Who Was Lady Godiva?

by WiseFool

Who was Lady Godiva and did she really ride through Coventry naked?

Lady Godiva (sometimes known as just Godiva) was a noblewoman of 11th century England. Legend has it that she was a goodhearted and charitable woman, who had repeatedly begged her husband to relax the oppressive taxes imposed on their tenants.

Eventually, he agreed...on one, rather strange, condition: that she ride sans clothes through the streets. It was probably one of those bets he wished he'd never made.

The question is, did Godiva really exist and was she really such an exhibitionist?

Who Was The Real Lady Godiva?

Did she really exist?

The legend of Godiva has existed for some 900 years and so has, unsurprisingly, been adapted, embellished and may have no bearing on fact whatsoever. But there was a real Lady Godiva. She was married to Leofric, Earl of Mercia (one of the most powerful men in England).

It is not known exactly when she was born, or when she married Leofric - so she may not have been his first wife or the mother of his son, Ælfgar. Given Leofric is thought to have lived to the ripe old age of eighty-nine (quite a feat in the unsanitary 11th century), it is quite possible that Godiva was a later spouse. She was certainly his last wife, however, surviving her husband by several years.

What is known of Godiva and her husband is that they gave very generously to religious organizations; founding a Benedictine monastery in Coventry - an act which, according to Roger of Wendover (writing in the 12th century), was thanks largely to Godiva's persuasion.

The couple is also credited with granting land to the monastery of St. Mary in Worcester, and they were benefactors to other monasteries in Leominster, Evesham, Wenlock, Chester and Much. 

Lady Godiva Was a Freedom Rider

She didn't care if the whole world looked

Poster of Lady Godiva

Portrait by John Coliier (1898)
Lady Godiva

Statue of Lady Godiva (1867)

By P. Pargetter for Minton Pottery
Lady Godiva at the Herbert Art Gallery and Museum, Coventry
Lady Godiva at the Herbert Art Galler...

The Generosity of Lady Godiva

Why Lady Godiva was a popular girl in Conventry

Not satisfied with founding monasteries, Godiva is well known for giving away her jewelry. She reportedly had all of her silver and gold melted and formed into crucifixes, likenesses of the saints and other religious iconography. 

She gave many precious metals to Coventry, and she bequeathed a silver necklace to the Benedictine house she helped found, requesting that it be placed around the neck of the figure of the Virgin Mary.  

Did Lady Godiva Really Ride Through Coventry Nude?

Where did the legend came from?

Lady GodivaThe first mention of the Godiva legend comes from the aforementioned Roger of Wendover, in his chronicle for 1057. According to Wendover's telling, Godiva pleaded with Leofric to ease the burden of taxes, and he, weary with her persistence, agreed...with the caveat that she ride naked through the streets.

As you do!

Why he did this is anyone's guess. I can only assume he felt certain she wouldn't do go through with it and he, therefore, would shut her up without the need to capitulate.

Anyway, that's where Wendover leaves the tale. We don't know whether she did it or not, or, indeed, whether Leofric was jesting and lowered taxes regardless.

But as the story continued to be told, Lady Godiva shook off her embarrassment and horror (bear in mind, she was a very religious woman), and, so great was her compassion for her people, that she agreed.

Telling all of the townspeople to stay in their homes, keeping doors and windows shuttered, she stripped off and mounted her waiting horse.

Of course, there was just one fly in the ointment. Tom: the man who couldn't help himself. Temptation too great, 'peeping Tom' unbarred his window in the hopes of getting an eyeful. However, as the legend goes, he was struck blind before Godiva came into view.

Her side of the bargain complete, she returned to her husband, who agreed to ease the town's burden by ending all tolls except those on horses.

What we do know is accurate is that a subsequent inquiry showed that, during that time, sure enough, there were no tolls...except on horses. 

Did Lady Godiva really ride naked through Coventry? My hunch is that she didn't. Was there really a man named Tom who went blind as he tried to catch a glimpse? I doubt it. He was only added to the story in the 17th century.

