When the community of Coventry was incorporated in 1345 it was one of the largest cities in England. Today it’s a busy metropolis located in the county of West Midland and well known for its production of motor vehicles and aircraft engines. Probably its most infamous moment in history was in 1043; a Benedictine monastery was established by Leofric (d. 1057) earl of Mercia and his wife Lady Godiva. You might remember that she opposed her husband’s high taxes on the townspeople. Exasperated with her pleas he told her he would retract the taxes if she would ride through the town naked, Lady Godiva accepted the challenge. Out of admiration and respect for her courage the people stayed inside during her ride, with the exception of a tailor by the name of Thomas. Of course this is where the name Peeping Tom comes from and as the story goes when Tom peeked from his window he was promptly struck blind.

The phrase “To send to Coventry” is only heard once in a blue moon outside of the United Kingdom and it means to ignore or ostracize. This odd way of referring to social shunning has two possible sources connected with soldiers. Some think it refers to the tragic events during World War II when the British government intercepted and deciphered encoded preparations by the Germans for a large air raid on Coventry. The lives of many hung in the balance. If the British let on that Coventry would come under attack the Germans would discover their code had been broken and many more lives would be lost. So the decision was made to not tell the people of Coventry about the air raid. Hence getting ‘sent to Coventry’ could mean that the town of Coventry was so badly bombed there was nothing much there at all and a good place for a person you didn't like.

While this is a true story there are a couple of documented uses of the phrase that predate World War II. The American Heritage Dictionary, claims that the phrase originated from “Coventry being a stronghold of the parliamentary party at the time. ...and that it was therefore where the most troublesome Royalists were imprisoned.” The literal sense of the phrase was first recorded by Edward Hyde, First Earl of Clarendon. In The History of the Rebellion and Civil Wars in England (1647) he wrote that the Royalist troops who were arrested in Birmingham were taken to the Parliamentarian stronghold Coventry. One history buff relates:

    The Royalist forces of King Charles I (were pitted) against the Parliamentarian armies of Oliver Cromwell. Coventry; a Parliamentarian stronghold said to have been used to house hundreds of Royalist prisoners captured by Cromwell's forces. A Royalist in Coventry would, no doubt, have been very unpopular, so "to be sent to Coventry" came to be a popular saying meaning, "to be ostracized." It has also been suggested that Coventry was used as a place of execution during the same period, in which case "to be sent to Coventry" signaled a fate somewhat worse than having no one to talk to.
In 1642 Charles I was suspected of being a Catholic in secret. Consequently he and Parliament frequently clashed. In the end the king left London and established an army, as did Parliament. These events sowed the seeds for the English Civil War. However it wasn’t until almost a century after the English Civil Wars that the idiom was used to describe a person who was to be excluded from a circle of friends. The first occurrence of it used in this manner in print was recorded in 1765, and is generally taken to refer to the Civil War.

A third likelihood is a popular explanation is that the name Coventry is a derivative of a Covin-tree from feudal times and thought to be an oak which stood in front of the castle for hanging criminals. Used as a gallows, those to be executed were “sent to the covin-tree.”

Still popular among the British labor unions today the phrase is used to punish strikebreakers. A powerful tool for social pressure, the person sent to Coventry is given the silent treatment until they eventually give up and resign.


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