Coventry Cathedral

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Coventry Cathedral
Cathedral Church of Saint Michael
Coventry Cathedral 2018.jpg
Old (left) and new (right) cathedral buildings
West Midlands UK location map.svg
Red pog.svg
Coventry Cathedral
Shown within West Midlands
52°24′30″N1°30′25″W / 52.408333°N 1.506944°W / 52.408333; -1.506944
Location Coventry city centre, West Midlands
Country England
Denomination Church of England
Dedication St Michael
Consecrated 25 May 1962
Previous cathedrals2
Architect(s) Basil Spence
Style Regional modern
Years built1956–1962
Province Canterbury
Diocese Coventry (since 1918)
Bishop(s) Ruth Worsley (acting bishop)
Dean John Witcombe
Canon(s) Mary Gregory (Arts and Reconciliation)
Nitano Muller (Worship and Welcome)

The Cathedral Church of Saint Michael, commonly known as Coventry Cathedral, is the seat of the Bishop of Coventry and the Diocese of Coventry within the Church of England. The cathedral is located in Coventry, West Midlands, England. The current acting bishop is Ruth Worsley and the current dean is John Witcombe.


The city has had three cathedrals. The first was St Mary's, a monastic building, from 1102 to 1539, of which only a few ruins remain. The second was St Michael's, a 14th-century Gothic church designated as a cathedral in 1918, which remains a ruined shell after its bombing during the Second World War, apart from its tower and spire, which rise to 284 feet (87 metres). The third, consecrated in 1962, is the new St Michael's Cathedral, built immediately adjacent to the ruins and tower of the former cathedral, which is a symbol of war time destruction and barbarity, but also of peace and reconciliation.

St Mary's Priory

Coventry had a medieval cathedral that survived until the Reformation. This was St Mary's Priory and Cathedral, 1095 to 1102, when Robert de Limesey moved the bishop's see from Lichfield to Coventry, [1] until 1539 when it fell victim to Henry VIII's dissolution of the monasteries. Prior to 1095, it had been a small Benedictine monastery (endowed by Leofric, Earl of Mercia and his wife Godiva in 1043), [2] Shortly after 1095 rebuilding began and by the middle of the 13th century it was a cathedral of 142 yards (130 m) in length and included many large outbuildings. [3] Leofric was probably buried within the original Saxon church in Coventry. However, records suggest that Godiva was buried at Evesham Abbey, alongside her father confessor, Prior Æfic. [4] It was the only medieval cathedral to be demolished at the Reformation. [5]

St Michael's Cathedral

First structure

The old cathedral, painted in 1802 by William Crotch William Crotch - St. Michael's, Coventry - NORF NWHCM L1976.9.55.jpg
The old cathedral, painted in 1802 by William Crotch
The interior of the old cathedral, c. 1880 Coventry-cathedral-interior.jpg
The interior of the old cathedral, c.1880
The roofless ruins of the old cathedral Coventry Cathedral Ruins with Rainbow edit.jpg
The roofless ruins of the old cathedral

St Michael's Church was largely constructed between the late 14th century and early 15th century from red sandstone. It was one of the largest parish churches in England when, in 1918, it was elevated to cathedral status on the creation of the Diocese of Coventry. [6] This St Michael's Cathedral now stands ruined, bombed almost to destruction during the Coventry Blitz of 14 November 1940 by the German Luftwaffe. Only the tower, spire, the outer wall and the bronze effigy and tomb of its first bishop, Huyshe Yeatman-Biggs, survived. The ruins of this older cathedral remain hallowed ground and are listed at Grade I. [7] Following the bombing of the cathedral in 1940, Provost Richard Howard had the words "Father Forgive" inscribed on the wall behind the altar of the ruined building. The spire rises to 284 feet (87 metres) [8] to the base of the weathervane, and is the tallest structure in the city. It is also the third tallest cathedral spire in England, with only Salisbury and Norwich cathedrals rising higher. When the height of the weathervane is included, it is 290 feet (88 metres) high. [8]

Present structure

The current St Michael's Cathedral, built next to the remains of the old one, was designed by Basil Spence and Arup, was built by John Laing [9] and is a Grade I listed building. [10]

The selection of Spence for the work was a result of a competition held in 1950 to find an architect for the new Coventry Cathedral; his design was chosen from over two hundred submitted. [11] Spence (later knighted for this work) insisted that instead of rebuilding the old cathedral, it should be kept in ruins as a garden of remembrance and that the new cathedral should be built alongside, the two buildings together effectively forming one church. [12] The use of Hollington sandstone for the new Coventry Cathedral provides an element of unity between the buildings. [13]

The foundation stone of the new cathedral was laid by Elizabeth II on 23 March 1956. [14] The unconventional spire or flèche is 80 feet (24 m) tall and was lowered onto the flat roof by a helicopter, flown by Wing Commander John Dowling in April 1962. [15]

