The city of Coventry was at the hub of several road networks across the country and a focal point for touring troupes for as long as evidence survives (medieval through mid-16th c. records are not extant). An astonishing survival, St Mary's Hall is situated in narrow Bayley Lane directly across from the ruins of St Michael's Cathedral, now a haunting witness to the bombing of the Cathedral in World War II. The arched entrance from the street leads to a courtyard with the red sandstone hall on the upper storey in the W range, the entrance via a narrow, winding staircase accessed through a door in the E range. The hall stands on a vaulted undercroft of 2 naves and 4 bays.
As the seat of civic government and the centre for festive occasions, St Mary's Hall was probably the venue for most performances by touring entertainers before the mayor and city officials before 1642. The hall continued in use by performers into the 18th c. (eg, Mrs Siddons).
The hall is open to the public at specified times.
1340--2 Guildhall built for Coventry's merchant guild (established in 1340). The medieval kitchen on the ground floor apparently dates from this period.
1394--1414 Enlarged for the Trinity Guild.
1441 Original buttery or pantry at E side of low end in use as the council chamber.
late 15th c. Extensively altered. N wall reconstructed to add the N window and make space for the new tapestry, possibly at the induction of Henry VII and his queen, Elizabeth, as members of the Trinity Guild in 1500 (Lancaster, St Mary's Hall 6).
1552 The city acquired St Mary's Hall after the dissolution of religious guilds and chantries and 'continued to use the Great Hall and the Council House and their auxiliary buildings for the administration of its affairs, for the reception of royal and noble visitors and for other public occasions' (Lancaster, St Mary's Hall 2).
ca. 1581 Verses in Latin and English commemorating various worthies by Philemon Holland inscribed, with heraldic devices, on oak panelling on the E and W walls of the hall. A tall screen was placed at the low end to conceal the entrances to the council rooms and kitchen stairs. The chair of state was set in front of the screen.
1650 Royal arms defaced in the hall.
ca. 1660 Hall whitewashed and royal arms repainted.
1755 Heraldic tiles on the floor replaced by wooden boards, raising the level of the floor to that of the dais (Lancaster, St Mary's Hall 9).
1780 Windows on the W wall of the hall destroyed during the election riots and later replaced with plain glass.
1785 Mayoress' parlour adjoining the hall at the high end extensively renovated.
1793 N window restored and releaded, with some damage and confusion in the glass resulting.
1826 Drastic restoration of the hall under the direction of Stedman Whitwell removed some fine period features. Early glass and woodcarving replaced; early 15th c. glass remaining on the E wall removed and E and W wall windows refitted with 19th c. glass of medieval style. The oriel was rebuilt and the arch opposite opened up as a lobby to the mayoress' parlour. The buttery to the W was demolished and the 2 doors from the oriel passage were blocked.
1880s Further restoration: plaster removed from the walls (including Philemon Holland's verses) and 18th c. floor replaced by oak blocks at a lower level. Timber-framed S wall plastered over.
1893 Restoration with some sensitive reorganization of the medieval glass.
1920s/30s Another program of restoration removed the plaster from the S wall and reopened the S window. The early 19th c. glass in the E and W windows was replaced by new glass. The old council chamber was restored and some glass from the E wall windows inserted there.
1939--45 Stained glass, tapestry, carved wooden bosses and other furnishings stored elsewhere for safety. The hall roof suffered fire damage during air raids in 1940 and 1941.
late 1940s Roof restored, angels and heraldic bosses repaired and repainted, medieval glass and tapestry repositioned in the hall.
REED Coventry 265--448