Civil war broke out in England in 1642, between royalists loyal to Charles I and supporters of Parliament opposing the king’s use of power. Coventry sided with the parliamentarians, or ‘roundheads’, nicknamed for the characteristic shape of their helmets. In August 1642 Charles I, along with 800 cavalry and 300 foot-soldiers, demanded entry to Coventry. Worried about the expense of hosting the king’s forces, the mayor offered to admit the king and 200 of his followers only. Charles was keen to secure the city and refused the offer. On 19 August the king’s artillery began to bombard the city of Coventry from Park Hill, in what is now referred to as the ‘siege of Coventry’.
An account by local puritan John Vicars describes how the king’s artillery blew a hole in the wall, while citizens created a barricade and held off the attackers, forcing them to retreat. In a less dramatic report, the annals of the city claim that there was little damage done to the walls, and that the king’s forces were unable to breach Coventry’s defences. Whichever version is true, the king’s army did fail to breach Coventry’s defences and take the city. Charles retreated to Leicester, and formally declared war.
During the years of war that followed, the four gates controlling the major transport routes in Coventry were guarded by 400 men, day and night. Houses outside the city walls at at Bishop Gate, Well Street, Hill Street, Spon End, New Gate and Gosford Gate and gates were pulled down to prevent prospective attackers using them for cover. The rest of the city gates, including Swanswell and Cook Street were blocked up, with trenches dug outside the walls and cannon kept ready to defend the city.
As the Civil War raged on, in 1643 the women of Coventry reinforced the city’s defences by filling in quarries so that they couldn’t shelter the enemy. Having been ‘called together with a drum’ they ‘marched through the park with mattocks and spades’. It is is said that they were led by ‘goodwife Adderley’, with ‘a Hercules club at her shoulder’ and Mary Herbert, reportedly armed with a pistol.
After the war and the Restoration of the monarchy in 1662, Charles II ordered Coventry’s walls to be destroyed. It is commonly believed that this was revenge for the city’s opposition to his father. However, a letter written by the king at the time reveals that the destruction of the walls was ordered to prevent future rebellion, due to Coventry’s hosting of parliamentarian rebels. The city walls were mostly demolished in 1662. Citizens were keen to make use of the newly available resources and carried away stones from the ruined walls to use for themselves in other buildings.
In the years following the Restoration the threat of further rebellion lessened, and the order for the destruction of the city walls was revoked in 1672. Measures were put in place to prevent further theft by the public, and in 1686 the city council made official efforts to preserve the remains.