“Sent to Coventry”

Visitors to this blog are often looking for the origins of the phrase “sent to Coventry”. Here, from the Notes & Queries section of today’s edition of The Guardian, are a few suggestions:

Why is it that an ostracised person is “sent to Coventry?” Surely, a remote location such as Rockall would be more appropriate?

• During the English civil war Coventry was a “roundhead” town and was used as a jail for cavalier prisoners. At the time, Coventry had a 9ft thick wall round it, so, as the prisoners could not escape, they were allowed to roam freely around the city. The citizens of Coventry, however, refused to talk to them, giving rise to the cavalier saying, “being sent to Coventry”.

Barbara Wainwright, Todmorden, Lancs

• “To send one to Coventry. To take no notice of him; to make him feel that he is in disgrace by ignoring him … It is said that the citizens of Coventry once had so great a dislike of soldiers that a woman seen speaking to one was instantly tabooed; hence when a soldier was sent to Coventry he was cut off from all social intercourse. Clarendon, in his History of the Great Rebellion, says that Royalist prisoners captured in Birmingham were sent to Coventry, which was a parliamentary stronghold.”

So says Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, but without giving a reason for the particular curse on soldiers in Coventry. Clarendon’s contribution makes little sense, because royalist prisoners often joined the other side to avoid imprisonment or execution – that could have been anywhere other than Coventry. In any event, the phrase as widely used refers to a general ostracism, not just of men by women – so perhaps there was a local edict enforcing it throughout the borough until the soldiers could prove themselves socially acceptable.

Ralph Gee, Nottingham

• You’ve obviously never been to Coventry.

Alan Paterson, London N8

Alan Paterson remark reminds me of the Philip Larkin‘s poem posted elsewhere in this blogin which the speaker exonerates Coventry from all blame for his looking as though he” wished the place in Hell”  

I Remember I Remember

Coming up England by a different line
For once, early in the cold new year,
We stopped, and, watching men with number plates
Sprint down the platform to familiar gates,
‘Why, Coventry!’ I exclaimed. “I was born here.’

I leant far out, and squinnied for a sign
That this was still the town that had been ‘mine’
So long, but found I wasn’t even clear
Which side was which. From where those cycle-crates
Were standing, had we annually departed

For all those family hols? . . . A whistle went:
Things moved. I sat back, staring at my boots.
‘Was that,’ my friend smiled, ‘where you “have your roots”?’
No, only where my childhood was unspent,
I wanted to retort, just where I started:

By now I’ve got the whole place clearly charted.
Our garden, first: where I did not invent
Blinding theologies of flowers and fruits,
And wasn’t spoken to by an old hat.
And here we have that splendid family

I never ran to when I got depressed,
The boys all biceps and the girls all chest,
Their comic Ford, their farm where I could be
‘Really myself’. I’ll show you, come to that,
The bracken where I never trembling sat,

Determined to go through with it; where she
Lay back, and ‘all became a burning mist’.
And, in those offices, my doggerel
Was not set up in blunt ten-point, nor read
By a distinguished cousin of the mayor,

Who didn’t call and tell my father There
Before us, had we the gift to see ahead –
‘You look as though you wished the place in Hell,’
My friend said, ‘judging from your face.’ ‘Oh well,
I suppose it’s not the place’s fault,’ I said.

‘Nothing, like something, happens anywhere.’

— Philip Larkin


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