This week I was in Coventry and was fortunate enough to be able to go into the church of St John the Baptist in the city centre. It is referred to as Coventry’s medieval gem, and this is no exaggeration. The church was founded in the fourteenth century, under circumstances that we’ll go into shortly, but underwent huge alterations in the fifteenth, sixteenth and nineteenth centuries. Much of the centre of Coventry was destroyed during the war, so it’s wonderful that St John’s has survived.
I went to the church to look at some needlework panels showing over a thousand years of Coventry’s history including St Osburga, Lady Godiva, the Civil War, the industrialisation of Coventry and the Second World War, but the real interest for me was the founding of the church, which is documented at various places inside the building.
In 1344 Queen Isabella, widow of Edward II and mother of Edward III, gave some land to the guild of St John the Baptist in Coventry. The land was part of her manor, Cheylesmore. The chapel was to be a chantry, where Masses would be said for members of the royal family, including her husband, the late king. Since the official date for the death of Edward II was September 1327, the timing of this endowment has been taken by many to confirm the theory that he didn’t actually die until the early 1340s, having escaped, or been allowed to escape, from Berkeley Castle and gone to the Continent.
The impy on a pillar inside the church
The grant of the land includes the stipulation that, in addition to saying Masses for the members of the guild (living and dead), two priests had to say Masses daily for Edward III, his wife Philippa, and Edward, the Prince of Wales (the Black Prince) during their lifetimes and for their souls after their deaths. It has been suggested that she founded the guild of St John herself specifically to say Masses for the royal family. The chapel was consecrated on 2nd May 1350.
The photograph above shows the aisle that is believed to mark the original foundation, with the needlework panels I’d gone to see down one side. On Isabella’s death in 1358 her grandson, the Black Prince inherited the Cheylesmore manor and donated more land to the guild.
The guild flourished and by 1393 there were nine priests.
The chantry was dissolved in 1548 and became a parish church in 1734.