‘Servitude to Freedom’
Coventry is a cathedral city in the heart of the British Isles. It has a reputation for its busy industrial history of high quality craftsmanship. From cloth making to watch making it was a market leader.
St Mary’s Hall
Background – Once part of Mercia, it had housed an ancient Saxon nunnery founded by St Osburga c700 AD. The area was ravaged by Cnut in the 11th century when the convent was destroyed by the Danes. Earl Leofric of Mercia replaced the ruins with a fortified Benedictine monastery in 1043 dedicated to St Mary. The settlement grew into a borough town with a market, mint and a castle built during the 12th century. In the 13th year of the reign of King Edward III (1327-1377) who had connections in Coventry, the Merchant Guild of St. Mary was formed.
Late in the 13th century, St Mary’s Guildhall was built alongside the Priory to meet the requirements of Coventry’s burgeoning trade. This was when Coventry (so named after coventre or convent) began to grow and by the 14th century had developed as a centre of the cloth trade and became a large and important city. The City received its charter of incorporation in 1345. The old Priory and its ecclesiastical community were subsequently demolished under the Reformation of King Henry VIII.
A deed of feoffment of the possessions held by the Guild of Freemen, was made on 20th September 1393 and in it was included the following description:
“One messuage, which is called St. Mary’s Hall, from where there are three feet in breadth from the street called Bailly Lane between the wall of the said messuage on the west side and a certain vacant place belonging to the Prior and Convent of the City even to the southern corner of the tower of the said messuage and three shops in the anterior part and a certain chamber built above the gate of the said messuage are parcel, situated opposite to St. Michael’s Church in the City on the south side between the said vacant place and the tenement of Ralph Couper on the east side and extends itself from the said Bailly Lane to a certain vacant place of land which William Lynne, glover, now holds on the southern part.”
St Mary’s Great Hall
During the 18th and 19th centuries, Coventry had become important for its mechanical engineering skills, so much so, that the Luftwaffe targeted Coventry for destruction. More than 4,000 houses were destroyed, and 800 people were killed with thousands injured in the 2nd World War.
Freemen of the City of Coventry – have a unique tradition that has developed from their industrial history. Freemen of the Guild, incorporated in 1946, can only gain admission status by the completion of apprenticeships. Honorary freedoms issued by an incumbent mayor (for good works) are limited to ceremonial purposes and carry no rights. Honorary freemen may attend Guild meetings, but they have no voting rights.
The Old Council Chamber
The Lord Mayor’s Office initiates the admissions of freemen who have earned their right through ‘servitude’. It is then necessary for any new freeman to join the Guild of Freemen. This tradition dates back to 1345 when Coventry became a city.
A Gild Merchant had clearly been in operation before a dramatic affray took place at Coventry in 1268 when ‘the Prior’s townsmen’ (patent rolls 52 of Hen. III) “were prevented from operating their Gild Merchant”.
In the 13th year of the reign of King Edward III (1327-1377) who had connections with Coventry, the Merchant Guild of St Mary was formed. Here is an extract from the Calendar of Patent Rolls, May 20th, 1340, Westminster: –
“Licence after inquisition ad quod damnum taken by the Sherriff of Warwick, for the men of the town of Coventre to have a Gild Merchant with a fraternity of Brothers and Sisters of the Gild, to elect a Master or Warden of that Fraternity, to found chantries, alms and other works of piety, to make ordinances for maintenance of the Gild and to keep these when made.”
During 1342, the Guild of St John was inaugurated, followed in succession by the Guild of St Catherine in 1343. A decision was made c1364 to combine the Guilds into one ‘Trinity Guild’.
St Mary’s Hall (the Guildhall) built in 1346 was then owned by the Trinity Guild. The Hall and the Guild were confiscated by Henry VIII when most guilds and religious houses were being dissolved. Historically, it is known that an apprenticed merchant signed his indentures in 1317 and that many were completed during the reign of Richard II.
The Guild Court
To become a member of the Freemen’s Guild today, continues to require the completion of an ‘enrolled’ apprenticeship of five or more years and this must have been completed with a company within four and a half miles of the Guildhall.
