Coventry Cathedral sits in the heart of the city, with its tower rising into the cosmopolitan skyline. With spires reaching 90 metres (295 feet), it is the tallest among England’s many medieval cathedrals, but it’s more than just size that makes this cathedral stand apart from the others. The building is one that conveys a story of survival and merges the old with the new.
Coventry Cathedral is, in fact, two buildings. The first is the ruins of the old St Michael’s Cathedral, the remains of the medieval parish church. A symbol of the wealth Coventry acquired in the middle ages, this original building was destroyed during the Second World War on November 14, 1940 when it was bombed by the Luftwaffe.
Only the tower, spire, outer wall and the tomb of its first bishop, Huyshe Yeatman-Biggs, survived the attack. From the ruins, two pieces of wood were taken and tied together to form the Charred Cross. Three nails were taken from the roof to form the Cross of Nails, which was transferred later into the new cathedral. There are now over 300 Cross of Nails throughout the world, acting as symbols of global reconciliation.
The new cathedral, also named St Michael’s, is just a few footsteps from the ruins. The decision to rebuild the cathedral was taken the morning after its destruction. In the 1950s, a competition saw hundreds submit plans and ideas for the new structure, but ultimately it was architect Sir Basil Spence who was commissioned to work on the new design of the building – he was knighted due to his work on the building, which was completed in 1962. It was Sir Basil who insisted that the ruins remain untouched to serve the purpose for a garden of remembrance, and the two cathedrals should stand side by side.
Inside the new cathedral, some of the main features are the large tapestry of Jesus Christ, designed by Graham Sutherland, and the sculpture of Mater Dolorosa. The window, designed by John Piper, is an abstract design that occupies the full height of the bowed baptistery with a total of 195 colourful panes.
As well as being a scared memorial space for the city, the cathedral also moonlights as a backdrop for open-air events, such as parties, musical performances and theatre productions. From time to time, the grounds are even used for film productions, most notably 2009 British Christmas movie Nativity! starring The Hobbit’s Martin Freeman. However, the cathedral also serves the function of a normal church, holding services for Sunday mass and hosting community events. It’s this sense of community that contributed to Coventry being labelled as one of the happiest places to live in the UK.
To this day, the Cathedral Church of St Michael tells a tale of resurrecting from the ashes to a triumphant return.