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The Legend of Lady Godiva

I love history. The medieval origin of the dunce's cap is not what you'd expect. It enhanced learning according to Blessed John Duns Scotus.

Lady Godiva by John Collier, 1897.

Lady Godiva by John Collier, 1897.

Lady Godiva: Wife of Leofric, Earl of Mercia

The legend of Lady Godiva, the wife of tyrannical Leofric, Earl of Mercia and Lord of Coventry, riding naked on horseback through the streets of Coventry in today's Warwickshire has endured for centuries. For a lot of English people Lady Godiva and nudity are intrinsically linked.

Little is known about the early life of the Anglo-Saxon Godiva, which in old English was spelled Godgifu or Godgyfu. She was a gentlewoman in the 11th century and was a landowner in her own right. Godiva was more sympathetic than many of her class towards the plight of the common people.

She married one of the most powerful men in the land, Leofric, the Earl of Mercia, Lord of Coventry. He was known as an oppressor who persecuted the people and the church. Perhaps his diplomatic skills in royal circles were his saving grace. He saved the country from a civil war in 1051 when he dissuaded Harold I, Harold Harefoot and Edward the Confessor from declaring war on one another and guaranteeing extensive death and bloodshed in battle.

Mercia shown in relation to other parts of England.

Mercia shown in relation to other parts of England.

Chroniclers John of Worcester & Florence of Worcester

As women at that time were deemed largely irrelevant except for their capability to bear heirs, the Countess of Mercia, Lady Godiva was only noted as a presence at events also attended by Leofric until her legend was born.

12th century chroniclers and monks John of Worcester and Florence of Worcester informed their readers about Leofric and his wife in highly respectful terms. Neither alluded to Lady Godiva's naked ride through Coventry. Was this horse riding incident left unrecorded because there was no substance to the story or were the monks shocked into silence or determined to preserve Leofric and his wife's good names for posterity the only way they knew how? We will never know.

Coventry in Today's England

Lady Godiva Enters English Folkore

Lady Godiva was horrified by the heavy taxes that her husband levied on the people of Coventry. She petitioned him repeatedly to lessen the burden on them. He responded that he would only lower taxation if she rode naked through Coventry marketplace.

This outcome, as far as he was concerned, would never happen because his genteel wife would not countenance such an exploit, not even for the people she championed. Lady Godiva stunned him as she, ever the good wife, asked for his permission to fulfil his challenge. He gave his approval, maybe believing still that she wouldn't take the ride. However, two knights in his service were ordered to accompany her.

She did not shy from the challenge, she rose to it admirably. Her hair covered her upper body as she processed through the marketplace on her horse, otherwise Lady Godiva was on display to the local population.

The 1949 statue of Lady Godiva in Broadgate, Coventry.

The 1949 statue of Lady Godiva in Broadgate, Coventry.

The Earl of Mercia's 100% Tax Cut: True or False?

Leofric, Earl of Mercia didn't dare renege on his promise. Taxation in Coventry was halted on everything except the tolls on horse traffic. The earl was confident that his wife's deed was a miraculous work of God so he finally became a believer and was a generous benefactor to religious establishments from that moment.

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Ranulph Higden, a 14th century chronicler stated in his work Polychronica that King Edward I investigated the strange fact that except for the horse tolls there were no other forms of taxation in the town.

As with most legends there has been debate about whether Lady Godiva's ride ever took place. Historians have used the time lapse between the incident and its first appearance in a chronicle as a means to dismiss it as a baseless story.

Another doubt has been raised about Lady Godiva's compulsion to help the poor. It's been argued that as the Earl of Mercia's wife she controlled the taxes as much as he did. The vast taxes collected gave her the genteel life she enjoyed. Why would she have worked so diligently to limit her own wealth?

Lady Godiva Clock, Broadgate, Coventry. Peeping Tom is peering down at her.

Lady Godiva Clock, Broadgate, Coventry. Peeping Tom is peering down at her.

Another query exists about why, as she was rich in her own right, she would have remained with her cruel husband. She could have divorced Leofric and set up her own establishment from which she could have eased the woes of the poor. A simple answer to this was the shame of ending a marriage prior to death.

Each argument raised by doubters has merit but they cannot, like the legend itself, be thought of as conclusive. The only certainty is that we'll never know whether Lady Godiva rode through Coventry's marketplace. We'll forever have believers and doubters.

"Peeping Tom" Linked to Lady Godiva

Centuries after the ride another chronicler added the detail that Lady Godiva made it a condition that all men remained inside their homes or business premises and averted their eyes as she fulfilled her challenge so her modesty could be protected.

One Coventry resident named Tom did not award her this courtesy. He sneaked a peek at the naked Lady Godiva as she passed by. In most versions of the tale he was blinded or killed at the same moment for his sin.

The story of "Peeping Tom" first appeared in print in the 1700's and ever since the term "Peeping Tom" has been synonymous with the sordid habit of observing a person naked or not fully clothed, perhaps engaged in a sexual act, without permission.

We don't know when in the late 11th century Lady Godiva passed away. She was immortalised by the legend of a ride she may or may not have taken through Coventry's market.

Alfred, Lord Tennyson wrote Godiva, a poem about Lady Godiva. You can read it here: https://www.coventry.org.uk/godiva-poem/

Sources

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Joanne Hayle

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