Drapers’ Hall dig to reveal the mercantile heart of medieval Coventry
Excavation and historic building recording has begun at Drapers’ Hall which will reveal the commercial heart of medieval Coventry.
This forms part of an exciting project led by The Prince’s Foundation, who are working with Historic Coventry Trust to sensitively restore the early 19th century Grade II* listed building and its magnificent interiors. The £5.5 million scheme will see Drapers’ Hall, empty and unused for nearly 30 years, turned into a creative and vibrant centre for educating local young musicians and for the performance of professional classical music in time for City of Culture 2021. Building work is set to begin in early summer.
The excavation is anticipated to reveal more about how the area came to be the mercantile heart of medieval Coventry, then the fourth largest city in England. There are hopes that evidence relating to Coventry Castle –a motte and bailey built by the Earl of Chester between 1088 and 1147will be uncovered. Drapers’ Hall is known to sit within the outer bailey.
Historic building recording of the dormant building is a chance to explore how the structure and use of Drapers’ Hall changed over time – from its medieval origins, to its more recent history, when it was used as a public air raid shelter for up to 200 people during World War Two.
The current 1832 structure is the only example of a neoclassical temple façade in Coventry, and is thought to be at least the third in a line of halls at the site stretching back to 1637, belonging to the Drapers’ Company – the only one of the seven surviving Medieval Guilds of Coventry to retain its guildhall. Coventry was the ‘boom town’ of late medieval England, its wealth stemming from the production of wool and woollen cloth, and the medieval Drapers’ Hall was the largest cloth market outside London.
Medieval remains are known to survive below ground in the area from previous excavations. A dig on Bayley Lane in 1988-89 revealed extensive medieval and post-medieval cellars and stone lined pits, lying within a ditch thought to belong to an earlier castle bailey. Coventry was once famous for its production of sought-after blue fabric - hence the saying ‘as true as Coventry blue’ - and it may be that these pits were involved in the process of turning cloth.
In 2008 archaeological work to the rear of Drapers’ Hall revealed sandstone foundations of a 14th century building. Its exact purpose remains a mystery, but the high quality of stonework indicates that the building once stood to two or even three stories, and therefore would have been built for a wealthy and influential individual or organisation.
It is likely that the upcoming excavation will uncover evidence of a range of medieval and Tudor trades, including metal working in the form of belt buckles, clothing fasteners and casting waste. An unusually large number of stone moulds for metal casting were recovered during excavation in the 80s behind the site so it is hoped more will be found. Alongside traces of former buildings, artefacts discovered will help archaeologists to learn more about how the Drapers’ Hall site was used, and the people who used it.
It is hoped that the artefacts found from the dig will be displayed at the Medieval Gallery at the Herbert Art Gallery and Museum, alongside those from the 1989-9 dig, and that the artefacts will also form the basis of a major exhibition on Coventry’s textiles history.