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In 1329 permission was granted by King Edward III enabling the Prior and 'goodmen' of Coventry to collect taxes specifically to fund the building of a protective "Town Wall". By that time, Coventry had built up some considerable wealth, was one of the four most important cities in England, and may have been considered a strategic target in times of war. The tax was known as "murage" and was based upon the Latin word "murus", meaning "wall".
Building didn't begin until 1355 at New Gate (the London Road entrance, pictured left) and lasted for 179 years; finally completed in 1534. The final structure had a total circumference of 2 1/8 miles. At around eight feet thick, over twelve feet high and punctuated by twenty towers and twelve proud gates, it was thought by many to be the most impressive city wall in the country, equal if not greater than that around London.
Sadly, the finished wall lasted for less time than it took to build. In 1662 King Charles II gave the Earl of Northampton the order to "slight" the wall (demolish it) leaving only the gates intact. Charles' justification for this vengeful act was that our wall, amongst others, had kept his father (Charles I) at bay during the civil war just a few years earlier. (See "Sent to Coventry".) Similarly, the walls of Gloucester and Northampton plus Taunton Castle were also demolished.
Of the original twelve city gates, only two remain.... Swanswell also known as Priory gate, and Cook Street gate sometimes called Tower gate. A large portion of wall can be seen extending from the right hand side of the gate here, finishing its run just short of Cook Street gate one hundred yards north. Earlier in its history, Swanswell gate was referred to as Priory gate as it gave entrance to the proir's own land and fishing pool.
It is perhaps unfortunate that the two surviving gates are only minor ones of relatively basic design. Some of the other main entrances to the town, such as Gosford, Greyfriars and Spon gates, were quite elaborate and more like small castles!
moving clockwise around Coventry, the twelve gates were:
Swanswell gate - built 1461 (Also known as Priory gate.) Mill Lane gate - built 1512-14 (Originally known as Bastille gate) - demolished 1849 Gosford gate - demolished in 1765 New gate (The main London Road entrance; the wall's building was begun here.) - demolished 1762 Little Park gate Cheylesmore gate Greyfriars gate (The main route to Warwick) - demolished 1781 Spon gate - built 1372 - demolished 1771 Hill Street gate - built c.1395, rebuilt 1423 (Also called Bablake .) Well Street gate Bishop gate (A reference to the Bishop's route between Coventry and Lichfield.) Cook Street gate (Sometimes referred to as Tower gate.)
Between Swanswell and Cook Street gates exists the best preserved surviving section of old city wall. Either side of this lies Lady Herbert's Garden which was laid out by Sir Alfred Herbert in the early 1930's in memory of his late wife Florence who died unexpectedly in 1930.
After entering the gardens from the entrance above, you will find yourself not only in beautiful suroundings, but following the line of the "Old Rope Walk" which used to run alongside this section of town wall.... Prior to these gardens being built, John Astley's rope manufacturing yard stood here. Further along, the wall comes to an end a short distance before meeting up with Cook Street gate which can just be seen ahead in this next photo.
At the far end, if you turn around, you will be met by the view above with the spire of the old St. Michael's cathedral showing in the distance. Turning to your right, you will see Cook Street gate.....
The plaque on the left tells the story of Cook Street gate better than I can! In the next picture above, you can clearly see the door in the side of the gatehouse which would have given access to the top of the city wall.
If you look upwards as you walk through the gate, you can still see a beautiful wooden carving of the Coventry emblem, the Elephant and Castle, inside the roof.