It is difficult to find someone who has not heard of Jack the Ripper, however far fewer people have heard of Mary Ann (Polly) Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride, Catherine (Kate) Eddowes and Mary Jane (Marie Jeanette) Kelly. These are the names of the five canonical victims of Jack the Ripper, and The Five is their history.
Historian Rubenhold managed to work out something that has bypassed most of us and that is how little is known about the women murdered by the infamous Jack the Ripper. But not only that, how little time and thought has even gone into understanding the lives of these women. History has known them only for their deaths. This book sets out to shine a light on their life stories and restore their dignity. Rubenhold does a remarkably good job at achieving this.
The book is broken down into five key sections; giving space to investigate the life of each of the five. Aside from being an interesting micro history of each person, the book also tackles the ‘fact’ that they were all prostitutes. This was effectively decided upon in 1888 when the newspapers latched on to the more ‘salacious’ details of their lives in order to shift papers. At the time the lines between sex work, coupling up for preservation, and full – time prostitution were so blurred as to be invisible. This was compounded by the fact that homeless women were looked down upon and assumed to be ‘fallen’ or ‘broken’ in some way. In 1887 the Metropolitan police force had been embarrassed when mistakenly arresting a woman for being a prostitute.
“Sir Charles Warrens order of the 19th July 1887 was issued in an attempt to make an official clarification on how the police were to formally define a prostitute. It was stated that “the police constable should not assume that any particular woman is a common prostitute and that the police were not justified in calling any woman a common prostitute unless she so describes herself, or has been convicted as such”.”
I found Kate and Marie Jeanette particularly compelling. Partly because Kate comes from the midlands like I do but also because of her restlessness and desire not to fall into the inevitable path of constant work, childbirth, lack of money and eventually death. She met Tom Conway; soldier, raconteur, chap book writer and seller, and he offered the promise of a different life. They travelled together selling chap books and making up their own songs and stories. Eventually however they fell into poverty and their partnership became strained under the weight of providing for their children, her alcoholism and his violence. It is remarkable how much about her life can be established from surviving records. It is often thought that as most people did not leave behind written sources that little can be known about them, however Rubenhold’s forensic research has given us the bones of Kate’s life that can then be shaded in by what else is known about the lives of women at the time.
Marie Jeanette is the one who the least is known about. At some point in her life she decided to separate herself from the place she came from and forged herself anew in London where she became a sex worker. She told some that she was from Ireland and others that she was from Wales. Her accents, interests, mannerisms and so on suggest that she had a better off start in life than most of her compatriots, so it is not surprising that she wished to keep her past to herself. Only 25 when she died, she had worked in a high – class brothel before being trafficked to the continent. She escaped and found her way back to London where she began working in Whitechapel. It would be fascinating to know more about her but after so many years it is doubtful whether more will be known than in presented here. The Five details all we know and we now have a good source for information about her life, rather than just her death.
The Five made a splash upon publication. Largely because it’s emergence suddenly made it clear how much of Ripper mythology has bypassed the actual lives of the women, but also because so many ‘ripperologists’ became so angry with Rubenhold and the media surrounding the books publication. Although the lives of the women have been written about before, The Five offers the most clear and extensive history to date that focuses on their actual lives rather than how their lives led them to their ultimate fate. It is excellently and diligently researched. This leaves one again wishing that there is a way to access the references with audiobooks. This is a book that is suitable for the historian and casual reader (or listener) alike. One other highlight is the insight it gives into the social conditions of late nineteenth century Whitechapel; a warren of tiny alleyways, cramped, dilapidated accommodation, often the last chance saloon for the down and out, full of alcoholism, darkness and also teeming with life. The Five was recommended to me by a friend and I have no hesitation in recommending it to others.
Fresh, focused and full of information and detail The Five is an important, vital and engaging history read.
Hallie Rubenhold The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper
Blacklight productions present the Irish premiere of Charlotte Delbo’s play Who Will Carry the Word? This play, and the playwright, are criminally under known and this offers an opportunity to bring Delbo’s experiences and writings to a whole new audience.
