meaning and origin of the phrase ‘to send to Coventry’

Coventry Cathedral - The Sphere - 23 November 1946

Coventry was bombed many times during the Second World War; the most devastating of these attacks occurred on 14th November 1940. The following is from The Sphere (London) of 23rd November 1946:


ON THE SIXTH ANNIVERSARY OF ITS DESTRUCTION BY ENEMY ACTION: Citizens of the blitzed city standing beneath umbrellas as they sang amid a downpour of rain at the anniversary service in the precincts of Coventry Cathedral held exactly six years after the Luftwaffe rained its bombs on the city. It was described as a Founder’s Day service, and was attended by representatives of all denominations. The service closed with an act of re-dedication in the Chapel of Unity, the Bishop of Coventry taking part. In the centre of the congregation stood a simple cross made up of timbers taken from the cathedral after the fire on the fatal night of its destruction. Gifts, mostly small sums, from all over the world totalling nearly £95,000, have been received or promised for the reconstruction of Coventry Cathedral. An official statement issued by the Cathedral Reconstruction Fund states that from the time of the Cathedral’s destruction people began to make gifts for the new Cathedral, but no public appeal was made until six months ago, when the King and Queen sent a gift of £500 to the fund.





to send to Coventry: to ostracise or ignore




Coventry is a city in the west Midlands of England, historically in Warwickshire.

In Dictionary of Phrase and Fable (1870 edition), Ebenezer Cobham Brewer (1810-97) gave the following origin of the phrase:

This is a military term, according to Messrs. Chambers (“Cyclopædia”): The citizens of Coventry had at one time so great a dislike to soldiers, that a woman seen speaking to one was instantly tabooed. No intercourse was ever allowed between the garrison and the town; hence, when a soldier was sent to Coventry, he was cut off from all social intercourse.

But he also wrote, and this is more plausible, that the phrase might have originally referred to Coventry being a Parliamentarian stronghold during the English Civil War (1642-49) between King Charles I’s forces, the Cavaliers, and his Parliamentary opponents, the Roundheads. Driven from Kidderminster, the English pastor and theologian Richard Baxter (1615-91) found refuge at Coventry for two years from the end of 1642. He explained in Reliquiae Baxterianae (published in 1696) that he was not the only one to do so:

Thus when I was at Coventry the religious part of my neighbours at Kidderminster that would fain have lived quietly at home, were forced (the chiefest of them) to be gone. And to Coventry they came; and some of them that had any estates of their own, lived there on their own charge; and the rest were fain to take up arms and be garrison soldiers, to get them bread.

However, the phrase more probably originated in the following events, recounted by Edward Hyde (1609-74), 1st Earl of Clarendon, in The History of the Rebellion and Civil Wars in England, Begun in the Year 1641 (1702-04); he wrote that before the Battle of Hedge Hill in October 1642, Royalists had been captured at Birmingham and sent to Coventry:

(1731 edition)
Bromicham [= Birmingham], a Town so generally wicked, that it had risen upon small Party’s of the King’s, and kill’d, or taken them Prisoners, and sent them to Coventry, declaring a more peremptory Malice to his Majesty than any other place.

The earliest known instance of to send to Coventry is found in the proceedings of the Tarpoley Hunt Club (Cheshire) and refers to John Smith-Barry (1725-84), master of the foxhounds:

1765.—Nov. 4th. Mr. John Barry having sent the Fox Hounds to a different place to what was ordered, and not meeting them himself at that place, was sent to Coventry, but return’d upon giving six bottles of Claret to the Hunt.

The English antiquary and lexicographer Francis Grose (1731-91) thus defined the phrase in A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (London, 1785):

Coventry, to send one to Coventry, a punishment inflicted by officers of the army, on such of their brethren as are testy, or have been guilty of improper behaviour, not worthy the cognizance of a court martial. The person sent to Coventry is considered as absent; no one may speak to him, or answer any question he asks, except relative to duty, under penalty of being also sent to the same place. On a proper submission, the penitent is recalled, and welcomed by the mess, as just returned from a journey to Coventry.

On 18th August 1821, the Irish statesman John Wilson Croker (1780-1857) wrote in his diary about William MacMahon (1776-1837), an Irish judge who was Master of the Rolls in Ireland:

In the evening I dined with my old friend the Master of the Rolls. When I went my first circuit I found MacMahon in a kind of Coventry, and was warned not to continue my acquaintance with him. As I had never known anything of him that was not kind and honourable, I rejected the advice, and had the pleasure to see MacMahon rise every day to wealth and honours.





The term peeping Tom is from the name of the person said to have watched Lady Godiva ride naked through Coventry.





The English poet Michael Drayton (1563-1631) explained in Poly-Olbion (1612) that Coventry is from Cune, the name of the stream on which it was built:

                                   Cune, a great while mist [= missed];
Though Couentry* from thence her name at first did raise.
* Otherwise, Cune-tre: that is, the Towne vpon Cune.

The Celtic element tre means a dwelling, a town. It is also found for example in Daventry, from Dwy-avon-tre, meaning the dwelling on the two rivers, and in Truro, that is, Tre-rhiw, the dwelling on the sloping bank, or on the stream.

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