Court Meetings of the Guild are generally held monthly in the Lesser Undercroft of St Mary’s Hall. Where once the Guild had access to many acres of pasture land, this has been sold and invested into a charitable fund. The Coventry Freemen’s Charity is entirely separate from the Guild, although a Guild Court representative is one of the Trustees.
 Merchants traded in commodities produced by others. Status varied through the ages and depended on their form of trade. The merchant could become very wealthy businessmen. In effect they were resellers of goods locally and abroad. Between the 11th and 16th centuries the Merchant and Craft guilds formed an important part of the economic and social fabric of the period.
- Earl Leofric of Mercia (died 30 September 1057) founded several monasteries including those at Coventry and at Much Wenlock. He became one of the most powerful men in the land. Son of Leofwine of the Hwicce he married Godgifu (the Countess Godiva of legendary fame). Incidentally their son Aelfgar was lord of Sudbury my town (freedom) in Suffolk. Aelfgar’s wife Countess Aelfgifu was overlord at Domesday. Sudbury was confiscated by William I because of the mutiny by her sons Earl Edwin of Mercia and Earl Morchar of Northumbria. It is generally believed that Earl Leofric is buried at Coventry.
- Countess ‘Lady Godiva’ according to the legend rode naked (covered only in her long hair) through the streets of Coventry to gain a remission of an oppressive taxation imposed on the tenants. It is unlikely that she was divest of all clothing and rather that she was ‘naked’ of her royal accoutrements. All were required to avert their eyes but one “Peeping Tom” watched and was struck blind or executed. NB Lady Godgifu appears in the history of Ely Abbey (Liber Eliensis) written at the end of the 12th century. She had been a generous benefactor to religious houses.
- Being ‘Sent to Coventry’ is a remaining term for ostracising a (Royalist) person. It originated from the English Civil War 1642-1649 when Coventry was a puritan Parliamentarian town and very strictly so.
Please find this obituary to an old friend and important member of the Guild of Coventry
Raymond George Holl MBE C.Eng MIEE
(1930 – 2017)
It is with considerable sadness that I report the passing of another prominent Freeman; always a good friend and particularly to the Coventry Guild where he was twice elected as their Master.
Raymond, well known to many as Ray, was born and grew up in Coventry where he soon developed a great interest in the history of its civic affairs. He had endured the blitz and bombing of the city, his interest in its past was influenced by the awareness that his great uncle Harry Weston had been Mayor of Coventry.
His career began with an apprenticeship with BTH. Over the years there were many changes within the company before becoming Lucas Aerospace. Ray spent all of his working life with the Company and as was typical of him he wrote a book to chronicle its history. During those years he qualified as a chartered electrical engineer and lectured at the Lancaster Polytechnic before eventually retiring in October 1989. Ray was awarded an MBE for service to industry in the New Years Honours List of 1987.
Raymond’s apprenticeship entitled him to join the Coventry Guild of Freemen and he became a member of Court in 1974. In 1981-82 he became Master and in1988-89 was again elected Master of the Guild. Among his many civic activities Ray was Chairman of the City Centre Crime Prevention Panel and of ‘Crime Stoppers’. He was also an active member of the Royal Society of St. George.
Ray’s interest in the freedom gathered further momentum in his retirement when he joined the Court of Freemen of the City of London in1993. It was in the September of that year that Ray indicated an interest in joining my Livery Company, the Worshipful Company of Blacksmiths and into which I had the great pleasure of sponsoring his nomination and brotherhood. Throughout his involvement with the City of London, Ray along with his wife Barbara was an ardent supporter of our company and when in 2003 he became Master of the Guild of the London Freemen he proposed a combined dinner for members of the Court that was held at Tallow Chandlers Hall.
During his active life and as a keen historian Ray has produced several books of valuable interest. His ‘History of St. Mary’s Hall, Coventry’ is of classic importance. He has also produced a second history of the Guild of Freemen of the City of London. As an example of all that we strive for in this Freedom movement, Ray has shown a dedication second to none and I hope I have revealed a little more to any that have not been aware of his impressive imprint on our society.