Who Will Carry the Word? draws on Delbo’s wartime experiences as an active member of the French Resistance, who along with other members of her brigade, was taken prisoner and eventually sent to Auschwitz. Delbo and her fellow comrades had prepared for the thought of prison and even torture, but nothing could prepare them for the reality they were about to find themselves in. This was a place where, Delbo tells us, truth, certainty and all past understanding no longer had any meaning. The only question left, was whether to try to survive, or to die. For some suicide was the only right, the only choice they felt they had left. For others the need to survive outweighed all of the horror. After so many deaths it became essential that their experiences, their voices, could be heard, and given meaning. For these resistance fighters the act of resistance didn’t end with their capture.
This is one of the few times that a play might benefit from being performed on a smaller stage: to emphasise the feeling of claustrophobia, of closed doors and no chance to escape. The large open space of the stage invited the audience in, however it meant that the action was at times spread too far apart, with key moments occurring to the left or right of the audience’s viewpoint. A large all female cast pull together to imitate standing at roll call, in straight lines, unable to hold onto each other. For the rest of the time only several actresses are brought to the fore. For many of us this will be our first time hearing about the female experience of Auschwitz.
Sound and lighting were used to great effect. At times searchlights roam over the women. Each woman straightens her back and looks ahead when caught in the light. Sirens and gunshots are well timed to complement the action on stage. The production improves as it progresses. The philosophies being debated at the beginning become increasing personal. The audience become attached to the characters as more is revealed about them. The final scene is tenderly told and devastating. It would have been easy to over play this section however the director and actors manage to infuse the final moments of the play with honesty and a sad beauty.
Each character has a five digit number tattooed onto her arm. An important reminder that they represent real women who suffered this horrendous fate. Although it is not quite possible to say that one enjoyed this production it was one of the most singular and worthwhile theatre going experiences in Dublin this year. This is an ambitious production that attempts to tell a difficult story and it can only be enhanced as more and more people take the opportunity to see Who Will Carry the Word?.
Runs Until 2nd December 2017 at the Complex, Dublin 7. Running time 1hr 40 mins.
Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (originally titled Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus) is often considered to be the first science fiction novel and is a landmark of gothic fiction. First published anonymously in 1818 when Mary Shelley was only twenty years old the story of the novels conception is as fascinating as the hold the Doctor Frankenstein and his monster have held on popular culture ever since its publication. One evening in Villa Diodati, Lake Geneva, in 1816 saw the accumulation of an unusual set of circumstances that triggered a creative spark that has captured popular imagination ever since.
The themes and ideas that went on to form the novel were present before that fateful night in 1816. In 1814 Mary¹, her half-sister Claire Clairmont (born Jane) and her lover Percy Bysshe Shelley travelled to Europe. Mary and Shelley, having fallen desperately in love, fled to Europe when her father William Godwin objected to their affair. Travelling through France, which had been ravaged by the Napoleonic wars, onto Germany at one point they stopped in Gernsheim, 17km from Frankenstein Castle. Unlike most places named after the now legendary Doctor, Frankenstein Castle significantly predates the novel. It is questionable whether Mary would have been aware of or visited the castle but the legend behind it is worth investigating. The thirteenth century castle is best known because of the actions of alchemist Johann Conrad Dippel.
Born in 1673 Dippel became an alchemist; creating an elixir called Dippel’s Oil. Made from pulverised animal bones the elixir demonstrates his use of animal bodies in scientific creation. It had long been rumoured that this interest morphed into anatomy studies. He was said to conduct medical experiments on exhumed corpses, trying to reanimate the dead bodies. One myth that circulated was that Dippel was successful and created a monster that was brought to life by a bolt of lightning. In all likelihood this myth was applied to the castle after the release of Frankenstein, however it is interesting to note that the name previously existed, and has long been associated with the relationship between life and death.
