The Romanticisation of Lady Godiva

First Written for the History of Royal Women

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The legend of Lady Godiva and her naked horse ride is one of the most enduring myths of the past millennium. For the city of Coventry, at the time a small market town owned by Godiva where her horse ride is supposed to have taken place, the image and story of Godiva have been fully absorbed into the city’s mythology.

Lady Godiva is one of the best known Anglo – Saxons and probably the best known Anglo – Saxon woman. Famous in her time you are now most likely to see her image advertising chocolates, nightclubs, as a refrain in a Simply Red song or used as a marketing tool by Coventry City Council. A wealthy and powerful woman married to a very powerful man Godiva was known during her lifetime for her deep piety. She founded a monastery and donated generously to religious houses. Historical facts about Lady Godiva are thin on the ground. However, historians do have some information, more than enough at least to know that the horse ride for which she is known almost definitely didn’t happen. There are several reasons for this certainty.

This first is that Godiva actually owned Coventry, a small market town, outright and would, therefore, have been responsible for setting taxes herself. The only nationwide tax was the Heregeld. This was a tax that everyone had to pay. It contributed towards the upkeep of the King’s bodyguard. A horse ride would not have alleviated a compulsory tax, and although it is possible that Leofric was somewhat zealous in his methods of tax collection, Godiva would not have been able to relieve the burden of the Heregeld from her people.

Earl Leofric has developed quite a reputation over the centuries for his greed and cruelty. Earl of Mercia he was one, if not the, of the most powerful nobles in eleventh century England. A staunch defender of King Harold (d. 1040) and then his successor Harthacnut, Leofric was called upon in 1041 to defend the King and his fiscal policies. Harthacnut implemented very heavy taxes upon his accession to the throne. This made him deeply unpopular, and two of his tax collectors were killed in Worcester by angry locals, who resented, and were often unable to pay, the exceptionally high rates demanded by the King. In revenge for this Harthacnut ordered Leofric and several other earls to plunder and burn the city. The rebels relocated to the nearby town of Bevere Island, as Worcester was virtually destroyed in the attack. It would have been very difficult for Leofric to refuse to do this, particularly in a time where to serve ones King was often thought to serve God. Worcester was the Cathedral city of Leofric’s people, the Hwicce, and he and his wife owned land in the county. His harsh reputation probably originates from this event.

Godiva’s story has been repeated and edited over the centuries. A Google search of the name Lady Godiva throws up some unsurprising results. Terminology such as ‘naked’, ‘raunchy’, ‘undressed’, ‘bare-breasted’, are the first to pop up. In a bid to seem interesting, attract attention and compete in these days of click bait articles information about Lady Godiva tends to be couched in this terminology, taking the reader away from the historical person and closer to a modern ‘naked’ interpretation.

One of the first surviving records of the legend dates from the early thirteenth century. Bear in mind that the horse ride would have predated Leofric’s death in 1057. This means that the first written record of the events is from around one hundred and fifty years after the fact. Flores Historiarum is a collection of anecdotes written by Roger of Wendover: a monk based at St Albans Abbey. Many stories were passed on by word of mouth and would have travelled along trading routes with the flow of people and goods. However, Wendover was known for exaggerating facts and events for dramatic effect, and little credibility is placed in his accounts. This is an extract of what he had to say about the horse ride.

“ … “Ascend,” he said, “thy horse naked and pass thus through the city from one end to the other in sight of the people and on thy return thou shalt obtain thy request.” Upon which she returned: “And should I be willing to do this, wilt thou give me leave?” “I will,” he responded. Then the Countess Godiva, beloved of God, ascended her horse, naked, loosing her long hair which clothed her entire body except her snow white legs, and having performed the journey, seen by none, returned with joy to her husband who, regarding it as a miracle, thereupon granted Coventry a Charter, confirming it with his seal”.

This account mentions her “snow white legs” but largely deals with the events in a concise manner, telling the story in just a few lines. This is a pattern that continued for several centuries. In other written accounts such as that from sixteenth-century M.P. for Coventry Richard Grafton are tailored to the interests of the time. A devout Protestant Grafton focuses on Godiva’s “honestie” and “wisdome”. It is interesting to note that Wendover’s account is one of the few to touch on the religious elements of the story, stating that Leofric saw the event as a miracle.

Godiva was known to be deeply religious and along with Leofric was known to be very generous towards religious houses. In 1043 they founded a Benedictine monastery (unfortunately no longer standing) in Coventry. Records also show that they were benefactors to other monasteries in Chester and Evesham among others. They also gave land to St Mary’s monastery in Worcester in the 1050s, continuing their long relationship with the county. One possible source for the legend originates from an act of pilgrimage which Godiva may have taken, through Coventry to the shrine of local saint Osburh of Coventry. Acts of pilgrimage were relatively common during the period and continued into the medieval era. Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales (1386) gives an excellent insight into the importance of, and role of, pilgrimage. This would account for the idea of a ride or journey through town to a place of religious importance. For an act of pilgrimage one would often remove ones jewels and finery, and therefore one’s status and wealth; in effect leaving one naked before the Saint.

The religious element of the story is largely sidelined after this point. The ‘romanticisation’ of Godiva is perhaps best shown in two nineteenth century poems. In 1840 Alfred Lord Tennyson wrote a poem called Godiva. Published in 1842 it fed into the Victorian desire for nostalgia and romance.

“He answer’d, “Ride you naked thro’ the town,

And I repeal it”

She sent a herald forth,

And bad hi cry, with sound of trumpet, all

The hard condition; but that she would loose

The people: therefore, as they loved her well,

From then till noon no foot should pace the street,

No eye look down, she passing; but that all

Should keep within, door shut, and window barr’d.

