The first chronicled event in the history of Coventry took place in 1016 when King Canute and his army of Danes were laying waste to many towns and villages in Warwickshire in a bid to take control of England, and on reaching the settlement of Coventry they destroyed the Saxon nunnery. Leofric, Earl of Mercia and his wife Lady Godiva (a corruption of her given name, "Godgifu") rebuilt on the remains of the nunnery to found a Benedictine monastery in 1043 dedicated to St. Mary for an abbot and 24 monks.
“ He [Leofric] and his wife, the noble Countess Godgifu, a worshipper of God and devout lover of St Mary ever-virgin, built the monastery there from the foundations out of their own patrimony, and endowed it adequately with lands and made it so rich in various ornaments that in no monastery in England might be found the abundance of gold, silver, gems and precious stones that was at that time in its possession. ”
— John of Worcester.
Edward the Confessor, who was king at the time, favoured pious acts of this nature and granted a charter confirming Leofric and Godiva's gift.
Lady Godiva by John Collier, c. 1897Leofric had been appointed Earl by King Canute and was one of the three most powerful men in the country, while Godiva was already a woman of high status before marriage and owned much land. According to the popular story, Godiva took pity on the people of Coventry, who were suffering grievously under her husband's oppressive taxation. She appealed again and again to her husband, who obstinately refused to remit the tolls. At last, weary of her entreaties, he said he would grant her request if she would strip naked and ride through the streets of the town. Godiva took him at his word and, after issuing a proclamation that all persons should keep within doors and shut their windows, she rode through the town, clothed only in her long hair. In the end, Godiva's husband keeps his word and abolishes the onerous taxes. However, known facts do not corroborate the legend.
Bishop Robert de Limesey transferred his see to Coventry c. 1095, and in 1102 papal authorisation for this move also turned the monastery of St. Mary into a priory and cathedral. The following rebuilding and expansion of St. Mary's was completed about 125 years later.
In February 2000, Channel 4's Time Team archaeologists discovered significant remnants of a major pre-Tudor cathedral/monastery complex (St Mary's) adjacent to the current cathedral, with the team revisiting the excavation site in March 2001.
When the monastery was founded, Leofric gave the northern half of his estates in Coventry to the monks to support them. This was known as the "Prior's-half", and the other was called the "Earl's-half" which would later pass to the Earls of Chester, and explains the early division of Coventry into two parts (until the Royal "Charter of Incorporation" was granted in 1345). In 1250, Roger de Mold (referred to in older documents as "Roger de Montalt"), the earl at the time who had gained his position by marriage, sold his wife's rights and estates in the southern side of Coventry to the Prior, and for the next 95 years the town was controlled by a single "land lord". However, disputes arose between the monastic tenants and those previously of the earl, and the Prior never gained complete control over Coventry.