The trio returned to Europe in 1816. This time they were heading to Geneva, to stay with Claire’s former lover Lord Byron. Mary and Shelley published their joint journal which covered this period in 1817. The travelogue was titled History of a Six Weeks’ Tour through a part of France, Switzerland, Germany and Holland. Here is an excerpt that discusses the landscape they observed:
“Never was a scene more awefully desolate. The trees in these regions are incredibly large, and stand in scattered clumps over the white wilderness; the vast expanse of snow was chequered only by these gigantic pines, and the poles that marked our road: no river or rock-encircled lawn relieved the eye, by adding the picturesque to the sublime.”
1816 was also remarkable for being the Year Without a Summer. 1815 had seen a large volcanic eruption of Mount Tambora on the Indonesian island of Sumbawa. It left almost 100,000 dead. Clouds of volcanic ash were propelled into the upper atmosphere, obscuring the sun. The Northern hemisphere saw crop failures, food shortages and sudden climatic change. This included a decline in temperature and an increase in rainfall. At the time many were unaware of the causes of this strange phenomenon. It was common to have to light candles in the middle of the day due to the darkness. There are accounts of snow falling in the middle of June. Holidaying at Lord Byron’s villa Mary and her companions found themselves unable to enjoy the outdoors and instead spent their time inside discussing science, politics and literature. At this time Byron composed the poem Darkness, which reflects the uneasy feeling of the time.
“I had a dream, which was not all a dream. / The bright sun was extinguish’d, and the stars / Did wander darkling in the eternal space, / Rayless, and pathless, and the icy earth / Swung blind and blackening in the moonless air; / Morn came and went—and came, and brought no day, / And men forgot their passions in the dread / Of this their desolation”.
Themes of the supernatural and mystery run throughout the work created at Villa Diodati.
Interestingly the atmospheric changes resulted in unusual sunsets. It is thought that the yellow tinge that marks William Turner’s paintings during this period is a result of this. One work which demonstrates this is Chichester Canal (1828). Byron and Mary were not the only writers to find success in that strange atmosphere. The same few days saw the origin of the book The Vampyre. Written by Byron’s physician John Polidori it became the progenitor of Romantic vampire literature and was used as a key inspiration for Bram Stoker’s vampire novel Dracula.
Added to this was the stifling interpersonal atmosphere between the group. When Mary and Percy Shelly first fell in love she was only sixteen years old and he already had a wife a child. His young wife Harriet was pregnant again at this time. This, plus her father’s disapproval, didn’t stop them. Shelley declared his love for Mary, often meeting at night at her mother’s grave. Claire went with them on their travels partly because she could speak French and they could not. Also, she was able to introduce them to Lord Byron. The two had been lovers. Although still besotted with Byron, who had largely lost interest in her, after Mary lost her first child in early 1815 Claire and Shelley embarked on an affair. It has also been reported that Polidori had designs on the young Mary, but she did not reciprocate his feelings. Notably, although Byron was interested in the young poet Shelley he was supposed to have had little respect for Mary. Shelley believed in free love and practised it, having affairs and illegitimate children throughout his life. At one point the Shelley’s were labelled a part of the League of Incest that Byron was at the heart of². Added to this Shelley was reported to have fallen into a morbid mood as a result of the oppressive environment.
It was in this atmosphere that the group; consisting of Mary, Shelley, Claire, Lord Byron and his physician John Polidori, spent their evenings talking and reading each other ghost stories. Eventually Byron suggested a ghost story writing competition. In the preface to the 1818 edition of Frankenstein Mary wrote that, feeling anxious, she would wake up each morning no closer to a story. At only 18 years old Mary was one of the more junior writers of the group. However she was highly educated for a young woman at the time and had been exposed to liberal, intellectual ideas all her life. This came primarily through her parents: radical feminist Mary Wollstonecraft and political theorist William Godwin, both successful writers.
In September 2011 astronomer David Olson managed to pinpoint the exact time of Shelley’s “waking dream”
Several days after the competition was suggested Mary dreamed of a scientist who created life but was then horrified by its creation. She had found her story. The evening before her “waking dream” the group had been discussing the principle of life; what it means to be alive and whether a corpse could be reanimated. Mary commented on this in the novels preface:
“many and long were the conversations between Lord Byron and Shelley, to which I was a devout but nearly silent listener. During one of these, various philosophical doctrines were discussed, and among others the nature of the principle of life, and whether there was any probability of its ever being discovered and communicated. … Perhaps a corpse would be re-animated; galvanism had given token of such things: perhaps the component parts of a creature might be manufactured, brought together, and endued with vital warmth”.
