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Urban politics and material culture at the end of the Middle Ages: the Coventry tapestry in St Mary's Hall

  • CHRISTIAN D. LIDDY (a1)

Abstract:

This article uses the evidence of the internal decoration and spatial hierarchy of an English town hall to explore the construction of urban oligarchy in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. Urban historians have regarded this period as one of fundamental importance in the political history of pre-modern English towns. It is associated with the emergence of the ‘close corporation’, an oligarchic form of government which remained largely in place until the Municipal Corporations Act of 1835. The article examines the iconography and historical context of a tapestry, custom-made for the town hall of Coventry around 1500, to present a different view of the character of urban political culture at the end of the Middle Ages.

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1 Lecuppre-Desjardin, É., ‘Des pouvoirs inscrits dans la pierre? Essai sur l’édilité urbaine dans les anciens Pays-Bas bourguignons au XVe siècle’, Memini. Travaux et documents publiés par la Société des études médiévales du Québec, 7 (2003), 33. On the didactic use of writing on town halls in the Low Countries, see Billen, C., ‘Dire le bien commun dans l'espace public. Matérialité épigraphique et monumentale du bien commun dans les villes des Pays-Bas, à la fin du Moyen Âge’, in Lecuppre-Desjardin, É. and Van Bruaene, A.-L. (eds.), De bono communi. The Discourse and Practice of the Common Good in the European City (13th–16th c.) (Turnhout, 2010), 71–8.

2 Notable studies in German include: Surmann, U., ‘Vom städtischen Umgang mit Bildern. Die Bildprogramme des Kölner Rathauses’, in Kier, H. et al. (eds.), Köln: Der Ratsturm. Seine Geschichte und sein Figurenprogramm (Cologne, 1996), 166201; Meier, U., ‘Vom Mythos der Republik. Formen und Funktionen spätmittelalterlicher Rathausikonographie in Deutschland und Italien’, in Löther, A. et al. (eds.), Mundus in imagine. Bildersprache und Lebenswelten im Mittelalter (Munich, 1996), 345–87. The most recent study in English is Scales, L., ‘The illuminated Reich: memory, crisis, and the visibility of monarchy in late medieval Germany’, in Coy, J.P. et al. (eds.), The Holy Roman Empire, Reconsidered (Oxford, 2010), 7392.

3 Rau, S. and Schwerhoff, G., ‘Öffentliche Räume in der Frühen Neuzeit’, in idem (eds.), Zwischen Gotteshaus und Taverne: Öffentliche Räume in Spätmittelalter und Früher Neuzeit (Cologne, 2004), 44.

4 Barron, C.M., The Medieval Guildhall of London (London, 1974); Bowsher, David et al. , The London Guildhall: An Archaeological History of a Neighbourhood from Early Medieval to Modern Times, 2 vols. (London, 2007).

5 Barron, C.M., ‘The political culture of medieval London’, in Clark, L. and Carpenter, C. (eds.), Political Culture in Late Medieval Britain (Woodbridge, 2004), 112–13, 119–22.

6 Tittler, R., Architecture and Power: The Town Hall and the English Urban Community c. 1500–1640 (Oxford, 1991), 4.

7 Rudebeck, A., ‘John Thornton and the stained glass of St Mary's Guildhall, Coventry’, Journal of Stained Glass, 31 (2007), 1434; Demidowicz, G., ‘The development of St Mary's Hall, Coventry: a short history’, in Monckton, L. and Morris, R.K. (eds.), Coventry: Medieval Art, Architecture and Archaeology in the City and its Vicinity (British Archaeological Association Conference Transactions, 33, 2011), 164–81. I would like to thank Richard Morris for supplying the details of Demidowicz's essay prior to publication.

