Rising from the ruins of war, Coventry Cathedral shows the power of reconciliation

Sir Basil Spence’s Coventry Cathedral remains an overwhelming triumph and feels just as enduring and ageless as any of Britain’s great medieval cathedrals.

Stained glass windows inside Coventry Cathedral designed by the artist John Piper.
Stained glass windows inside Coventry Cathedral designed by the artist John Piper. Credit: david pearson / Alamy Stock Photo.

This year marks the sixtieth anniversary of the consecration of Coventry Cathedral, a symbol of Britain’s post-war recovery and reconciliation with Germany. Talking of Coventry Cathedral as though it is one building belies a complicated and painful history. The city has had three cathedrals.

First came St Mary’s Priory, built in 1043 by Leofric and Lady Godiva, and converted into a priory and cathedral in 1102 by papal authorisation. It was expanded in the following centuries to reach a length of 130m, not quite competing in the 160m-plus super league of Winchester, Canterbury or St Alban’s, but a respectable size for what was then England’s fourth most powerful city. However, its awkward straddling of the monastery/cathedral divide meant it ultimately fell foul to Henry VIII’s vandalism: it was the only English cathedral to be demolished during the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1539. The stubby ruins can be seen today in Priory Garden, nestled next to the local Wetherspoons.

In the late fourteenth century, thanks to a wealthy family of wool merchants, construction started on St Michael’s, which remained a lowly (albeit large) parish church until 1918, when it was elevated to cathedral status. It enjoyed just 22 years in its exalted state; on 14 November 1940, it was bombed by the Luftwaffe in an attack targeting Coventry’s factories. Almost 500,000kg of bombs were dropped in one night, 568 people were killed, and much of the city centre flattened. The spire, the third tallest in England, survived above the blasted body of the building. It was the only Anglican cathedral destroyed during the Second World War.

It was amid the smoking ruins that the third cathedral was born. Provost Richard Howard, who fought fires during the night of 14 November while the building was ablaze, declared the very next day that it would rise again. Not in defiance or memorial, but in friendship and reconciliation.

Sir Giles Gilbert Scott was initially asked in 1942 to design the new cathedral. Scott was an obvious choice, being the latest in a family line of cathedral-builders, and having recently designed Liverpool Cathedral. His proposal, another enormous neo-gothic structure, proved unpopular with the city’s new, radical bishop, and Scott eventually resigned from the project.

In 1950, a competition was launched, open to any architect from the British Commonwealth. Some 219 proposals were submitted, but it was Basil Spence (later to become Sir) who was commissioned. A Scot, born in India and trained in Edinburgh, Spence served during the Second World War, taking part in the D-Day landings. Before Coventry he was perhaps best known for his exhibition designs (although he admitted that ever since visiting York Minster as a student in 1927, he had aspired to build a cathedral). After seeing the ruins, he motored home to Edinburgh to spend 10 months working incessantly on his design, laying it out on 275m of tracing paper.

His plan was distinctive in that he proposed to leave the remains of the bombed cathedral in situ. And so today, the old and the new St Michael’s lie side by side, one still bearing its wounds, the other rising from its side. It remains, by quite a long way, Spence’s greatest achievement.

But it wasn’t an easy ride. Provost Howard wrote that, ‘the first drawings of the new design set off a controversy unparalleled in the history of architecture’. Hundreds of abusive letters greeted the publication of Spence’s plans. Much of this was down to the stark modernity of the building, and Spence’s determination that the cathedral should house contemporary art created by the best British artists.

While Spence was inspired by forerunners— GloucesterYork, St Paul’s, St Miniato in Florence and, not least, the old cathedral—his vision for Coventry was uncompromisingly new. In uniting the two buildings, he drew on heritage techniques, but updated styles for post-war Britain, an increasingly multi-cultural, multi-faith society.

Spence built in stone but opted for a reinforced concrete vaulted ceiling. He commissioned stained glass windows, but they were abstract in style, absent of biblical stories. The porch that links the old and new buildings plays on the usual ceremonial entrance to the cathedral, with John Hutton’s engraved glass screen offering a transparent portal between the two, each one always in view and in mind.

Guarding the approach to the new cathedral is Jacob Epstein’s Archangel Michael. Larger than life, Michael stands defiant over the Devil, serving as a vivid reminder in bronze of the fight of good over evil. There was opposition from the reconstruction committee to the commissioning of Epstein: ‘But he is a Jew,’ said one. Spence retorted: ‘So was Jesus Christ.’

Entering the cathedral, you are seized immediately by Graham Sutherland’s Christ in Glory in the Tetramorph, a colossal tapestry that stretches 75ft from floor to ceiling. A monumental Christ, looking more human than ever, sits against a backdrop of vivid green, framed in gold. Around him are the four beasts: the first like a lion, the second like a calf, the third with a face as a man, and the fourth like a flying eagle. Between his feet is a tiny figure representing humankind. It was woven on a 500-year-old loom in France, and was, until 2018, the largest single-piece tapestry in the world.

So as not to give everything away at once, and to compel magnet-like focus on the tapestry, Spence zig-zagged the walls of the nave, inspired by the hidden aisles and side-chapels of continental churches. A visitor is then struck by the light from the magnificent stained glass windows. John Piper and Patrick Reyntiens’s Baptistry Window, comprising 195 panels, burns with a white-hot orb in the centre, radiating out into brilliant blues and greens and reds. The window contains 500,000 soldered joints, and uses English, French and German glass in equal proportions. There was nothing ‘Made in Britain’ about Spence’s design, and these gestures of reconciliation and unity appear throughout.

Lining the sides of the nave are a further ten windows, constructed combining revived medieval methods with newly discovered techniques by Lawrence LeeGeoffrey Clarke and Keith New. Once again, they are staggering in scale, reaching right up to the roof, and are arranged in pairs by colour, charting man’s journey though youth, maturity and old age.

Further up, one notices the canopies above the choir stalls — 382 wooden triads fluttering above. The 5,000 pipes of the Harrison & Harrison organ frame the altar. The Chapel of Christ in Gethsemane is tucked away, to be discovered through a hanging crown of thorns. The High Altar Cross, full of movement, has at its heart the original ‘cross of nails’, made with three nails from the old cathedral’s medieval roof.

Despite the initial scepticism, it was, and remains, an overwhelming triumph and feels just as enduring and ageless as any of Britain’s great medieval cathedrals. Spence’s master stroke was not building over the past, nor allowing the old cathedral to stand simply as a reminder of the destruction wrought on Coventry. Rather, two became one, uniting to make a living space, which it remains to this day.

When it was consecrated in 1962, 75,000 people applied for tickets to attend. Accompanying the celebrations was a 24-day arts festival, which included the world premiere of Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem, commissioned for the occasion. The West German government gifted two concerts by the Berlin Philharmonic, and the old and new cathedrals hosted plays, concerts, exhibitions, and public discussions. This tradition of culture to bring the cathedrals and the public together remains strong. A recent work by composer Nitin Sawhney, presented as part of Coventry 2021 City of Culture, sought to unite the spaces in a performance that began in the new cathedral and ended in the old. Lights and voices radiated into the night sky from the bare body of the space.

To stand in the old cathedral and look up into the new remains a powerfully moving experience. As Spence said, truly Coventry Cathedral is a ‘phoenix rising from the flames’. In this anniversary year, in which war once again tears Europe apart, it is apposite to remind ourselves of all that has been lost, and all that has been rebuilt; the power of art, of public buildings, of reconciliation, and the spirit of hope that drives them all.


James Hardie