Although this sounds a little morbid corpse reanimation was a hot topic of the day. Galvanism is the contraction of a muscle that has been stimulated by electric current. Studies and investigations into the line between life and death occupied many of the great scientific minds of the early nineteenth century. Professor Sharon Ruston has investigated this area of scientific interest in depth. Her findings are detailed in the essayThe Science of Life and Death in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. One point of particular interest is the work of the Royal Humane Society, originally named the Society for the Recovery of Persons Apparently Drowned. Established in 1774 the Society’smain aim was to publicise information to help people resuscitate others. Mary’s mother once attempted suicide by jumping from Putney Bridge into the Thames River. She was one of those “brought back to life”: resuscitated. This was one of the ways in which the line between life and death were being blurred and questioned. Each year there was a procession of those “raised from the dead” by the Society.
Further to this Shelley had a long history with scientific experiments. At Eton he used a frictional electric machine to charge the door handle of his room. He once blew up a tree on the schools South Meadow with gunpowder. His rooms at Oxford were fully equipped with science equipment and he continued to experiment with electricity, magnetism and chemicals. This interest continued into his adult life where he had trouble with multiple landlords and hosts. His frequent experiments would often burn cushions, leave marks on the walls and floors, and disturb other residents. In their leisure time the couple were also known to attend lectures and demonstrations that looked into the space between the known and unknown.
On that infamous night they had been reading German ghost stories from a French translation of the book Fantasmagoriana. These stories combined with the unusual dark and mysterious climate had an effect on the young writer. Shelley wrote,
“The season was cold and rainy, and in the evenings we crowded around a blazing wood fire, and occasionally amused ourselves with some German stories of ghosts, which happened to fall into our hands. These tales excited in us a playful desire of imitation. Two other friends…and myself agreed to write each a story founded on some supernatural occurrence.”
In the preface Mary talked about a “waking dream” in which she conceived the idea of Frankenstein.
“When I placed my head on my pillow, I did not sleep, nor could I be said to think. My imagination, unbidden, possessed and guided me, gifting the successive images that arose in my mind with a vividness far beyond the usual bounds of reverie. I saw—with shut eyes, but acute mental vision, —I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life, and stir with an uneasy, half vital motion. …”.
In September 2011 astronomer David Olson managed to pinpoint the exact time of Shelley’s “waking dream” concluding that it occurred between 2 am and 3am on the 16th June 1816. This was several days after the competition began and fits in with Shelley’s remembrances of her difficulty in coming up with a story. Olsen explains,
“Mary Shelley wrote about moonlight shining through her window, and for 15 years I wondered if we could recreate that night. We did recreate it. We see no reason to doubt her account, based on what we see in the primary sources and using the astronomical clue.”
In order to capture the gothic horror found in the novel’s pages Shelley taped into her own fears. “What terrified me will terrify others; and I need only describe the spectre which had haunted my midnight pillow. On the morrow I announced that I had thought of a story”. She began to create “a transcript of the grim terrors of my waking dream”. In the cauldron of the strange mix of events came the creation of one of the corner stones of gothic horror and science fiction.
¹Although at this point her name was Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin she referred to herself as Mrs Shelley prior to their December 1816 marriage
² Byron went into self-induced exile from Britain largely as a result of the constant rumours that he fathered a child with his sister. Like Shelley he had multiple children with multiple women; including a daughter called Allegra with Claire (1817).
The Liffey Swim and Jack Butler Yeats: Ireland’s First Olympic Medalist
The first Olympic medal won by the Irish Free State was a silver medal in 1924, awarded Jack Butler Yeats for his 1923 painting The Liffey Swim. That may seem surprising today, however between 1912 and 1948 the arts took pride of place alongside sporting events in the Olympic Games. The arts section was broken down into five categories: architecture, literature, music, painting and sculpture.
