley, Keresley, Pinley, Spon, and Whitley, which remained in St. Michael's parish, and the vill of Whoberley, (fn. 4) which lay partly in Stoneleigh parish. The list does not include Coundon and Sowe, vills of which the priory was lord, or the vills in Holy Trinity parish, Harnall, Radford, and Whitmore.

In the 13th century references to the manor of Cheylesmore or Coventry begin to appear. (fn. 5) The exact limitations of the manor are, however, difficult to ascertain. The Earl's Half certainly formed part of the manor but it is less certain what area made up the remainder. In 1336 it was claimed that the manor 'extended into fifteen vills and hamlets' (fn. 6) but it is not clear exactly what was implied by this phrase. In 1346 cognizance of pleas within the manor and view of frankpledge of Coventry was granted to the emergent borough, (fn. 7) and in 1355 the places which were subject to this leet jurisdiction were listed as Radford, Keresley, Foleshill, Exhall, Ansty, part of Sowe, Caludon, Wyken, Henley (in Foleshill), Wood End (in Sowe), Stoke, Bigging (in Stoke), Whitley, Pinley, Asthill, part of Stivichall, Horwell, Harnall, and Whoberley. (fn. 8) Whether all these can necessarily be regarded as constituent parts of the manor is not entirely certain. Clearly some were, but the tenurial history of estates within some of the others is very complicated, as is evident from the detailed accounts given below. Of the manor as a whole little more can be said with certainty than that it seems to have evolved from lands at one time held by the earls of Chester centred on their hunting lodge at Cheylesmore, and that it included the whole of some of the places named in 1355 and estates within some of the others.

At all events the places listed in 1355 became parts of the county of the city in 1451. (fn. 9) In addition Shilton, which like Binley was regarded as a chapelry of St. Michael's until after the Dissolution, (fn. 10) appears as part of the county of the city in the leet book version of the charter (fn. 11) and was administered as part of the county in the 15th and 16th centuries. The city's claims to this jurisdiction, however, were not maintained. (fn. 12) Neither Sowe nor Stivichall were wholly in the county of the city, (fn. 13) probably because neither the tenants of the priory in Sowe nor those of the Bishop of Coventry and Lichfield in Stivichall had been subject to the Cheylesmore court. In Stivichall the distinction had disappeared by the 17th century, but in Sowe it continued until the end of the county of the city. (fn. 14)

The later civil parish of Willenhall, first mentioned in the 12th century, was by the middle of the 13th century an estate of Coventry Priory, to which its chapel was appropriated. (fn. 15) It was never part of the Earl of Chester's estates, and, although it remained a detached part of Holy Trinity parish, was not in the county of the city.

The village of Allesley was part of the Chester estates in the 12th century and, although not in Ranulf de Gernon's grant, was a chapelry of St. Michael's. On the division of the Chester estates in 1243, when the rest of Coventry passed to Cecily, wife of Roger de Montalt, Allesley went to Nichole, wife of Roger de Sumery, and the chapel obtained parochial status shortly after. (fn. 16) Binley was never part of the Chester estates and its chapel may have been included in Ranulf de Gernon's grant only because of its associations with the priory, which held a manor there of the honor of Richard's Castle (Herefs.). (fn. 17) Baginton, Berkswell, and Stoneleigh, parts of which are in the modern city, have no ancient historical connexions with Coventry. (fn. 18)

There is no adequate evidence for the history of the district before the 13th century. The entries of the few localities described in Domesday Book are vague and difficult to interpret. The area was probably only partially cultivated and settled before the Conquest, and, indeed, up to the 13th century, and there is continuing evidence of clearance of woodland and heath until much later.

Early medieval penetration of the district appears to have been from the south and east, and early settlement is associated with more fully developed field-systems. At Stivichall, south of Coventry, the field-system included almost the whole parish, and was managed with a three-course rotation. East and north of Coventry the field-systems of Ansty, Sowe, Foleshill, and Keresley, going from east to west, were each smaller and less closely knit than the last. In the small parishes of Willenhall and Wyken on the south and east, in Coundon and Keresley on the west, and in the smaller localities, the field-systems, if they existed at all, were small and loosely organized.

