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  • Paul Anthony Jones


(v.) to cut someone’s nose

When you send someone to Coventry, you shun or exclude them. The origins of that particular expression are shrouded in mystery, with various theories name-checking everything from a local monastic retreat to a notorious jailhouse.

But there is an even more puzzling use of the town of Coventry in the dictionary—and the gruesome tale behind this one is no mystery at all.

Born in Worcestershire sometime around 1635, Sir John Coventry was an English politician, who sat in the House of Commons for fifteen years between 1667 and 1682.

It was during his time in Parliament, on 21 December 1670, that Coventry suggested that a tax should be levied on England’s theatres. In opposition to his proposal, the point was raised in the chamber that the theatres of London had recently been “of great pleasure to the king” (namely Charles II)—to which Coventry was quick to question whether “the King’s pleasure lay among the men or the women that acted.”

This, of course, was intended as a less-than-subtle reference to King Charles’ ongoing affair with the 20-year-old actress Nell Gwyn. But while Sir John’s comment was apparently meant as nothing more than a barbed satirical joke, the Duke of Monmouth, one of the King’s closest friends and allies, failed to see the funny side. On his orders, later that night Sir John was ambushed as he walked home from a tavern in London by a group of the king’s guards, who pinned him to the ground and slit his nose down to the bone.

The brutal attack caused an outrage, and quickly led to the passing of an Act of Parliament that imposed the death penalty on anyone who sought to “unlawfully cut out or disable the tongue, put out an eye, slit the nose, cut off a nose or lip, or cut off or disable any limb or member of any Subject of His Majesty.”

The Coventry Act, as it became known, remained in force in England until 1828.

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