The arts were introduced to the Olympic Games largely due to the work and enthusiasm of one man: Baron Pierre de Coubertin. The Frenchman spent his life studying sports and education, becoming convinced of the importance of physical exercise in day to day and cultural life. Known as the Father of the Modern Olympics after he founded the International Olympic Committee, he acted as the driving force behind the sporting events revival.
Inspired by a somewhat romanticised view of the Ancient Greek games, his prime ambition was to place sport at the centre of French social and cultural life. More importantly, Coubertin saw the arts as being equal to sports. One can then see why the silver medal went to a work such as The Liffey Swim, which is now held in the National Gallery of Ireland. A lyre is represented on one side of the medal next to oars, javelins and other sporting paraphernalia.
There was of course a catch; all eligible works of art had to be inspired by sport and this suited Yeats well. Many of his oil paintings depicted boxing and horse racing events. Alongside The Liffey Swim (credited by the Olympic Committee as just Swimming) Yeats also submitted his 1915 painting Before The Start; an oil painting of three jockeys before the race began. Fellow Irish artist Sean Keating entered his painting The Fowler, which did not take home a medal. The Gold medal winner was Jean Jacoby from Luxembourg. He submitted, and won for three paintings: Corner, Depart and Rugby. World renowned artists were a part of the judging panel including John Singer Sargent and Belfast-born Sir John Lavery (who also has works on display at The National Gallery). At 53 Yeats was already a star on the international arts scene.
Jack Butler Yeats was the younger brother of Nobel Laureate William Butler Yeats and son of the portrait artist John Butler Yeats. The family were very artistic, making their names through their writing or their paintings. A successful writer and playwright Jack started out as a cartoonist before he began to focus on oil painting. It was here that he found his calling and became one of Ireland’s most prominent artists of the twentieth century. Samuel Beckett once recorded that “Yeats is with the greats of our time”.
The Liffey Swim itself was a new event which Yeats captured in its infancy. The first race took place in 1920 with 27 entrants. Beginning at Victoria Quay, the swimmers would follow the river through the centre of Dublin, with spectators gathered on bridges to watch, before coming to an end one and a half miles later at Butt Bridge. After years of uncertainty, The Liffey Swim proved to be a transformative and vibrant communal event that bought people together from across the political divide. The painting captures the essence of that bond of excitement. According to the National Gallery, the 1923 swim was promoted as “the biggest free spectacle of the year in Dublin”. It was held after work hours on a Saturday so as many people as possible could watch. Even today the race still takes place on a Saturday in late August or early September. The 1923 winner was former Olympian water polo player Charles “Cecil” Fagan, who would go on to enter the race for many years to come. The runner up was the previous year’s winner Thomas Hayes Dockrell. The 1924 Olympics were the first Olympic Games after the years of conflict and war that had plagued Ireland. The fact that artists of such ability and stature wanted to take part arguably shows a great commitment to the new Irish Free State, and a desire to show the positive side of Ireland. The Liffey Swim is a positive and vibrant depiction of Dublin. For this one moment in time all are united in the joy and excitement of the competitive swim.
The bright blues of the painting reinforce the idea of this being a delightful day out. In reality it is likely that Yeats took a few artistic liberties with the colouring. On the actual day in 1923 the Irish Independent reported that “it rained now and then, but like a deluge during the concluding stages of the race” and that “a canopy of umbrellas ten deep lined the river”. Interestingly Yeats has also included himself in spectator scenes. The man wearing the brown fedora is thought to be Yeats, and the woman in the elaborate yellow hat his wife Cottie. In the painting the swimmers are approaching O’Connell Bridge. There is a feeling of activity and movement from the thick loose brush strokes and multiple layers of oil paint. The audience are placed in with the spectators, looking over shoulders to see the swimmers as they come into view. It captures the celebratory feeling that can be seen each year at the event.
