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Bull Inn, Smithford Street

Alternative Addresses:Warwick Lane
These premises have been known by different names during their history:FROMTONAME
Black Bull Inn Smithford St Most people know the Bull Yard at the bottom of Hertford Street, that little square that has become Coventry's cafe quarter. They might imagine that it has something to do with bull-baiting, or at least the stockading of cattle. Yet it has nothing to do with real bulls at all. It is in fact the rear entrance to the mediaeval Bull Inn on Smithford Street. This was Coventry's greatest mediaeval inn. Inns made an appearance in England during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. They were fairly numerous by the fifteenth century, usually located in towns. They were large, fashionable establishments offering wine, ale and beer, together with quite elaborate food and lodging to well-heeled travellers. The guests tended to be drawn from the landed, mercantile and professional classes and there were usually a bevy of maids, tapsters, chamberlains and ostlers to serve them. They were built as investment opportunities, e.g. the New Inn, Gloucester, was built as a pilgrim's hostel in 1457; the George, Norton St. Philip, as a cartes inn and warehouse c1350; the Tabard, Southwark, as a starting hostel for pilgrims going to Canterbury before 1304. The Bull in Coventry stood on Smithford Street where the Upper Precinct is now, opposite Marks & Spencer and a little up towards Broadgate. It had extensive grounds, reaching a rear entrance at the Bull Yard on Warwick Lane. At various times it was known as just 'The Bull Inn' or alternatively 'The Black Bull Inn'. The only known illustration of the premises shows a mediaeval sandstone base and fine stone arch. The facade seems to have been replaced and it was a much more extensive structure than it appears as the massive grounds stretched down to the Bull Yard on Warwick Lane. The Bull was in existence by 1485 when Henry VII stayed there straight after his victory over Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth. He would have been eager to confirm his victory with a visit to the most populous and defensively most powerful city in the Midlands. At that time the Bull was the home of the mayor, Robert Onley. Onley sat the new monarch down to a feast that included twenty sheep, two oxen, 240 gallons of wine and hundreds of gallons of ale amongst other things. After the feast Henry was presented with a gold cup and £100; he returned the compliment by knighting the mayor. Presumably the city and the new king felt they had started on good terms. Two years later a number of pretenders had arisen. Henry returned to Coventry and stayed at Sir Robert's house again in pursuit of these rivals. He raised men to join his forces in Coventry and was again victorious at the Battle of Stoke. One Robert Harrington was captured. He claimed to be the son of the Duke of Clarence and therefore was in direct line to the throne. On 29 June Henry watched from Sir Robert's house as Harrington was beheaded on the Bull Conduit where Marks & Spencer stand now. Eighty years later, Henry's grand-daughter, Elizabeth, had a problem with Mary Queen of Scots. Mary, a Catholic, was driven from Scotland and became a problem to Elizabeth as she claimed the English throne as Elizabeth's rightful heir. Her presence in Protestant England worried Elizabeth, who reluctantly imprisoned the Scottish Queen at Tutbury. However, Catholic uprisings in the north made Elizabeth look for somewhere more southerly and more secure. Elizabeth ordered that Mary be confined in Coventry Castle but her guardians, the Earl of Shrewsbury and the Earl of Huntingdon, found the castle ruinous and it was 'impossible to lodge her within the old castle remains'. So instead they placed her and her fifty servants in the Black Bull Inn in Smithford Street. The Earl of Shrewsbury promised to keep Mary out of sight 'for the more she is seen the greater the danger'. The Earl of Huntingdon felt uneasy about the Catholics in Warwickshire and wrote to Lord Cecil, 'she lieth at an inn, where for me there is no lodging: her men also lie in the town, and go where they will'. Elizabeth responded angrily to the Earls for 'carrying the Scottish Queen to an inn, which is very inconvenient'. She ordered Mary be moved to a more secure place where the Earls could also lodge and make sure she was never 'seen abroad on any pretence whatsoever'. So Mary was removed to St Mary's Hall and lodged within a room (later named Queen Mary's Room) in Caesar's Tower. Here she remained under guard, served by her own people, and spent Christmas as a prisoner until returning to Tutbury in January 1570. Great events next visit the Bull in 1605. Whilst Guy Fawkes was attempting a little political lobbying in London, Catholics began to gather in Warwickshire. Some stayed at the Black Bull in Smithford Street and some at the White Lion in Dunchurch. From these inns they met other Catholics, under the guise of a hunting party, to await news from London. I believe they were a little disappointed. Later in the seventeenth century, the country descended into Civil War. In 1642, before war had officially broken out, King Charles I was raising an army in the country whilst Parliamentary forces were denying him access to London. On 19 August, Charles moved to Stoneleigh Abbey. Coventry was for Parliament, and 400 soldiers set off from Birmingham to help resist the Royalist Army. Coventry's Recorder, the Earl of Northampton, told Charles that he would make sure the city was held for him and he took the powder magazine in Spon Gate. The citizens then showed their true colours and retook the magazine. Meanwhile, Northampton made for the Black Bull to raise more royalist sympathisers. He was not made welcome and escaped from the back of the Bull down the Bull yard, fleeing for his life, and out of Greyfriars gate and hence to Stoneleigh to inform the king. During the Commonwealth, the pleasures of life were strictly regulated and during Mayor Beake's tenure in 1655 warrants were issued against the tapster (barman in modern terms) at the Bull for the offence of tippling (that is, serving alcohol out of the permitted hours). In 1724 the Bull was owned by Whitefriars Hospital Charity and in 1727 it is stated that Richard Baldwyn, deceased, a former licensee, had erected the gatehouse 'for better access to the Black Bull'. In 1756 eight soldiers were billeted at the Black Bulls Head, although this does not necessarily mean they stayed there as in 1765 we have a record of a soldier being quartered at the Bull, but actually lodging at the Red Lion, Spon End, with his wife and another soldier called Edward Drury. Coventry Races were held from 1755 to 1783 and afterwards ordinaries were held at the Black Bull Inn and other places. An ordinary was a meal prepared at a fixed rate for all comers. In 1767 a new bowling green was lain on the land to the rear between the inn and Warwick Lane. James Burrows moved from the White Horse, Hay Lane, to the Bull in 1773 and Richard Simons moved to the Bull from the Rose and Crown in 1789, replacing a Mrs Burrows. It seems to have been a step up ! Then France declared war on Britain in 1793 and Napoleon threatened invasion. The British government set up barracks in key towns. In Coventry the Government purchased the Black Bull Inn and its grounds for £2,025. The Bull was demolished and replaced by barracks. There were two entrances following the original entrances to the inn - one a stone archway bearing the royal arms in Smithford Street and the other at Bull Yard. In the late 1860s the Royal Field Artillery arrived, to be followed by the 7th Battalion of the Royal Warwickshire Regiment, who left for France during the First World War. After that the barracks were effectively disused and in 1922 they became a market. Now the site is occupied primarily by the Barracks Car Park. So ended Coventry's greatest mediaeval inn. And when you look at the surviving inns, such as the George at Southwark, Angel at Grantham or George at Norton St Philip, doesn't it seem a great loss!


1655 William Coke ? Richard Baldwyn ? Samuel Swayer ? Hannah Sawyer 1727 John Newell 1767 G. Pickering ? Mrs Burrows 1789 Richard Simons


1485 Robert Onley 1724 Whitefriars Hospital Charity
Bull Inn
Street plan of 1851
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