8 See the comment of McKendrick, S., ‘Tapestries from the Low Countries in England during the fifteenth century’, in Barron, C.M. and Saul, N. (eds.), England and the Low Countries in the Late Middle Ages (Stroud, 1995), 44. There are two short articles on the tapestry: Scharf, G., ‘The old tapestry in St Mary's Hall at Coventry’, Archaeologia, 36 (1855), 438–53, and Kendrick, A.F., ‘The Coventry tapestry’, Burlington Magazine, 44 (Feb. 1924), 83–5, 88–9.

9 Phythian-Adams, C., Desolation of a City. Coventry and the Urban Crisis of the Late Middle Ages (Cambridge, 1979), 35–9, 44–5. For a recent analysis, see Goddard, R., Commercial Contraction and Urban Decline in Fifteenth-Century Coventry (Dugdale Society Occasional Papers, 46, 2006).

10 Lancaster, J.C., St Mary's Hall, Coventry: A Guide to the Building, its History and Contents (Coventry, 1981), 42.

11 Harris, M.D., The Story of Coventry (London, 1911), 158.

12 W.G. Fretton, ‘Memorials of St. Mary's Hall, Coventry’, 21, best accessed in Coventry Record Office (CRO), PA 2337/4/10.

13 I owe this information to Miss Margaret Condon, formerly of the Public Record Office.

14 The Coventry Leet Book, ed. M.D. Harris (Early English Text Society, original ser. 134–46, 1907–13), 262–6, 285–92, 297–301.

15 Phythian-Adams, Desolation of a City, 140; Harris, Story of Coventry, 158; Lancaster, St Mary's Hall, 42; Morris, R.K., ‘St Mary's Hall and the medieval architecture of Coventry’, Transactions of the Ancient Monuments Society, n.s. 32 (1988), 10.

16 The Register of the Guild of the Holy Trinity, St. Mary, St. John the Baptist and St. Katherine of Coventry, ed. M.D. Harris (Dugdale Society, 13, 1935), ix n. 2.

17 Dugdale, W., Antiquities of Warwickshire (London, 1656), 123; ‘Supplementary list of guild brethren from the Sharp MS’, in Register of the Guild of the Holy Trinity, ed. Harris, 101–12.

18 The Textile Conservation Centre (TCC) report is no. 0154. There is a copy in CRO, 1694/12/1. Frances Lennard of the Textile Conservation Centre, now at the University of Glasgow, kindly gave me access to Nevinson's additional report.

19 J. Nevinson, ‘Report on the tapestry in St Mary's Hall, Coventry’.

20 Clark, P. and Slack, P., ‘Introduction’, in idem (eds.), Crisis and Order in English Towns 1500–1700 (London, 1972), 20, 25.

21 Lee, J., ‘Urban policy and urban political culture: Henry VII and his towns’, Historical Research, 82 (2009), 493510, esp. 506–7.

22 McSheffrey, S., ‘Jurors, respectable masculinity, and Christian morality: a comment on Marjorie McIntosh's Controlling Misbehavior’, Journal of British Studies, 37 (1998), 276–7.

23 Ibid., 277. For the link to urban oligarchy, see McSheffrey, S., Marriage, Sex, and Civic Culture in Late Medieval London (Philadelphia, 2006), 8.

24 On oligarchy's ultimate ‘triumph’, see Rigby, S., ‘Urban “oligarchy” in late medieval England’, in Thomson, J.A.F. (ed.), Towns and Townspeople in the Fifteenth Century (Gloucester, 1988), 77, and Rigby, S.H. and Ewan, E., ‘Government, power and authority 1300–1540’, in Palliser, D.M. (ed.), The Cambridge Urban History of Britain, vol. I: 600–1540 (Cambridge, 2000), 309–12.

25 Demidowicz, ‘Development of St Mary's Hall, Coventry’, 164–81.

26 BL Harleian MS 6388, pp. 13, 15.

27 Morris, ‘St Mary's Hall’, 23–4; D. Biggs, ‘The Trinity gild of Coventry, and the royal affinity, 1392–1413’, Journal of the Rocky Mountain Medieval and Renaissance Association, 16–17 (1995–96), 102.