The cathedral was consecrated on 25 May 1962 by Cuthbert Bardsley, Bishop of Coventry with Benjamin Britten's War Requiem , composed for the occasion, premiered in the new cathedral on 30 May to mark its consecration. [16] [17]

The Angel with the Eternal Gospel, one of the panes of Hutton's 'Great West Screen', which was smashed in 2020 Through the screen of saints and angels, Coventry Cathedral (8542657114) (The Angel with the Eternal Gospel).jpg
The Angel with the Eternal Gospel, one of the panes of Hutton's 'Great West Screen', which was smashed in 2020

Coventry's new cathedral adopted a modernist design. The interior is notable for its huge tapestry (once thought to be the world's largest) of Christ, designed by Graham Sutherland, the emotive sculpture of the Mater Dolorosa by John Bridgeman in the East end, and the Baptistry window designed by John Piper (made by Patrick Reyntiens) of abstract design that occupies the full height of the bowed baptistery, which comprises 195 panes, ranging from white to deep colours. The stained glass windows in the Nave, by Lawrence Lee, Keith New and Geoffrey Clarke, face away from the congregation. Spence's concept for these Nave windows was that the opposite pairs would represent a pattern of growth from birth to old age, culminating in heavenly glory nearest the altar—one side representing Human, the other side, the Divine. Also worthy of note is the Great West Window known as the Screen of Saints and Angels, engraved directly onto the screen in expressionist style by John Hutton. A pane of the Hutton window, depicting The Angel with the Eternal Gospel, was smashed during a burglary in January 2020. [18] [19] (Although referred to as the West Window, this is the 'liturgical west' opposite the altar which is traditionally at the east end. In this cathedral the altar is actually at the north end.) The foundation stone, the ten stone panels inset into the walls of the cathedral called the Tablets of the Word, and the baptismal font were designed and carved by the émigré German letter carver Ralph Beyer. The lectern has a bookrest in the form of an eagle, by the sculptor Elisabeth Frink, [20] who also designed the canopy for the Bishop's throne. [20]

Theological emphasis

St Michael's Victory over the Devil, a sculpture by Jacob Epstein St Michael's victory over the Devil by Sir Jacob Epstein, Coventry Cathedral.jpg
St Michael's Victory over the Devil , a sculpture by Jacob Epstein

As the cathedral was built on the site of a Benedictine monastery, there has always been a Benedictine influence on the cathedral community. A number of the cathedral staff become third order (lay) Benedictines and there are often cathedral retreats to Mucknell Abbey. Since the opening of the new cathedral in 1962 there has been an evangelical emphasis. This has been strengthened by the former Dean, John Irvine, who was involved in creating the Alpha Course and previously served at Holy Trinity Brompton, and also as vicar of the first Brompton church plant, St Barnabas, Kensington. The cathedral has a strong emphasis on the Bible[ citation needed ] and aims to be a centre for good preaching and training for the diocese. It runs regular mission events such as the innovative Spirit of Life days where over 2,000 local residents are encouraged to explore their faith in God through Christian spirituality.

The spire of the original St Michael's Cathedral remains to this day St Michael's Cathedral ruins, Coventry.jpg
The spire of the original St Michael's Cathedral remains to this day

The cathedral is also known for innovation in its services. As well as the expected traditional services (on Sundays, eucharist at 10:30 am and choral evensong at 4 pm), there is a 6 pm Sunday service with contemporary music, preaching and prayer ministry. The Cathedral Youth Work runs Goth church and Urban Church outreach congregations for local groups of young people, an equipping and supporting cell group for youth workers within Coventry churches as well as a number of other regular groups. There continues to be a strong influence of reconciliation within the theology (both vertical: reconciling people to God; and horizontal: reconciling individuals and groups). This is present throughout the ministry of the cathedral but is most clearly seen in the International Centre for Reconciliation and the International Network of Communities of the Cross of Nails. The reconciliation work exists locally in reconciling churches and community groups but also internationally (predominantly in the Middle East and central Africa) working with terrorists and dictators as well as local churches, tribes and gangs.

Justin Welby (then a canon of the cathedral) established a special day for bereaved parents in the cathedral after the death of his own daughter. There is now an annual service commemorating the lives of children who have died. A book with the names of dead children is on display in the cathedral and anyone whose child has died under any circumstances can ask for their child's name to be added to the book. [21]

Symbols of reconciliation

The old cathedral grounds are home to a number of symbols of reconciliation to complement the church's mission. At first, however, the cathedral and its symbols represented the wartime destruction and barbarity. [22] [23]

The Charred Cross

The Charred cross, with the "Father Forgive" inscription behind. Coventry Cathedral burnt cross.jpg
The Charred cross, with the "Father Forgive" inscription behind.