Figure 7:

Ancient parish boundaries

Most of the district was woodland and waste until the 13th century, and was then still nominally in the forests of Barnet and Hasilwood to the north, and Ashaw to the south-west. The settlements planted in these wastes surrounded themselves with arable fields and claimed an area of common land around them. The village and parish boundaries were illdefined and often disputed, even to the 19th century. Coventry Priory, which held the chapelries and many estates, cared little where the boundaries ran while it received its income from both sides of the line. Even after the Dissolution, the continued existence of the Cheylesmore court, and of the county of the city, with their pre-parochial character, obscured the distinctiveness of the various villages. The individual ownership of tithes after the Dissolution, the evolution of a class of landowners or influential farmers with the appearance of manorial lords, and the development of the parochial poor law, all helped to clarify the parish boundaries. But it was not until the Census and the Ordnance Survey in the 19th century that the local units were precisely defined, only to be swept away soon after by the expansion of Coventry.

Of the parishes Ansty is the best example of an agrarian village community. At Stivichall the rural pattern seems to have been disturbed from an early date by suburban influences from Coventry, and at Sowe the open-field community was complemented by the development of hamlets and farms on Sowe Waste. At Foleshill the position and even the existence of the original village is in doubt, and elsewhere there were hamlets and farms rather than villages.

The medieval social structure reflected the scattered settlement and late development of the area. Even in Ansty and Sowe labour services and other manorial obligations were comparatively light and the service tenants do not seem to have found the requirements of Coventry Priory or the other landlords especially irksome. It was not uncommon for tenants to hold land from several landlords, to hold by both free and service tenure, and to hold both open-field and inclosed land. Among individual peasant families, a generation or two of ambitious individuals would accumulate plots and build up the family holding; another generation would sell plots, or lose them through such events as death and marriage. Some families built up substantial farms in the wastes. This process was accelerated in the 15th century when the probable general reduction of population was accompanied by some consolidation of holdings. Throughout the later Middle Ages Coventry Priory was increasing its income by developing farmsteads on its wastes, such as Hawkesbury, and Moat House in Coundon, and letting them either to ambitious villagers or to more substantial men from Coventry and elsewhere. After the Dissolution such holdings became independent farms, but this type of development was thereafter limited by the absence of the general estates policy of the priory, and the creation of a multiplicity of private interests.

Agriculture in the open fields and commons was of a characteristic mixed type. On the inclosed land cattle and sheep were more numerous and there is evidence in the later Middle Ages and after of the influences of the Coventry and even of the London meat markets. There was no special emphasis on wool or significant connexion with the Coventry weaving industry. The district supplied Coventry with timber and faggots, stone and other building material.

Until the 20th century the relationship between Coventry and the surrounding villages was not that of a growing urban centre surrounded by a dependent agricultural district. In the 12th century the earls had general administrative rights over the surrounding forest areas and the monastery had been granted the chapelries of the district and several of the more ancient agrarian settlements. The community which grew around these two centres of power began to develop as a marketing and trading centre. But in the 13th century a large ancient village such as Sowe could probably still exist in virtual independence.

In the 14th and 15th centuries the independence of the villages was reduced firstly by the acquisition by the city of the manorial rights of Cheylesmore and of the jurisdiction of the county of the city; secondly by the tendency for ambitious and active villagers to buy property and businesses in Coventry and for successful Coventry tradesmen to invest in landed property in the villages. Thus came into existence the first suburban class in the district, which, although having one foot in the town and one in the country, regarded its town interests as the more important.

