The naked truth: Lady Godiva

Legend has it that on this day (10 July) in 1040, Lady Godiva made her naked journey on horseback through the streets of Coventry, seeking a remission on the harsh taxes that her husband had imposed on his tenants.

  Lady Godiva

The legend

First recorded in the 13th century, the story of the good Lady Godiva’s pity for the poor of Coventry is one of England’s most enduring. The Countess appealed to her husband to lessen his oppressive taxation, but he refused over and over. Finally growing weary of her constant entreaties, he made a deal with his wife that he would remit the tolls if she stripped naked and rode through the streets of the town, an act absolutely unthinkable.

Godiva took her husband at his word and issued a proclamation to the people of Coventry that they should stay indoors and shut their windows to grant her as much privacy as possible. She then proceeded to ride naked on a snow-white horse, her only modesty provided by her long hair. All of Coventry respected their Countess’ wishes and averted their eyes, all aside from a tailor – forever after known as Peeping Tom – who bore a hole in his shutters so he could feast his eyes on the promised noble flesh. For this unconscionable action, Tom was struck blind; whether this was via divine punishment or the outraged townspeople taking vengeance on behalf of their lady is a discrepancy that is up to the teller.

The Earl – shamed by his wife’s selfless actions – kept his word and abolished the unfair taxes.

 Modern reenactment

The mythology

Coventry was once a small and isolated community, boundaried by the Forest of Arden, and was as such ideally suited for the survival of pagan cults and legends long after England had been nominally Christianised. The myth in this instance was likely a fertility ritual or forest folklore linked to spring or the month of May. As the country grew more and more Christianised, the transfer of veneration from a pagan fertility goddess or Faery Queen to a famously pious Countess is easily understandable. It may even have been a deliberate attempt by the local monks to harness the appeal of and neatly sanction a popular cult.

The little touch of the ‘Peeping Tom’ harkens back to ancient mythohistorical archetype, such as – for example – the tale of Actaeon the hunter spying on the goddess Artemis bathing, in punishment for which he was transformed into a stag and set upon by his own hounds.

 The statue in Coventry town centre

The history

The real Godiva – or, more accurately and unLatinised, Godgifu – was the wife of Leofric, the Earl of Mercia (NB: This was the first generation to use the more modern word ‘Earl’ instead of the Anglo-Saxon term ‘Ealdorman’). The Godiva who comes down to us in the historical record is certainly a lady preoccupied with charity and religious aid; she and her husband founded new monasteries and granted land to existing ones. Godiva gave up items of her own costly jewellery to adorn states of the Virgin Mary in prominent churches.

Godvia remains on record after her husband’s death in 1057, as she is mentioned as the only woman to remain a major landholder after the conquest of 1066.She was however dead by 1086, as her lands are in the hands of others by the time of the Domesday survey. Her grave has been lost, although there’s a good chance she was buried beside her husband at Coventry Cathedral.

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