Scenes from Coventry

In 1456, Margaret of Anjou took up residence in the midlands, where she and Henry VI would spend much of 1456 and 1457. Their base was the city of Coventry, which would become known as “the queen’s secret harbour.” Henry and Margaret’s visits to Coventry were recorded in The Coventry Leet Book (available on Google Books), edited by M.D. Harris.

The most spectacular civic event took place on September 14, 1456, when the city of Coventry greeted Margaret with a series of pageants. Featured were speeches from figures representing Isaiah and Jeremiah, Edward the Confessor and John the Evangelist, the four cardinal virtues of Righteousness, Temperance, Strength, and Prudence, and the nine worthies–Hector, Alexander, Joshua, David, Judas Maccabaeus, Arthur, Charlemagne, Caesar, and Godfrey of Bouillon. Bringing up the rear, appropriately enough, was St. Margaret slaying a dragon.

The text of the pageants can be found in The Coventry Leet Book. (Incidentally, the writer of the verses, John Wetherby of Leicester, received 25 shillings for his work.) To give you a flavor, here is part of Julius Caesar’s speech:

I, Julius Cesare, souerayn of knyghthode
And emperowr of mortall men, most hegh & myghty,
Welcum you, princes most benynge & gode;
Of quenes that byn crowned so high non knowe I.
The same blessyd blossom that spronge of yowr body,
Shall succede me yn worship, I wyll it be so;
All the landis olyve shall obey hym vn-to.

Henry VI was present at Coventry, as Judas Maccabeus duly noted:

Your own souerayu lorde & kynge is present here,
Whome God for his godenes preserve in good helthe,
And ende you with worship to this landys welthe!

Nothing indicates that the king received the same sort of ceremonial greeting that his queen did: this was Margaret’s show. The mayor did, however, give a tun of wine to the king. He also paid two shillings for a “glasse of Rose water” for Lord Rivers, whose daughter Elizabeth would become Edward IV’s queen in 1464.

When Margaret left Coventry for Coleshill in March 1457, she famously asked that she be accompanied by the sheriffs bearing their staffs of office, just as the king had been accompanied, though she stopped short of having a sword borne beside her. Her visit to Coventry in May 1457 to see the Corpus Christi plays, however, was far less formal. Margaret asked not to be met, and she brought a host of distinguished guests with her:

On Corporis Christi yeven at nyght then next suyng came the queue from Kelyngworth to Coventre; at which tyme she wold not be met, but came preuely to se the play there on the morowe; and she sygh then alle the Pagentes pleyde save Domes-day, which myght not be pleyde for lak of day. And she was loged at Richard Wodes the Grocer, where Ric. Sharp some-tyme dwelled, and there all the pleys were furst pleyde. At which tyme the Meyre and his brethern send vnto her a present which was sich as here suytli: That is to wit, ccc paynemaynes [fine white bread], a pipe of Rede wyne, a dosyn Capons of haut grece, a dosyn of grete fat Pykes, a grete panyer full of Pescodes and another panyer full of pipyiis and Orynges and ij Cofyns of Counfetys and a pot of grene Gynger. And there were with her then these lordes and ladyes that here folowen: That is to sey, the Duke of Bukkyngham and my lady his Wyff and all ther Childern, the lord Revers and my lady hys Wyf, the lady of Shrowesbery the Elder, and the lady of Shrowesbery the yonger, with other mony moo lordes and ladyes. And the Friday then next she remeved to Colshull to her mete and Eculsale [Eccleshall] to the Prynce; at which tyme the seid Meire and his brethern with right a Good feliship of the seid cite, which plesid her highnes right well, brought her to the vtmast syde of theyre fraunchice, where hit plesyd her to gyff them grete thank bothe for theyre present and theyre gentyll attendaunce.

Note the fact that the “lack of day” prevented the Doomsday play from being staged, which seems quite appropriate, and the Woodville sighting (“the lord Revers and my lady hys Wyf”).

Though The Coventry Leet Book records a few more of Margaret’s and Henry’s comings and goings, the good times at Coventry would soon be over for Margaret. Following the Yorkist victory at Towton in 1461, the officials of Coventry dutifully raised money for a present to the new king, Edward IV. In 1467, they prepared for a visit by Queen Elizabeth Woodville. When Margaret herself returned to Coventry in 1471, it was as a captive being brought to Edward IV, fresh from his victory at Tewkesbury.


The Coventry Leet Book
J. L. Laynesmith, “Constructing Queenship at Coventry: Pageantry and Politics at Margaret of Anjou’s ‘Secret Harbour.'” The Fifteenth Century III: Authority and Subversion, ed. by Linda Clark.

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