Ultimately the fledgling Irish State only took home two medals from the 1924 Olympic Games. Both of these were from the arts categories: Yeats’ silver medal for The Liffey Swim and a bronze medal in literature for Irish poet Oliver Gogarty for his poem Ode to the Tailteann Games. Overall Ireland came joint fourth, with Denmark,in the arts section. Although Yeats was the first Irish artist of the twentieth century to sell for over £1,000,000 the silver medal did not initially lead to a sale. In 1925 The Liffey Swim was exhibited in the Royal Hibernian Academy in Dublin, with a £300 price tag. It wasn’t until December 1930 that the painting finally sold, for £250 to the Haverty Bequest Fund, who presented the painting to the National Gallery of Ireland in 1931.
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.
James Duport’s Guide to Surviving Freshers Week 1660
In 1660, James Duport, a fellow at Trinity College Cambridge compiled a list of 149 handwritten rules aimed at new students. In doing so he established a tradition of advice-giving that has endured over the centuries. Each new academic year, students are inundated by a plethora of do’s and don’ts; covering a wide range of issues such as studies, sex and alcohol. So how similar are Duport’s rules to those given out today and what do the 149 items tells us about students through the ages?
The most unsurprising rule urged students to “forbear wine and tobacco”. Students have always been associated with heavy drinking and the endless rounds of parties and drunkenness that haunt parent’s dreams. Even in the sixteen hundreds, it seems that there was concern about the role of alcohol in student’s lives.
Following on from this there was a desire for students to focus more on their studies. This was developed on with the rule: “never go into the town, except, to ye Church or Schools or Book-seller or Book-binders shop”. By today’s standards this seems extreme however Duport was writing immediately after the end of Cromwell’s Puritan time of rule when taverns were widely frowned upon as dens of sin in which a good man could come to harm, financial ruin or succumb to the influence of ‘loose women’. Bear in mind that the carrying of arms, daggers and such, was relatively common and minor arguments could easily escalate. In 1593 Cambridge alumni Christopher Marlowe had his life and stellar career (he was a spy, playwright, atheist and early contemporary of Shakespeare) cut short when a tavern brawl got out of hand.
It seems that Marlowe was one of the many who did not follow the rule to “beware of riot, excess & intemperance, which hath drown’d & devoured ye most pregnant parts & choicest of witts.” When away from home for the first time parents often worry that their children will be drawn into a life of excess and idleness in which riotous behaviour can bloom. One only has to look at the antics of the infamous Bullingdon Club in Oxford to understand the fear. Perhaps it was with behaviour such as this that encouraged Dupont to write the rule “take heed how you spend your time”.
Students were also given advice about what to wear and how to behave. “Wear no boots, nor powder your hair, let yr Garb be grave & sober, yet cheerful & pleasant.” After the Reformation the study of canon law declined in Universities and courses were increasingly preparing students for careers in the priesthood of the national church, in which outward presentation would have been considered important. This point is particularly interesting when you remember that in 1610 few people actually went to University, and those that did tended to be young, well off men often from high ranking families. Yet there have always been set ideas of how students should behave and dress. In turn this implies that there were also common ideas about how students should not dress and behave. This is something current students will be aware of when they go on pub crawls, fresher’s parties and end of term balls.
The complete set of 149 rules only came to light in 2013 when they were published in a Cambridge Bibliographical Society. This is the first time that the rules have been printed in their entirety after being prepared for publication by Dr Preston and Dr Oswald. The first known version of the rules have been held in the Wren Library, until recently when the missing page was located. In a post publication interview Dr Preston summed up that: “The rules are fascinating – they build up a picture of what was going on in the university at the time, and show how parents were anxious that their children be properly looked after”.
Although the rules are over three hundred years old tips such as rising early, making use of local book shops and avoiding the perils of binge drinking are still given out today by worried parents as their children are branching out on their own for the first time. These rules help to show that going away to University has always been a rite of passage, eliciting excitement and nerves in equal measure. It is interesting that the list focuses more on the social and practical side, rather than the academic, of being a student, expressing the fears of parents and guardians throughout the centuries. Who would have thought that the beliefs of a seventeenth century scholar could have so much resonance with twenty-first century parents who given the chance would often love for their children to “forbear wine and tobacco” and focus on their studies rather than socialising.
