The night of 14th November 1940 was cloudless and moonlit: perfect for air attack. By 5am, Coventry’s cathedral church of St Michael sustained irreparable damage from incendiary bombs dropped by a Luftwaffe night-raid on the city. Over 600 people were dead and the city lay in tatters.
The destruction of the cathedral, and of Coventry’s historic core, was a significant moment in Britain’s civilian experience of the conflict with Nazi Germany and a devastating blow for the city. After the war, what happened to Coventry pales against the many other air attacks and mass slaughters across Europe, but it spoke directly of the civilian losses of that terrible conflict.
I am interested in how the church, once cleared, consolidated and retained as a roofless ruin adjacent to the new cathedral church built in its stead and facing into it, continued to accrue memories. Seemingly preserved in Pompeii-like freeze-frame, it is a complex multi-layered memoryscape.
In commemorating one night, one moment of destruction, the ruins of St Michael’s make it a powerful place of conflict commemoration and peace memorialisation. The board within describes it as a ‘living icon of reconciliation and hope’. Yet I would suggest that this is gloss, for its commemorative messages are more nuanced and variegated. The official narrative of the site is sustained, but also questioned, by this memorial complexity.
To state the obvious, this is an utterly different memorial space to the other cathedral churches that have been the focus of the Past in its Place project. The new cathedral church, as among the newest of Britain’s cathedrals and a completely bespoke architectural space, is also a contrast from the other cathedrals under our consideration. The one cannot be appreciated without the other, but for simplicity’s sake I will address that separately elsewhere.
So I have been thinking about how to characterise the memorials dimensions of the ruins of St Michael’s. The ruins are themselves a memorial to the c. 600 citizens of Coventry who died on that one night of bombing. They are the focus of an annual service to commemorate victims of the blitz. In this regard, the components are the ruins, but also the Perpendicular tower and spire that ‘miraculously’ escaped the fires, as well as the new cathedral whose southern front rises above the ruins on the northern side.
However, the ruins also contain many further individual memorial plaques and memorial components that relate to the overarching commemorative narrative, but in different ways. So what are the constituent elements of this space? How does it work as an asssemblage of memorial elements? Part of the problem is that part of the north aisle was closed to restoration, making it impossible for me to fully view it. I must go back. However, here are some preliminary observations.
Commemorating the Bombing
The entire space and its components commemorate the bombing. Yet there are a series of memorials that directly or indirectly commemorate the act of the cathedral’s destruction and prefigure its rehabilitation. Most striking of all is the cross made of burnt timbers. The original is now on display within the new Coventry Cathedral but a replica is installed beside the high altar. A cross of nails was also made and mounted on the altar.The Home Front memorial might be fitted into this category. There are also memorials to those who attempted to save the cathedral, notably Richard Howard – the Provost of the cathedral who was one of four on duty the night of the bombing.
Commemorating Absent Spaces
A series of memorial plaques situated around the walls commemorate the guild chapels that are no longer present. As such, they serve to commemorate the cathedral as it was before the bombing.
Further traces of the lost past are explicitly displayed components of the ruined space. Immediately after the bombing, rubble was used to make a crude altar to serve for services, but this has spawned the raising of select ruins as memorials in themselves throughout the church space. These are treated as memorials in themselves.
There are medieval sarcophagi, post-medieval mural tablets and even the bronze effigy tomb of the first bishop of the newly re-established 20th-century cathedral. All these constitute vestiges of the cathedral’s commemorative environment when it was destroyed in 1940; traces of a lost – or partly lost – commemorative past so familiar from other cathedrals we have studied. Yet as damaged and destroyed, dislocated and reassembled monuments, these mortuary and commemorative features together serve to foreground the striking outdoors-ness of what should be a covered space.
There are a number of plaques commemorating restorations to the cathedral, including the rehanging of the bells to commemorate the cathedral’s silver jubilee in 1987. The restoration of the tower and spire, 1977-78 is also commemorated.
Commemorating the Dead
While post-1940 memorials are rare, there are indications that old altars, benches and floor spaces continue to attract new memorials subsequent to the church’s abandonment for regular services and left in its ruinous state. One altar is the focus of informal memorials to those commemorated or buried elsewhere. Into this category comes again the memorial to Provost Dick Howard and his wife (above) but also the memorial to the bishop of Coventry in the immediate aftermath of the bombing.
Commemorating Peace and Reconciliation
A series of artworks have been installed to provoke contemplation on peace and human suffering during conflict. Epstein’s Ecce Homo might be interested in this category. There is also the statue called ‘Reconciliation’ and a plaque opened by the Queen Mother on the anniversary of the bombing, 14th November 1990.
A final aspect of the commemorative programme is the informal commemoration of visitors who ascend the surviving tower of St Michael’s. Whether just to remember their visit and leave their mark, or some deeper significance, in this particular context these marks are destructive but also commemorative; they wouldn’t be able to leave a mark had the fire destroyed the tower too. In an informal and popular way, these graffiti celebrate the persistence of the church through its bombing.
Together these different categories of commemorative interweave in the complex ruined space of St Michael’s, offering a glimpse of many of the memorial themes we find in other cathedral spaces, but here coalescing in an open-air ruin to a specific and devastating moment in the history of the church and the city of Coventry.