The independence of some of the villages was reinforced after the Dissolution by the interest shown in them by the landowners, both non-resident, such as the earls of Craven in Sowe, and resident, such as the Taylers and Adamses in Ansty, and the Gregory family in Stivichall. This interest was shown in inclosures, in the construction of country houses, and in money spent on the church. Suburban penetration of such parishes was much slower than in Stoke, where there was no influential landowner, or Foleshill, where the Hopkins family had only limited influence.

The development first of mining and then of weaving in the district north and east of Coventry introduced new elements into this relationship between town and country. Coventry was not at first the centre of the industrial district; it was itself a weaving town and a market for coal, but both industries used markets and communications other than those of Coventry. The building of the turnpike roads, then the canals, and finally the railways, did to some extent draw trade into Coventry. But in spite of the readier acceptance of new machinery by the Coventry weavers, the country weavers maintained a resolute independence, reflected in their political and religious attitudes. It was not until the sharp decline in mining in the 19th century, the final crushing of the hand-loom weavers by the Cobden treaty of 1860, and the break-up of the pattern of rural life which had been created by the gentry, that the inhabitants of the district began to turn automatically to Coventry as their economic and social centre.

Harnall, Radford, southern Foleshill, and eastern Stoke were already being overrun by Coventry suburbs in the mid-19th century. The modernized textile industry and the new engineering industry were from the first concentrated in the city and these inner suburbs; the building-materials industry developed to supply this urban area. The district became dotted with installations, such as gas works, electricity stations, sewage works, water tanks, and bus stations, necessary for urban growth. Former fields and meadows became parks, golf-courses, and school playing fields. At Stoke Green, Keresley, and Coundon were built substantial houses for professional and business men working in Coventry. Elsewhere, in Stoke and Foleshill, late-Victorian development was of terraced houses for workers in industry and commerce. Increasingly people travelled into Coventry to work instead of working in the village. Several villages put up spirited resistance to the expansion of the city and some of the appearance and many of the features of rural life were preserved until the Second World War. But the housing explosions of the 1930s and 1950s finally obliterated the individual character of the villages of the county of the city and left in their place a single modern city.

The following accounts of the outlying areas are particularly concerned with their tenurial and topographical history and their general development, but also include in some cases sections on local government and on any charities that were founded to benefit these areas only. The histories of mills, schools, and religious institutions in these areas are, however, dealt with elsewhere, in general sections on topics covering the whole Coventry district. (fn. 19)


  • 1. This section was completed in 1965.
  • 2. See p. 2. For Binley see V.C.H. Warws. vi. 35.
  • 3. V.C.H. Warws. i. 305, 309-310.
  • 4. Cal. Chart. R. 1341-1417, 102, 103.
  • 5. For the history of the descent of the manor and of the park, see pp. 18-20.
  • 6. Rot. Parl. Anglie, . . . 1279-1373 (Camd. Soc. 3rd ser. li), 254, 261.
  • 7. See p. 258.
  • 8. See p. 3.
  • 9. See p. 3.
  • 10. V.C.H. Warws. vi. 37, 215; Bailiffs' Accts. Warws. 57; see also p. 319.
  • 11. See p. 3.
  • 12. Leet Bk. 354, 363, 407; Bailiffs' Accts. Warws. 57; cf. Warws. Co. Recs. ii. 235.
  • 13. The leet book version of the charter omits the parts of Sowe and Stivichall: see pp. 3, 263.
  • 14. See pp. 96, 114.
  • 15. See pp. 115, 329.
  • 16. V.C.H. Warws. vi. 4, 7.
  • 17. Ibid. 35-36, 37.
  • 18. The histories of these five parishes, together with that of Exhall in the county of the city, and of Shilton, have been given in V.C.H. Warws. iv and vi.
  • 19. See Mills, pp. 190-98, Public Education, pp. 299-315, Churches, pp. 316-67, Roman Catholicism, pp. 368-71, and Protestant Nonconformity, pp. 372-96. The general articles on modern economic history and local government and public services (pp. 162-89, 256-98) also deal with Coventry as a whole.