Then she rode forth, clothed on with chastity:

The deep air listen’d round her as she rode,

And all the low wind hardly breathed for fear,

But even then she gain’d

Her bower; whence reissuing, robed and crown’d

To meet her lord, she took the tax away,

And built herself an everlasting name.”

As we can see Leofric is shown as cruel and heartless, focused only on money and power.

“That grim Earl, who ruler

In Coventry: for when he laid a tax

Upon his town, and all the mothers brought

Their children, clamouring, “If we pay, we starve!””

In contrast to this Godiva is shown as being selfless, modest and in many ways brave. There is a certain simplicity to this that creates a clear divide between the couple. It is difficult to get to the root of who they really were.

Peeping Tom is a later addition to the legend. This is how Tennyson included him in the Godiva narrative:

“And one low churl, compact of thankless earth,

The fatal byword of all years to come,

Boring a little auger-hole in fear,

Peep’d – but his eyes, before they had their will,

Were shrivell’d into darkness in his head,

And dropt before him”

Peeping Tom was also included in a poem by the Rev. John Moultrie in 1820.

“The steed grew quiet, and a piercing cry
Burst on Godiva’s ear; — she started, and
Beheld a man, who, in a window high,
Shaded his dim eyes with his trembling hand.
He had been led by curiosity
To see her pass, and there had ta’en his stand;
And as he gazed (’tis thus the story’s read),
His eye-balls sunk and shrivell’d in his head.”

In these versions when he peeps on the naked Godiva he loses his eyes, as if by divine punishment. Other versions show he was caught by the townspeople and dragged into the market square where his eyes were gouged out. Moultrie’s poem, Godiva – A Tale, offers a lengthy, melodramatic and slightly lascivious alternative to the story. He also focuses in on the annual Lady Godiva procession. Held from the 1678s onwards it is a public event in which the horse ride is recreated in the town centre. It continues to this day. The procession is one way in which the legend has become cemented in the city’s mythology.

Here is a sample of Moultrie’s poem.

“Well might he love her; — in that shape of lightness
All woman’s choicest beauties were combined;
Her long dark locks set off her bosom’s whiteness
In its calm heavings, warm, and chaste, and kind.
Her deep blue eyes shone with peculiar brightness,
When through them flash’d the sunbeams of her mind;
When swiftly sparkled joys, or hopes, or fears,
Or sorrow bathed them in delicious tears.

Hers was the face we look on once and love,
Her voice was Music’s echo — like the strain
Of our own land, heard, when afar we rove,
With a deep sense of pleasure mix’d with pain:
And those who once had heard it vainly strove
To lose its echoes lingering in the brain:
As for her figure — if you once had met it,
Believe me, Sirs, you never could forget it.

She was the idol of her native land,
The comforter and friend of its distress;
Herself, unchasten’d by Affliction’s hand,
Felt for the woes of others not the less.
The serfs, who trembled at her Lord’s command,
Forbore to curse him for her loveliness.
They were a pair one often meets in life,—
A churlish husband with a charming wife.”

Here we have a focus on Godiva’s look and nudity. This takes us further away from the historical Godiva. She was the first woman to be recorded in the Domesday Book. Completed in 1087 it tells us that Godiva kept her land and wealth after the Norman Conquest. This was quite unusual as the new King William confiscated the land and property of most existing English nobles to be distributed to his own supporters. Further, it is worth noting that she was a widow at this time, and yet still managed to keep and maintain her status and wealth.

Something that all of these texts share is a distancing from the few known facts. Godiva was a powerful, wealthy and pious Anglo – Saxon who survived her husband’s death and kept her land after the Norman Conquest. However, the legend of the selfless naked horse ride to protect her people from poverty makes a good story, as can be seen from the way in which it is used in ‘cultural’ publications and presented as a historical truth. Interestingly given the Victorians tendency to view other civilisations and ways of living as being ‘uncivilised’ or even ‘barbaric’ this is a theme that was not drawn on from the Godiva story. This pattern of romanticism can be seen in other nineteenth-century literature. Benjamin Disraeli’s novel Sibyl (1845) is a case in point. Disraeli develops upon Sir Walter Scott’s mythologizing of the past to depict the exploited Anglo – Saxons rising up against the ‘Norman yoke’; fighting against those who live on the land of their ancestors and profited from their debasement. Writers such as Tennyson and Moultrie chose to follow in this romantic approach.

One could also argue that the Godiva legend is unusual in the fact that any shame is projected onto the men in the story: Leofric and Peeping Tom, and not the woman Godiva.

“His wife’s intention — and his own disgrace.”

Public nudity is not something that has ever been generally socially accepted. However, there are few if any criticisms of Godiva and her nudity. To allow for this, her chastity must be highlighted, and the cruelty of her husband and the desperation of her people emphasised. In all versions of the story, there is a sharp contrast in the nature and actions of the couple. Leofric’s selfishness and cruelty act as an excellent contrast for the virtuous Godiva. Her attributes are highlighted when placed against his ‘churlish’ behaviour.

Tennyson states early in his poem that Godiva “overcame”: overcame the tyranny of her husband and her own fear to put the greater good of her people first. This has been a particularly important idea to the creation of Coventry. Its importance is partially reflected by the fact that in the post-war years a statue of Godiva was placed in the centre of the city. Arguably one of the reasons for this is that the Godiva story tied into the self-perception of the city and its inhabitants. The city that was destroyed during the Blitz – that led to the creation of a new word, to Coventrate – overcomes adversity to survive and to thrive. As indeed did Godiva.