In the centre of Coventry, a midlands city in England, there is a statue of a woman astride a horse, her head bowed, unclothed except for her long hair. Across the road, at the top of a slate grey brick clock tower every hour, on the hour, a smaller version of the woman on the horse circles underneath the caricature of a man with binoculars leering over her. They are Lady Godiva and Peeping Tom.
Every place has its own mythology and for Coventry the Lady Godiva story is a vital part of the city’s historical consciousness. It is a story that every school child learns and every migrant to the city becomes acquainted with. However, how much does the story fit with the historical facts and why has this story lived so long in the city’s memory?
Growing up in Coventry, this is the version of the story I was told: Lady Godiva was the wife of Earl Leofric, Lord of Mercia in the eleventh century. Leofric, a very powerful and influential man enforced heavy taxes on his people. Unable to pay Godiva pleaded their case, begging her husband to remove the taxes. He refused, eventually turning around and declaring that if she rode through the market place naked he would alleviate the citizen’s financial burden. Amazingly she took him up on this. One day, clothed only by her long hair, she rode through the market place in the middle of the day. Out of respect, every citizen shut themselves away and promised not to look, so as to preserve her modesty. One man however reneged on this. His name was Tom, and he took a peep, viewing her naked body. After the ride he was dragged into the market square and blinded by the angry citizens. Having completed her challenge Leofric removed the hated taxes, and Godiva became a local hero. This version however differs significantly from the facts.
Lady Godiva and her husband Earl Leofric were one of the last powerful noble families of the pre-Norman period in England. In old English, the name Godiva translates as Godgifu, meaning ‘gift of God’. She was independently powerful and wealthy. Leofric was one of the three great Earls of the eleventh century, responsible for ruling over the kingdom of Mercia. At the time Coventry was a very small place consisting of only 69 families and a monastery. Importantly Godiva actually owned Coventry outright and would have been responsible for setting taxes herself. This undermines the traditional story. Further the only two known taxes at the time were taxes on stabling horses and the Heregeld; a tax everyone had to pay to contribute towards upkeep of the king’s bodyguard. It was not possible for this tax to be removed and if Godiva choose to pay it on behalf of her citizens then there would have been no need for the naked horse ride.
The Anglo – Saxons had very different attitudes to nobility and gender compared with the incoming Normans. The first written records of the story date from the thirteenth century. Written from the Norman perspective it offered a less than glowing account of the previous Anglo – Saxon rulers, most of whom had been displaced after the invasion. This is significant as it helps to explain why the tale removes much of Godiva’s agency, independence and wealth. Similarly it is also at pains to paint Leofric in a negative light, as the heartless landlord oppressing his tenants. Arguably part of the reason for this is to show the Normans in a better light, rewriting history in their favour. It is worth noting at this juncture that divorce existed in Anglo – Saxon society and it was not unheard of for noble women to divorce their husbands if given reason to. If Leofric had indeed been so cold and cruel this is an option that Godiva could have availed upon.
References made to the couple during their lifetime and shortly after make no mention of the horse ride, and instead emphasise their wealth and piety. They were known for giving generously to religious houses, founding a Benedictine monastery in the town in 1043 (The monastery was later destroyed in the Reformation period). They also donated land to the monastery of Saint Mary in Worcester and Lady Godiva was known for donating her own jewellery, along with gold and silver, to churches and religious homes. On her death she left her own heavy gold chain, a sign of her status, to a local church, with the instruction that a prayer be said for each chain link. It appears that they were very generous with their wealth. Lady Godiva is the first woman to be recorded in the Domesday book, the great survey ordered by William the Conqueror to map and number the population, property and wealth of his new land. It was completed in 1087. Unusually she kept her wealth and land after his ascension even though William confiscated the land and property of most existing English nobles. It was noted that she had holdings in Leicester, Nottinghamshire and Warwickshire. Godiva must have been a powerful and popular woman to retain her property, especially as by this point she was a widow, Leofric having died in 1057. The date of Godiva’s death is unknown. Often cited as 1067 it has been argued to be anything between this date and 1086.
