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Nunnery of St Osburga & location of the original Church

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Garbett
Coventry
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1 of 24  Thu 31st Dec 2020 7:31pm  
Member: Joined Nov 2020  Total posts:7

Help me understand Coventry. If you turned up to a remote hill in a remote part of the world, where the only defence and safety is each other - you decide to stay and build a church there, no one else is there - where do you build your church? At the bottom of the hill? Halfway up it? Or at the top of the hill where you can see all around? You build on top of the hill. So why is original St Osburg’s built under St Mary’s? Halfway up the hill! So was there something on the top of the hill first like a fortified encampment? Meaning St Osburg’s Church was built there because there were others there first. Any thoughts?
Peter Garbett

Nunnery of St Osburga & location of the original Church
Rob Orland
Historic Coventry
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2 of 24  Fri 1st Jan 2021 10:58am  
Webmaster: Joined Jan 2010  Total posts:1503

That is indeed a very good question, and is indeed central to the whole story of our city's beginnings. The best answer I've ever read comes from a wonderfully authoritative book called Anglo Saxon Coventry and its Churches, by Steven Bassett. He puts forward reasons why our principal church and monastery might have been built in such a strange location on the side of a hill. Additional to its location, cathedral cloisters are traditionally built on the south side of a church - preferably flat ground. Our St. Mary's cloister is on sloping ground on the north side, where the land had to be heavily terraced in order to erect it, along with the chapter house, refectory, west-range and other features. Among Steven's evidence is a Bede Roll of Norman origin, which dedicates to both Holy Trinity and St. Mary - in that order. As St. Osburg's original church is thought to be of Saxon origin, it is hypothesised by Steven that, as was common at the time, there was a pair of churches, forming a Minster - one for the religious order, and one for the town's people. The "main" Minster church dedicated to the Holy Trinity would be at the top of the hill - the location of the current church - and St. Mary's therefore needing to take up the north hillside. Not convenient perhaps, but closer to the water supply of the Sherbourne at the foot of the hill (beneath what is now Fairfax Street). I'm still working on that time-machine - I'd love to know what it really was like back then!
Nunnery of St Osburga & location of the original Church
Garbett
Coventry
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3 of 24  Fri 1st Jan 2021 1:33pm  
Member: Joined Nov 2020  Total posts:7

Not an easy one, Rob. My head is set on logic and reasoning. If St Osburg's was here before the castle or any strongholdings, why weren’t both churches built on the flat on top of the hill. Holy Trinity as St Michael's was built many centuries after St Osburg's ironical church. It still does not make sense to me. You would always take the prime position. So if St Osburg's was built under St Mary's, then that was the prime position, meaning Broadgate and across to Earl Street would have not been available. So what was there? I know you don’t know the answer but it just doesn’t not make any sense.
Peter Garbett

Nunnery of St Osburga & location of the original Church
Prof
Gloucester
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4 of 24  Fri 1st Jan 2021 3:30pm  
Member: Joined Jul 2014  Total posts:1542

Wasn't the original Nunnery of St Osburga on the site on which St Mary's Cathedral was built, i.e. Priory Row site. The nunnery said by historians to have been sacked by the Danes, if this is at all feasible?
Nunnery of St Osburga & location of the original Church
Garbett
Coventry
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5 of 24  Fri 1st Jan 2021 8:54pm  
Member: Joined Nov 2020  Total posts:7

It is said so, but that’s my point, if you look at my first and further posts. Why would you build it there? On a hill? Why not on top of the hill where there should have been loads of space? Unless that is, it was occupied? And by who? Or what?
Peter Garbett

Nunnery of St Osburga & location of the original Church
Helen F
Warrington
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6 of 24  Sat 2nd Jan 2021 1:29am  
Moderator: Joined Mar 2013  Total posts:2436

I've had a good think about this and the issues arise from what St Osburga's nunnery was for, the different phases of the religious houses and how many people were involved. I think our sense of scale is wrong and influenced by much later buildings. Pre Viking, St Osburga's nunnery - where there would have been very small communal buildings and individual cells. It may have housed nuns and monks plus the abbess. So not necessarily lone women. The original abbess might have been a widow or relative of a wealthy/powerful man who controlled that area, tasked with bringing religion and authority over the locals. Coventry probably did have a small local population but at the least the nunnery would have been at the confluence of tracks between settlements. Only if the nunnery was for total isolation might it have had no neighbours. Post Cnut, where Godiva's church was said to be less than 55ft long - less than the distance between the flower beds on Trinity Lane and the front of Holy Trinity. There is plenty of land flat enough for a church and associated monastery buildings, plus growing land. This could have been above the marshy ground round New Buildings; in what was to become the courtyard in front of the Norman St Mary's; or at the top of the hill next to a suitably small Holy Trinity. The place had an abbot and 24 monks. Hardly enormous. The early town was most likely at the top of the hill but it wasn't much higher than the land Holy Trinity sits on. By this time the monks were probably tended to and funded by tenants, gifted to them by Leofric and Godiva. St Mary's cathedral was built to replace Godiva's church and was started at the crossing point and, still incomplete, it was used as a fortress to attack Coventry castle in 1147 so the area in between must have been fairly empty at that point. The towered west entrance was dated 1160-1300, so did not encroach on land that might have housed the early monastery for over 100 years. The monastic buildings to the north were also built in stages ranging in date from 1160 to 1540. Any part of the area could have hosted former buildings or growing spaces, cleared only when it was needed.
Nunnery of St Osburga & location of the original Church
Garbett
Coventry
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7 of 24  Sat 2nd Jan 2021 10:09am  
Member: Joined Nov 2020  Total posts:7