28 Register of the Guild of the Holy Trinity, ed. Harris, xiii–xiv.

29 Calendar of Patent Rolls, 1391–96, 131.

30 Phythian-Adams, Desolation of a City, 162.

31 The Records of the Guild of the Holy Trinity, St. Mary, St. John the Baptist and St. Katherine of Coventry, ed. G. Templeman (Dugdale Society, 19, 1944), 144.

32 Giles, K., ‘Public space in town and village 1100–1500’, in Giles, K. and Dyer, C. (eds.), Town and Country in the Middle Ages: Contrasts, Connections, and Interconnections, 1100–1500 (Leeds, 2005), 299.

33 CRO PA 351/1, p. 15, PA 2/3, p. 41, PA 2/4, fol. 6v, PA 2/5; BL Harleian MS 6388, p. 6, and Additional MS 11364; Bodleian Library (Oxford), MS Top Warwickshire d.4; Birmingham Reference Library, MS 115915, and MS 273978; Shakespeare Birthplace Trust Record Office (Stratford-upon-Avon), DR 37 box 123/7, fols. 3r, 15r. For the city's complicated early history, see Goddard, R., Lordship and Medieval Urbanisation: Coventry, 1043–1355 (Woodbridge, 2004).

34 Lancaster, St Mary's Hall, 42. On Poissonnier, see the brief note in Delmarcel, G., Flemish Tapestry (London, 1999), 368.

35 Workshops started to add borders from the 1500s. I owe this information to Katherine Wilson.

36 Sharp, T., Illustrative Papers on the History and Antiquities of the City of Coventry (Birmingham, 1871), 220; Wilson, K., Courtly and Urban Tapestries of the Burgundian Dominions c. 1363–1500: Philip the Bold, John the Fearless and the Inhabitants of Douai, Dijon and Tournai (Turnhout, forthcoming).

37 TCC report, no. 0154; Harris, M.D., Life in an Old English Town (London, 1898), 371.

38 Kendrick, ‘Coventry tapestry’, 84; Lancaster, St Mary's Hall, 42.

39 Register of the Guild of the Holy Trinity, ed. Harris, 1.

40 For further comment, see Marks, R., ‘Two illuminated guild registers from Bedfordshire’, in Brown, M.P. and McKendrick, S. (eds.), Illuminating the Book: Makers and Interpreters (London, 1998), esp. 121–2, and Laynesmith, J.L., The Last Medieval Queens: English Queenship 1445–1503 (Oxford, 2004), 251.

41 I would like to thank my colleague, Richard Gameson, for discussion of this subject.

42 Laynesmith, Last Medieval Queens, 31–4.

43 Norman, D., Siena and the Virgin: Art and Politics in a Late Medieval City State (London, 1999), 4858.

44 For an example of the interplay of this typology, see the princely adventus into cities in the late Middle Ages: Kipling, G., Enter the King: Theatre, Liturgy, and Ritual in the Medieval Civic Triumph (Oxford, 1998).

45 Laynesmith, Last Medieval Queens, 251; Mertes, K., ‘The Liber Niger of Edward IV: a new version’, Bulletin of the Institute of Historical Research, 54 (1981), 37.

46 Maguire, H., ‘The heavenly court’, in idem (ed.), Byzantine Court Culture, 829–1204 (Washington, DC, 1997), 247–58; Woodfin, W.T., ‘Celestial hierarchies and earthly hierarchies in the art of the Byzantine church’, in Stephenson, P. (ed.), The Byzantine World (London, 2010), 303–19; M.-F. Auzépy, ‘Les aspects matériels de la taxis byzantine’, Bulletin du Centre de recherche du château de Versailles (online), Objets et insignes du pouvoir, mis en ligne le 16 juin 2008, consulté le 17 novembre 2010. http://crcv.revues.org/2253. I owe these references to my former colleague, Paul Stephenson.

