On the evening of 14 November 1940, over 500 bombers from the Luftwaffe (the German air force) targeted Coventry in the highly industrialised West Midlands.
There had been a number of previous smaller raids on the city during the Battle of Britain (July-October 1940), when the Germans had unsuccessfully attempted to devastate Britain’s airfields, factories and infrastructure as a precursor to a potential invasion.
A first wave of high explosive bombs crippled Coventry’s gas, water and electricity supplies; later waves dropped a combination of high explosive and incendiary bombs, swiftly igniting intense fires.
In the 12 hours of the raids, 568 people were killed and over 4,000 homes destroyed.
Around a third of the city’s factories were damaged or destroyed, including those making munitions and aircraft. Most of the medieval city centre was left in ruins.
Coventry Cathedral, dating from the 14th century, suffered a firestorm leaving it a virtual shell with only the tower and its spire still standing.
This pinnacle was rescued from the rubble and served as a monument to the visit of George VI, the present Queen’s father. The inscription reads: ‘King George VI stood here 16 November 1940 viewing the ruins.’
The decision to rebuild the cathedral was taken the morning after its destruction – not as an act of defiance, but as a symbol of reconciliation and faith in a future world free from conflict.
It was not until 1951 that a competition was launched to find a design for a new cathedral: it was one of the most important architectural commissions of the post-war period.
A radical plan submitted by the young architectural practice Basil Spence & Partners was chosen from 219 entries. It was striking for its vision of preserving the ruined shell of the ancient cathedral as an integral part of the overall modern design.
In the days after the bombing two charred roof beams that had fallen in the shape of a cross were discovered by the cathedral stone mason. They were lashed together and put where the ruined altar stood. A replica replaced the original in 1964. Three surviving medieval roof nails were also formed into a cross, the Cross of Nails, now located at the centre of the altar cross in the new cathedral.
The dramatically modern cathedral, which caused public controversy at the time, was built at right-angles to the ruins of the old and shared the same unifying red sandstone exterior.
The foundation stone was laid by the Queen on 23 March 1956 and the cathedral took six years to complete: it was consecrated in her presence on 25 May 1962. The opening ceremony saw the first performance of Benjamin Britten’s ‘War Requiem’, composed specially for the occasion.
From outset the architect Basil Spence commissioned some of the finest artists of the period to create striking designs and bold decorative detail for the interior. Spence later was knighted in 1960 for his work on the cathedral.
Graham Sutherland’s tapestry was one of the biggest in the world at nearly 80 foot high. It was woven in France in one piece over two years on a huge 500 year old loom.
Jacob Epstein’s monumental bronze to the right of the porch depicts the Archangel St Michael vanquishing the devil Lucifer.
The artist John Piper was commissioned to design the Baptistry windows. He worked with the master of stained glass Patrick Reyntiens, who hand-painted the glowing abstract panels. The blaze of light in the centre represents the light of creation.
The mosaic depicts the Angel of Agony by Stephen Sykes, seen through the wrought iron Crown of Thorns designed by Basil Spence.
After the destruction of the cathedral, the idea of this chapel was conceived of by the then Provost, Richard Howard. He wanted an ecumenical space where people of all faiths could come together to pray for peace. That vision of a reconciled and reconciling cathedral open to all holds true today.
The glass was engraved with 66 stylised angels and saints by the artist, John Hutton. The artists’ model and later Hutton’s wife, Marigold Dodson, draped in a silk bedspread, posed for the figures. Hutton created the engravings using a hand-made tool fixed with different grinding wheels and driven by an old washing-machine motor. It took him 10 years to complete the project.
Before the Second World War, the medieval stained glass from the cathedral was removed and sent for safety in 30 wooden crates to the cellars of a rectory near Stratford-on-Avon.
The crates remained undisturbed until 1957 when the property was sold and the stained glass returned to what was a very different cathedral. Basil Spence was keen to incorporate some of the hand-painted glass within his new design. Experts spent decades, sifting through the thousands of pieces, (some by the renowned medieval master glazier John Thornton) choosing key fragments for display within the new cathedral.
These ruins are preserved as a memorial and are hallowed ground. They provide a contemplative garden space, as well as the backdrop for open air events.
- Where Light Falls on Coventry Cathedral: 14-16 November 2019
- Coventry Cathedral
- What Remains, our new exhibition in partnership with the Imperial War Museum London, explores why cultural heritage is attacked during war and the ways we save, protect and restore what is targeted.
- England’s Historic Cities under Attack: the Baedeker Raids, 1942
Header image: the ruins of Coventry’s St Michael’s medieval cathedral to the left – bombed in the Second World War and preserved as a garden of remembrance – adjoining Sir Basil Spence’s post-war cathedral, built 1956-62 and listed Grade I © Historic England/DP164703.