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The ruins of Coventry cathedral, in Coventry.

During the English Civil War (which was not remotely civil, but was at least English, and a war), the city of Coventry was a strong supporter of the Parliamentarians (known as Roundheads, because of their metal battle helmets). This meant they were pro-democracy and against the Royalists (known as Cavaliers, but not because of their especially flippant nature) who believed in the divine right of kings to rule the land as they DAMN WELL PLEASED.

In fact, during the escalation of the war, it was Coventry’s refusal to allow the Cavalier army to enter the city – by manning the walls and refusing them entry, much to the King’s fury – that led to the first skirmishes.

Once the war began in earnest, should any foppish Cavalier fall into the hands of the Roundhead army, they would be sent to Coventry, partly as a prisoner of war, and partly as a kind of social punishment, where they would struggle to find supporters or any way to get word out to their friends. Edward Clarendon’s History of the Rebellion, printed in 1720, contains this passage, referring to the the relatively nearby town of Birmingham: “…a town so wicked it had risen upon small parties of the King’s [men], and killed or taken them prisoners and sent them to Coventry.”

There are also reports of Coventry being a town so fed up with the army, billeted nearby, that the locals refused to have anything to do with the soldiers, banning everyone, including local girls, from speaking to their fighty neighbours. And so legend grew that it was a town where an army would recieve a cold welcome.

And from that legend came the phrase sent to Coventry, referring to someone who is to be publicly shunned in such a strict and enforced manner that anyone who speaks to them risks similar treatment. Y’know, the sort of thing children do to their parents when they don’t want to tidy their room.

However, there’s another line of thought which suggests the phrase comes from a fear of hanging. During the reign of Henry III (most of the 13th Century) The covin tree (“tree of punishment”) was a strong oak with many branches, sited in a prominent place in front of the local castle. It will have been used as the site of multiple public hangings, and apparently the covin tree in Coventry was especially well used.

So sending someone to Coventry might originally have been a euphamistic way of saying they’re going to be hanged.

Just something to think about, and be grateful for, the next time a friend refuses to answer your emails.

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Filed Under: Fraser's Phrases
By Fraser McAlpine