Thanks Helen, that’s given me lots to think about. Makes a lot of sense too.
Peter Garbett

Nunnery of St Osburga & location of the original Church
Helen F
Warrington
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8 of 24  Sat 2nd Jan 2021 4:38pm  
Moderator: Joined Mar 2013  Total posts:2436

Peter, you may want to look at some of the Anglo Saxon village reconstructions like West Stow for an idea what villages looked like. Be wary of Anglo Saxon churches though, because they are often mostly later additions. I've been toying with what might be the old bones of the city, trying to understand the kinks of the roads and place the oldest ditches. The key places would be where the river was crossed but the fords weren't necessarily where the bridges were built. Below I've drawn in speculative lines. Some more likely than others eg the east end of West Orchard kinks towards the Norman priory gateway but where was the west end going? Smithford Street points to the likely location of the Broad Gate.
Nunnery of St Osburga & location of the original Church
Helen F
Warrington
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9 of 24  Sun 3rd Jan 2021 11:09pm  
Moderator: Joined Mar 2013  Total posts:2436

An interesting video on early architecture including the sort of issues we're talking about.
Nunnery of St Osburga & location of the original Church
Helen F
Warrington
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10 of 24  Mon 4th Jan 2021 3:10pm  
Moderator: Joined Mar 2013  Total posts:2436

Having finished the video it's possible that the first settlement was the nunnery but probably at the behest of whoever owned the land. Unfortunately there's over 200 years before we discover it in the hands of Godiva and Leofric.
Nunnery of St Osburga & location of the original Church
Helen F
Warrington
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11 of 24  Mon 4th Jan 2021 4:13pm  
Moderator: Joined Mar 2013  Total posts:2436

Osburh (or Osburga) was an Anglo-Saxon saint who rested at Coventry Cathedral. Although there is some tradition holding her to be an early 11th-century abbess of Coventry Abbey, it is suspected that her cult predates the Viking Age. A 14th-century note in MS Bodley 438 mentions an early nunnery at Coventry. The 15th-century writer John Rous related that Cnut the Great destroyed the old Coventry minster, and noted that the "holy virgin Osburga now laid there in a noble shrine" (probably lay in the south transept of the church). As the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records the devastation of neighbouring Warwickshire in 1016, Cnut's attack on a monastery at Coventry is possible. Leofric's 1043 Coventry charter relates that the abbey was dedicated to Osburh (as well as St Mary, St Peter and All Saints), though this could be a later addition. Osburh was said to rest at Coventry in the 12th-century resting-place list of Hugh Candidus. She is mentioned the 13th-century Scandinavian Ribe Martyrology, which gives 21 January as her feast-day. According to a description of Coventry's relics made in 1539, her head was enclosed with copper and gold.
Nunnery of St Osburga & location of the original Church
Garbett
Coventry
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12 of 24  Thu 7th Jan 2021 12:11am  
Member: Joined Nov 2020  Total posts:7

On 3rd Jan 2021 11:09pm, Helen F said: An interesting video on early architecture including the sort of issues we're talking about.
Wow that was a very long video but well worth watching, really interesting thanks
Peter Garbett

Nunnery of St Osburga & location of the original Church
Helen F
Warrington
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13 of 24  Thu 7th Jan 2021 1:10pm  
Moderator: Joined Mar 2013  Total posts:2436

Peter, I've only just discovered the videos myself and I'm working my way through the ones that take my interest. I'm on episode 2 of that series 1130-1300. I like a few graphics as much as the next person but I've got a bit bored with TV documentaries with 5 mins of new information dragged out over an hour and the rest just repeating old stuff. Or worse, long silences as the narrator stares moodily into the distance or shows admittedly nice landscape photography and mood music.
Nunnery of St Osburga & location of the original Church
Kaga simpson
Peacehaven, East Sussex
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14 of 24  Sat 23rd Jan 2021 4:59pm  
Member: Joined Sep 2014  Total posts:3509

Osburga was a woman in the first century, she was married to King Aethewulf 556AD in Wessex, southern England, who paid taxes to the Pope of Rome. She was very religous, mother to 5 sons all of whom became kings, one being King Alfred.
Nunnery of St Osburga & location of the original Church
Helen F
Warrington
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15 of 24  Sat 23rd Jan 2021 7:54pm  
Moderator: Joined Mar 2013  Total posts:2436

The nunnery + small church that Peter (Garbett) is talking about was Coventry's first. Set up supposedly by a St Osburga, a pre Viking era saint/abbess (about 700AD) or maybe a late Saxon abbess killed by Cnut's men (1016AD). Where this nunnery was, nobody knows. Leofric was Earl of Chester but he was the Earl of the whole of Mercia, including Coventry of which, he and his wife Godiva , were fond. He died a short while before the Norman invasion (1066) and Godiva sometime after. They almost certainly did not live in a mill. They or Cnut decided to build a monastery dedicated to St Mary and house St Osburga's remains. Godiva gave the monks a lot of gold and jewels to decorate their church. It predated the grand cathedral and nobody knows where it stood. So nobody knows where St Osburga's nunnery was or where its replacement was either. There is a Roman Catholic church called St Osburg built in 1843 on Hill Street but Peter wasn't asking about that one.
Nunnery of St Osburga & location of the original Church

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