47 Lancaster, J.C., ‘The city of Coventry: buildings: public buildings’, in Stephens, W.B. (ed.), A History of the County of Warwick, vol. VIII: The City of Coventry and Borough of Warwick (London, 1969), 141.

48 Records of the Guild of the Holy Trinity, ed. Templeman, 143.

49 For the chair, see Tittler, R., ‘Seats of honor, seats of power: the symbolism of public seating in the English urban community, c. 1560–1620’, Albion, 24 (1992), 211, and Cescinsky, H., ‘An oak chair in S. Mary's Hall, Coventry’, Burlington Magazine, 39 (Oct. 1921), 170–7.

50 Cf. Rigby, ‘Urban “oligarchy”’, 65.

51 The glass is examined in Rudebeck, ‘John Thornton’, 16.

52 Sharp, Illustrative Papers, 218.

53 Rudebeck, ‘John Thornton’, 30.

54 Dugdale, Antiquities of Warwickshire, 120.

55 Rudebeck, ‘John Thornton’, 27.

56 Marks, R., Stained Glass in England during the Middle Ages (London, 1993), 89.

57 Griffiths, R.A., The Reign of King Henry VI (new edn, Stroud, 1998), 777–8.

58 Liddy, C.D., War, Politics and Finance in Late Medieval English Towns: Bristol, York and the Crown, 1350–1400 (Woodbridge, 2005), 212.

59 BL Additional MS 11364, fol. 6r; CRO PA 2/5, fol. 11v.

60 BL Harleian MS 6388, p. 20.

61 Register of the Guild of the Holy Trinity, ed. Harris, xxiv, 14.

62 CRO PA 351/1, p. 16.

63 Griffiths, Reign of King Henry VI, 785.

64 Ibid., 793.

65 Ibid., 4–5.

66 Records of the Guild of the Holy Trinity, ed. Templeman, 143.

67 These communal feasts followed the special masses on the feasts of the Trinity, the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, St John the Baptist and St Katherine: Dugdale, Antiquities of Warwickshire, 122.

68 Phythian-Adams, Desolation of a City, 90, 162.

69 McRee, B.R., ‘Religious gilds and civic order: the case of Norwich in the late Middle Ages’, Speculum, 67 (1992), 91.

70 The quotation is from CRO PA 351/1, p. 15.

71 Records of the Guild of the Holy Trinity, ed. Templeman, 1–33.

72 Phythian-Adams, Desolation of a City, 121, 126; Dugdale, Antiquities of Warwickshire, 123.

73 Sharp, Illustrative Papers, 220.

74 Phythian-Adams, Desolation of a City, 41–3. For a more recent study which questions the picture of general decay within Coventry, see Leech, D., ‘Stability and change at the end of the Middle Ages: Coventry, 1450–1525’, Midland History, 34 (2009), 121.

75 Harris, Life in an Old English Town, 206–52.

76 Coventry Leet Book, ed. Harris, 567, 577–8.

77 BL Harleian MS 6388, pp. 24–5; Bodleian Library MS Top Warwickshire d.4, fols. 12r, 13r; Birmingham Reference Library, MS 273978, fols. 4v–5r; CRO PA 2/4, fols. 13v, 14v; CRO PA 2/5, fols. 15r, 16v; Shakespeare Birthplace Trust Record Office, DR 37 box 123/7, fols. 18v–19r; BL Additional MS 11364, fol. 7r–v; Coventry Leet Book, ed. Harris, 491–2, 556–7, 570.

78 CRO PA 2/4, fol. 14v.

79 Shakespeare Birthplace Trust Record Office, DR 37 box 123/7, fol. 7v.

80 McSheffrey, S., Gender and Heresy: Women and Men in Lollard Communities 1420–1530 (Philadelphia, 1995), 23–5.

81 Lollards of Coventry 1486–1522, ed. S. McSheffrey and N. Tanner (Camden 5th ser., 23, 2003), 16, 66, 67, 79–80; McSheffrey, Gender and Heresy, 23; Phythian-Adams, Desolation of a City, 21, 171–2.

