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.

Who Was Lady Godiva?

First Written for Headstuff.ie

Lady-Godiva_DSC_9412

 

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.

Peeping Tom and Lady Godiva

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’.

Alfred, Lord Tennyson later further romanticised the story with his poem Godiva, written in 1840 and published in 1842. The lengthy poem emphasised Godiva’s virtues, particularly her chastity, for his Victorian audience.

‘… 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.

Edmund-Blair-Leighton-Lady-Godiva

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.