The story first dates from the thirteenth century when it was recorded by monk and collector of anecdotes Roger of Wendover in his Flores Historiarum. It is known that Wendover died in 1236, so the story must predate this. There are no surviving records of the story from before this. Historians place very little credibility in Wendover’s account. He was known to collect unusual stories and often stretched the truth beyond breaking point. This version differs from later versions. In Wendover’s story Godiva passed through the market attended by two knights. The people of Coventry were assembled but kept their eyes closed. Here is an extract from Flores Historiarum:
‘The Countess Godiva devoutly anxious to free the city of Coventry from a grievous and base thralldom often besought the Count, her husband, that he would for love of the Holy Trinity and the sacred Mother of God liberate it from such servitude. But he rebuked her for vainly demanding a thing so injurious to himself and forbade her to move further therein. Yet she, out of her womanly pertinacity, continued to press the matter insomuch that she obtained this answer from him: “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’.
A different account came in the sixteenth century from Richard Grafton, M.P. for Coventry. The fiercely Protestant Grafton recorded a sanitised version of the story to better suit his, and his audiences, sensibilities. There are similarities though between this version and Wendover’s:
‘she returned to her Husbande from the place from whence she came, her honestie saued, her purpose obteyned, her wisdome much commended, and her husbands imagination vtterly disappointed. And shortly after her returne, when shee had arayed and apparelled her selfe in most comely and seemly manner, then shee shewed her selfe openly to the peuple of the Citie of Couentrie, to the great joy and maruellous reioysing of all the Citizens and inhabitants of the same, who by her had receyued so great a benefite’.
The introduction of the voyeur famously to be known as Peeping Tom is more recent, 17th century, addition. Here is an extract from the account of Humphrey Wanley (1672-1726):
‘In the Forenoone all householders were Commanded to keep in their Families shutting their doores & Windows close whilest the Duchess performed this good deed, which done she rode naked through the midst of the Towne, without any other Coverture save only her hair. But about the midst of the Citty her horse neighed, whereat one desirous to see the strange Case lett downe a Window, & looked out, for which fact, or for that the horse did neigh, as the cause thereof. Though all the Towne were Franchised, yet horses were not toll-free to this day’.
‘… loathed to see them overtax’d; but she
Did more, and underwent, and overcame,
The woman of a thousand summers back,
Godiva, wife to that grim Earl, who ruled
In Coventry: for when he laid a tax
Upon his town, and all the mothers brought
Their children, clamouring, “If we pay, we starve!”
She sought her lord, and found him
‘“Then she rode back, clothed on with chasity;
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.’
In these sources there are several themes that carry through the centuries. The first is the depiction of Lady Godiva herself. She is seen as being modest, chaste and brave. Further Leofric is also described in negative terms, as the cruel, cold husband and landlord that forces Godiva to do something that would have been seen as pretty extreme in order to help and protect the people of Coventry from his greed.
Over time historians have presented some possible explanations as to why this story has both been constructed and attached to Lady Godiva. For example pagan rituals were intertwined with Christianity at this time and the story bears some resemblance to fertility rituals. In the eleventh century Christianity and paganism were still closely interlinked. Following on from this it was also known for penitents to make a public procession to atone for their sins. The deeply pious Godiva may have made her way through the town before halting at the shrine of Saint Osburga, a nun who was killed several centuries earlier in a Viking attack. Alternatively the reference to nakedness could suggest she had removed her jewellery and other signs of her station. It is possible that stories and rituals of this manner occurred and over time became associated with Godiva, before passing into folk history.
Daniel Donoghue, author of one of the few works on Lady Godiva: Lady Godiva: A Literary History of the Legend has stated that ‘nobody knows quite why the legend was invented and attached to her name but it does seem to function as a kind of myth of origin for the town of Coventry’. It is telling that the statue was erected in 1949. Much of Coventry was destroyed in the 1940 Blitz and even more was wiped away by the town planners that rebuilt the city. It is significant that this statue has avoided all recent regeneration and rebuilding and remains the centrepiece for Coventry. Lady Godiva fits into the city image of personal sacrifice, martyrdom, of a victim rising from the flames that had become so important during the war years and helped to embed the story of Godiva in Coventry’s cultural consciousness.