82 Lollards of Coventry, ed. McSheffrey and Tanner, 79–80. See also ibid., 242, for evidence from 1512.

83 Phythian-Adams, Desolation of a City, 172.

84 Burgess, C., ‘A repertory for reinforcement: configuring Catholicism in fifteenth-century Bristol’, in Clark, L. (ed.), Of Mice and Men: Image, Belief and Regulation in Late Medieval England (Woodbridge, 2005), 99122.

85 For a comparison with Norwich, see McRee, ‘Religious gilds and civic order’, 96–7.

86 Coventry Leet Book, ed. Harris, 544.

87 McRee, ‘Religious gilds and civic order’, 94. In the third quarter of the fourteenth century, members of the Holy Trinity guild had been expelled for offences such as fornication and adultery: Phythian-Adams, Desolation of a City, 138 n. 7.

88 CRO PA 351/1, p. 15; BL Harleian MS 6388, pp. 10, 12; BL Additional MS 11364, fol. 4r; Bodleian Library, MS Top Warwickshire d.4, fol. 4r; Birmingham Reference Library, MS 115915, and MS 273978, fol. 2v; CRO PA 2/3, p. 45, PA 2/4, fols. 7v–8r, and PA 2/5, fols. 4v, 6r; Shakespeare Birthplace Trust Record Office, DR 37 box 123/7, fols. 3v, 16r.

89 I would like to thank my student, Harriet Eales, for this point. The assize regulated the weight of bread, according to the price of grain.

90 Coventry Leet Book, ed. Harris, 544–5, 567–9.

91 Goldberg, P.J.P., ‘Coventry's “Lollard” Programme of 1492 and the Making of Utopia’, in Horrox, R. and Jones, S. Rees (eds.), Pragmatic Utopias: Ideals and Communities 1200–1630 (Cambridge, 2001), 105–8. Where I differ strongly from this analysis is in the view that the 1492 programme constituted a ‘Lollard’ scheme. For a discussion of the relationship between the civic oligarchy of Coventry and the city's Lollard community, see McSheffrey, Gender and Heresy, 37–45.

92 McSheffrey, ‘Jurors, respectable masculinity, and Christian morality’, 277; idem, Marriage, Sex, and Civic Culture, 185.

93 Vauchez, A., ‘Introduction’, in idem (ed.), La religion civique à l’époque médiévale et moderne: Chrétienté et Islam (Rome, 1995), 15.

94 G. Rosser, ‘Urban culture and the church 1300–1540’, in Palliser (ed.), Cambridge Urban History, 347–8.

95 Wood, A., ‘Kett's Rebellion’, in Rawcliffe, C. and Wilson, R. (eds.), Medieval Norwich (London, 2004), 292.

96 The Maire of Bristowe is Kalendar, ed. L.T. Smith (Camden Society n.s., 5, 1872); P. Fleming, ‘Making history: culture, politics and The Maire of Bristowe is Kalendar’, in Biggs, D.L. et al. . (eds.), Reputation and Representation in Fifteenth-Century Europe (Brill, 2004), 289316.

97 Wood, A., Riot, Rebellion and Popular Politics in Early Modern England (Basingstoke, 2002), 116.

* I would like to thank my colleague, Ben Dodds, and the two anonymous referees, whose comments have improved the article enormously. The photographs are reproduced with the kind permission of Marcus Lynch (Manager of St Mary's Hall) and Elise Naish (Museums Collection Manager, Wardown Park Museum, Luton). Thanks are also due to Rayanne Byatt, Senior Library Assistant at the Coventry History Centre, for archival assistance.

Urban politics and material culture at the end of the Middle Ages: the Coventry tapestry in St Mary's Hall

  • CHRISTIAN D. LIDDY (a1)

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