The city wall

In January 1329, Edward III gave his permission for the collection of ‘murage’ taxes to pay for the building of a wall around Coventry. Since the 12th century the town had been surrounded by a series of defensive ditches, with movable gates positioned at major transport routes. However, by the 14th century Coventry was developing into an important settlement. Situated along the main travel route from north to south and the most significant town in the midlands, Coventry was a strategic asset both in war time and for trade. It was for this reason that Coventry was granted a city charter in 1345. A defensive wall would not only protect the town, but would act as a representation of its growing status and encourage trade. Construction began when mayor Richard de Stoke laid the first stone at New Gate in 1356 and was initially completed in 1400, despite an interruption in the 1370s by a revolt against murage taxes. However, due to many extensions and amendments to the wall’s circuit construction was not fully completed until 1534. The medieval wall was just over two miles long, 12ft high and 9ft thick, comprising of two rings of red stone wall fortified with rubble in between. The wall was punctuated with 20 watch towers and 12 gates, each set into a gatehouse, which controlled passage in and out of the city. These gates were named: New Gate, Gosford Gate, Bishop Gate, Well Street Gate, Hill Street Gate, Greyfriars Gate, Cheylesmore Gate, Little Park Street Gate, Bastille Gate (renamed Mill Gate), and Bablake Gate (renamed later Spon Gate), Cook Street, Priory Gate (renamed Swanswell Gate), of which only the final two remain. 

Completed around 1385, Cook Street Gate was one of the earlier gates to be built. Its construction caused significant disruption to local residents. There had been six cottages along the route of the north side of the wall, two of which were destroyed to build the gate. Three of the cottages were contained inside the wall’s boundary, having had their land divided, and one was left outside the city wall. Swanswell Gate was completed in 1440. Originally known as Priory Gate, it used to serve as the entrance to the prior’s land. The angle at which the wall attaches to the corner of the gatehouse is the result of its direction being rerouted in 1480, when the prior convinced the mayor to divert the wall to include his private fishing pond in its circuit. 

To ensure the walls were properly manned the city was divided into ten wards, each providing watchmen for the walls and gates. To ease the high cost of maintenance, the council leased out a number of gatehouses and towers privately to citizens, on the condition that they were responsible for the upkeep of the building and designated section of wall. With such imposing and well-guarded defences, Coventry was regarded as the best protected city in the country outside of London. A symbol of status, the impressive fortifications established Coventry’s reputation as an important centre of trade worth protecting, and as a result the city prospered in the medieval period. 

Impressed with Coventry’s walls and gates, soldier Nehemiah Wharton described the city as a..

City invironed with a wall coequall if not excedinge that of London for breadth and height, the compase of it is neare 3 miles all of free stone. It hath 4 stone gates, stronge battlements stored with towers bulwarks courts of guard and other nessessaries. This City hath magnificent churches and stately streetes with in it, ther are also severall sweete and plasant springes of water built of freestone very large sufficient to supply many thousand men. The City gates are guarded day and night with 400 armed men and no man entreth in or out but upon examination. 

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