The Charred Cross was created after the cathedral was bombed during the Coventry Blitz of the Second World War. The cathedral stonemason, Jock Forbes, saw two wooden beams lying in the shape of a cross and tied them together. A replica of the Charred Cross built in 1964 has replaced the original in the ruins of the old cathedral on an altar of rubble. The original is now kept on the stairs linking the cathedral with St Michael's Hall below.

The Cross of Nails

The Cross of Nails, also created after the Blitz, was made of three nails from the roof truss of the old cathedral by Provost Richard Howard of Coventry Cathedral at the suggestion of a young friend, the Reverend Arthur Philip Wales. It was later transferred to the new cathedral, where it sits in the centre of the altar cross. It has become a symbol of peace and reconciliation across the world. There are over 330 Cross of Nails Centres all over the world, all of them bearing a cross made of three nails from the ruins, similar to the original one. When there were no more of these nails, a continuing supply has come from a prison in Germany. They are coordinated by the International Centre for Reconciliation.

The Cross of Nails donated to the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church 16-142a Coventry Cross.jpg
The Cross of Nails donated to the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church

One of the crosses made of nails from the old cathedral was donated to the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church in Berlin, which was destroyed by Allied bombing and is also kept as a ruin alongside a newer building. A replica of the cross of nails was also presented to the Chapel of Reconciliation (Kapelle der Versöhnung), which forms part of the Berlin Wall Memorial.

A medieval cross of nails has also been carried on board all British warships that have subsequently borne the name HMS Coventry. [24] The cross of nails was on board the Type 42 destroyer Coventry when she was sunk by enemy action in the Falklands War. The cross was salvaged by Royal Navy divers, and presented to Coventry Cathedral by the ship's Captain and colleagues. [25] The cross was subsequently presented first to the next Coventry in 1988 until she was decommissioned in 2002, and then to HMS Diamond, which is affiliated to Coventry, during her commissioning ceremony on 6 May 2011 by Captain David Hart-Dyke, the commanding officer of Coventry when she was sunk. [26]

The Stalingrad Madonna

A copy of the Stalingrad Madonna by Kurt Reuber that was drawn in 1942 in Stalingrad (now Volgograd) is shown in the cathedrals of all three cities (Berlin, Coventry and Volgograd) as a sign of the reconciliation of the three countries that were once enemies.

The statue of Reconciliation

Reconciliation, by Josefina de Vasconcellos Reconciliation Statue, The Old Cathedral, Coventry.jpg
Reconciliation , by Josefina de Vasconcellos

In 1994 the cathedral received a copy of the statue Reconciliation , by Josefina de Vasconcellos. Originally created in 1977 and entitled Reunion, it had been presented to the University of Bradford's Peace Studies department. After repairs and renaming, a bronze cast of the statue was presented to the cathedral in 1995, to mark the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II. Similar copies are held at the Hiroshima Peace Park in Japan, at the Stormont Estate in Northern Ireland, and at the Chapel of Reconciliation in Berlin.

The BBC broadcast a documentary in 1962 entitled Act of Faith, narrated by Leo Genn, detailing the history of Coventry Cathedral, its destruction and rebuilding. [27]


The precentor of the new Coventry Cathedral at the opening service was Joseph Poole. [28] The service was televised and watched by many.


The cathedral has a pipe organ by Harrison & Harrison dating from 1962, which is recognised as one of the finest in the UK. A specification of the organ can be found on the National Pipe Organ Register.

Directors of music

c.1505John Gylbard [29]
1733–1749Thomas Deane
1750–1790 Capel Bond
1790–1818Mr Woodroffe
1828–1885 Edward Simms
1886–1892 Herbert Brewer
1892–1898 Harry Crane Perrin (afterwards organist of Canterbury Cathedral)
1898Walter Hoyle (first organist of the cathedral)
1928Harold Rhodes (formerly organist of St John's Church, Torquay)
1933Alan Stephenson
1961David Foster Lepine
1972Robert Weddle
1977Ian Little
1984Paul Leddington Wright (now assistant director of music)
1995David Poulter (subsequently organist of Chester Cathedral and director of music at Liverpool Cathedral)
1997 Rupert Jeffcoat (subsequently director of music and organist at St John's Cathedral, Brisbane)
2005Alistair Reid (acting)
2006 Kerry Beaumont
2020 Rachel Mahon

Assistant organists

  • Allan Hawthorne-Baker 1934–1939
  • Michael Burnett
  • Robert George Weddle 1964–1972 (then organist)
  • J. Richard Lowry 1972–1976
  • Ian Little 1976–1977 (then organist)
  • Paul Leddington Wright 1977–84 (then organist)
  • Timothy Hone (1984–87)
  • Chris Argent (1987–1990)
  • David Poulter 1990–1995 (then director of music)
  • Daniel Moult 1995–2002
  • Martyn Lane
  • Alistair Reid 2004–2011
  • Laurence Lyndon-Jones 2011–2013
  • Rachel Mahon 2018–2020
  • Luke Fitzgerald 2021–

Dean and chapter

As of June 2024: [30]


See also

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