In January 1329, Edward III gave his permission for the collection of ‘murage’ taxes to pay for the building of a wall around Coventry. Since the 12th century the town had been surrounded by a series of defensive ditches, with movable gates positioned at major transport routes. However, by the 14th century Coventry was developing into an important settlement. Situated along the main travel route from north to south and the most significant town in the midlands, Coventry was a strategic asset both in war time and for trade. It was for this reason that Coventry was granted a city charter in 1345. A defensive wall would not only protect the town, but would act as a representation of its growing status and encourage trade. Construction began when mayor Richard de Stoke laid the first stone at New Gate in 1356 and was initially completed in 1400, despite an interruption in the 1370s by a revolt against murage taxes. However, due to many extensions and amendments to the wall’s circuit construction was not fully completed until 1534. The medieval wall was just over two miles long, 12ft high and 9ft thick, comprising of two rings of red stone wall fortified with rubble in between. The wall was punctuated with 20 watch towers and 12 gates, each set into a gatehouse, which controlled passage in and out of the city. These gates were named: New Gate, Gosford Gate, Bishop Gate, Well Street Gate, Hill Street Gate, Greyfriars Gate, Cheylesmore Gate, Little Park Street Gate, Bastille Gate (renamed Mill Gate), and Bablake Gate (renamed later Spon Gate), Cook Street, Priory Gate (renamed Swanswell Gate), of which only the final two remain.
Completed around 1385, Cook Street Gate was one of the earlier gates to be built. Its construction caused significant disruption to local residents. There had been six cottages along the route of the north side of the wall, two of which were destroyed to build the gate. Three of the cottages were contained inside the wall’s boundary, having had their land divided, and one was left outside the city wall. Swanswell Gate was completed in 1440. Originally known as Priory Gate, it used to serve as the entrance to the prior’s land. The angle at which the wall attaches to the corner of the gatehouse is the result of its direction being rerouted in 1480, when the prior convinced the mayor to divert the wall to include his private fishing pond in its circuit.
To ensure the walls were properly manned the city was divided into ten wards, each providing watchmen for the walls and gates. To ease the high cost of maintenance, the council leased out a number of gatehouses and towers privately to citizens, on the condition that they were responsible for the upkeep of the building and designated section of wall. With such imposing and well-guarded defences, Coventry was regarded as the best protected city in the country outside of London. A symbol of status, the impressive fortifications established Coventry’s reputation as an important centre of trade worth protecting, and as a result the city prospered in the medieval period.
The city walls and gates were very expensive to maintain, and by the 17th century had begun to fall into disrepair. However, after the outbreak of the civil war efforts were made to restore the city’s defences, and in 1642 they were described as being comparable in strength to London’s. During this period of conflict, the four main gates controlling the major transport routes were guarded by 400 men, day and night. During the war Coventry supported the Parliamentarians, and in 1642 denied Charles I entry into the city. After the restoration in 1662, Charles II ordered the city walls to be destroyed. It is commonly believed that this was in retaliation for Coventry’s opposition to his father and the refusal to allow him into the city. However, a letter to the Earl of Northampton from Charles II written in 1662 reveals that the destruction of the walls was ordered due to Coventry’s harbouring of rebels after the restoration of the monarchy, and to prevent further insurrection. The walls were mostly demolished in 1662, leaving only the gatehouses intact. Citizens were keen to make use of the newly available resources, and carried away stones from the ruined walls to use for themselves. In the years following the restoration the threat of further rebellion lessened, and the order for the destruction of the city walls was revoked in 1672. Measures were put in place to prevent further theft by the public, and in 1686 the city council made official efforts to preserve the remains.
At the turn of the century the population of Coventry was expanding, and the city was growing. Demand for housing led to many of the gatehouses being converted into housing in the late 17th and early 18th centuries. A civil survey of 1748 shows that the 12 gates were still standing, however by the end of the 18th century most had been lost. The four largest gates were taken down to ease the increasing flow of traffic into the city, and most of the others were gradually demolished. In 1810, William Reader recorded that only three gates remained, Cook Street, Swanswell and Mill Gate, however Mill Gate was subsequently demolished in 1849. Around the same time, Swanswell Gate was converted into a cottage. The roof was raised and replaced, windows were created, and the large archway was filled in in 1856. In 1913, Cook Street Gate was given to the city of Coventry by local philanthropist Colonel Sir William Fitzthomas Wyley, and was restored in 1918. Swanswell Gate, having been used first as a cottage then a shop. was later acquired by the city in 1931 from Sir Alfred Herbert. The gatehouse battlements were restored, and the roof that was added when the gate was used as a residence was removed.
Lady Herbert’s Garden, which stretches between the two gatehouses and along the length of the remaining city wall, was developed in the 1930s. Sir Alfred Herbert, one of Coventry’s leading industrialists, created the garden in the memory of his late wife Florence who passed away in 1930. Herbert began purchasing properties to the north of the city centre in 1930, to create ‘a haven of peace and floral beauty’. Lady Herbert’s Garden opened to the public in April 1931. In 1935, Sir Alfred Herbert purchased land to the west of the medieval wall to extend the garden and build almhouses for the poor, to be named ‘Lady Herbert’s Homes’. For this, slum housing was acquired and cleared in the years 1935-37, and the Coventry Hippodrome was demolished in 1937-38. The garden was completed in 1938. During the Coventry Blitz of April 1941, the garden suffered a direct hit which damaged a section of city wall and a set of steps. Luckily, neither gatehouse was damaged in the bombing, and Cook Street Gate and Swanswell Gate stand today as a reminder of Coventry’s medieval heritage.