What is true is that the Godiva legend is still enthralling, and is kept alive and well in Coventry with their annual Godiva Procession, which began in 1678 and continues to this day. 

Updated: 10/13/2015, WiseFool
 
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frankbeswick on 06/14/2015

I have just looked up heregeld. It was a tax to pay for mercenaries to support the armed forces.

Veronica on 06/14/2015

Frank

I think this may have been a royal tax, collected by the local lord.

frankbeswick on 06/14/2015

Heregeld! The Saxons had two words for an army: a fyrd, which was a defensive force, and a here, an aggressive force. Was the here his own, or did he want to arm against a possible invader?

Veronica on 06/14/2015

All the versions agree on one thing and that is that Godiva also known as Godgifu, was a virtuous and well loved noble lady. So rationally what would cause such a pious lady of rank to have this legend woven around her? What would she have done to gain such notoriety ?

It would appear that Lady Godiva, who was virtuous and charitable, performed some sort of public penance for the misdeeds of her husband, Leofric after he had raised taxes on the town's folk and refused to lower them when his wife asked him to do so.

It may be that she appeared in the town stripped of her usual badges of rank and therefore " naked " in humiliation in the eyes of the people. This could easily be mixed up the "Christian story of a naked Eve or ideas of a naked fertility goddess.

Whatever the reason, Leofric underwent some sort of public conversion after this and opened an Abbey locally. This was a major turnaround as he had tyrannised the Church and oppressively imposed the tax known as the heregeld.

Telesto on 08/28/2014

I think this is a lovely tale, and I have very much enjoyed reading all the comments. And I love the Godiva chocolates!

frankbeswick on 02/13/2014

Coventina was the goddess at Coventry. Certain goddesses were honoured through a living embodiment, a woman who represents them. This is still the case in Nepal, where a pre-pubescent girl embodies the goddess Shri until puberty. In some cults a mature woman represents the goddess, as an expression of her beauty and fertility. Why a horse? Ancient British pagan religion valued the horse as a sacred animal. Thus a goddess or her representative on a horse is to be expected.

When the Saxons came they were not interested in spreading their own faith-pagans rarely were, and like all pagan faiths there was a tendency for the various Saxon and pre-saxon cults to be conflated. Thus pre-Christian survivals at an important shrine like Coventry are to be expected, and there would have been both Saxon and British devotees.

Rose on 02/13/2014

@frankbeswick - that's a fascinating story - had no idea that Coventry dated back to Roman and pre-Roman times

WiseFool on 01/15/2014

Thanks so much for the update, cmoneyspinner. You're right, 'sinful' and Godiva go very well together!

cmoneyspinner on 01/14/2014

@WiseFool - It's been years since I've been back to Miami so I just Googled to find out that:

- Yes! Godiva chocolates are still made and
- Yes, a friend did let me try one, many years ago. His exact description for how good they tasted was: "They are sinful!"

So the story of Godiva sort of made me laugh when I contrasted it with how my friend described the chocolates. :)

It seems the store I once knew as Burdines is now Macy, or rather Burdines-Macy's.
Wow! A lot has changed!
http://www.mystore411.com/store/view/...

WiseFool on 01/14/2014

Thanks Frank and Jo for brining up the possible Pagan roots of the story. That wasn't something I'd considered, but it's a very interesting thought. For me though, even if the 'naked-horse -ride' was an Ancient tradition in honour of Coventina (or another god or goddess), the fact the Godiva story has morphed and was, at first telling, very incomplete, still points to her not having really done it. But I guess we'll never know for sure, and that's part of the fascination!

Cmoneyspinner, I didn't know Godiva was also a chocolate - have you tried one since, or are they no longer made?

Hi, Abby. Thanks for stopping by and taking the time to leave a comment. Whether she really did the 'nude ride' or not, she's a captivating figure and, I think, will remain so.


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