The Lady Godiva
Myths are the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves. Some may have some grounding in historical fact, some may be simple embellishments of real events, some may be entirely fictitious and in most cases we will probably never know how true they are. In a sense it doesn’t really matter. Do we really care if there ever was such a person as Robin Hood, or that William Tell probably never existed? Is it important that all the stories of King Arthur and his round table are almost completely romantic fiction, that most of what we think we know about Wyatt Earp is pure story telling or that the band playing “Nearer My God to Thee” as the Titanic sunk beneath them is a complete invention? They are just myths; stories we have told so long and so often that they have become a part of our cultural heritage; more true to us than if they had really happened at all. Every major religion in the world is based on just such a body of cultural myth without the benefit of historical accuracy. Myths are the foundations of our civilisation. They’re the stories that bind us together as peoples; our shared heritage. We love our stories.
One story that is much beloved and one for which I have a particular affection is the ancient tale, over a thousand years old of the beautiful and hot headed Lady Godiva and her naked horseback ride through the streets of Coventry. The City of Coventry is deeply proud of this contribution to our folklore and poor old Coventry doesn’t have much to be proud of these days. History hasn’t been kind to Coventry. It’s an ancient city but much of its old city centre, including what was reputedly one of the most beautiful cathedrals in England, was devastated by Luftwaffe bombs in World War Two. It enjoyed a brief golden age as the centre of the British motor car industry but, as that faded, so did the city’s former glory and today it is largely an unlovely, industrial Midlands conurbation covered in acres of concrete and deeply ugly modern buildings.
But you can’t take the Lady out of Coventry. Lady Godiva and her voyeuristic baker are the City’s outstanding contribution to our mythology. The other expression attributed to the city is the term to be “Sent to Coventry” as in the meaning of being ostracised. There is a historical source for this expression dating to the English Civil War from 1642 to 1651. Coventry was a Parliamentary stronghold during that conflict and it is where Royalist prisoners of war were sent for safekeeping. The local populace cared for these prisoners humanely generally but their innate hostility to them meant that they literally didn’t speak to them.... hence “to be sent to Coventry.”
The Lady’s story is a far happier one however. The actual historical figure of Lady Godiva dates from the 10th century although, as is the nature of these things, the dates are a bit uncertain. We don’t really know when she was born; the Anglo Saxon records of the time are a bit fuzzy to say the least. There are records of her from assorted charters and from the Domesday Book but they are somewhat confused because of the assorted spellings of her name. Godiva is a Latinised version of her name in fact and it was probably originally Godgifu or Godgyfu; an Anglo Saxon name meaning “Gift of God” which was a fairly common name at the time. (Godiva is a given or Christian name rather than a f****y title).
The best historical source for the Lady’s biography comes from the historical records of Ely Abbey. We can say pretty certainly that Godiva was born into Anglo Saxon aristocracy and married the powerful Earl of Mercia, Leofric, sometime or other before 1043 when her name begins to become associated with him. Mercia was one of the seven major Anglo Saxon kingdoms that came into being with the Germanic invasions at the collapse of Roman rule in Britain. This situation probably persisted from around 500 AD until around 850 Ad when the increasing Viking threat to the old kingdoms led to a greater unity between the rival Anglo-Saxon states and led ultimately to their unification as the Kingdom of England under Alfred the Great in the late 9th century.
Although no longer a kingdom within its own right, Mercia was still, however, a very important fief in the newly formed English Kingdom; a large semi-autonomous swathe of land, covering most of the English midlands. The Earl of Mercia was one of the most important and influential men in the realm. He wouldn’t have married any old peasant girl. In fact Godiva most likely brought a pretty big chunk of her own lands and property into the marriage. This may have been even more substantial than merely the dowry of an aristocratic young lady. There was no Salic Law in Anglo-Saxon England forbidding women from the inheritance of a throne or fief and, according to Ely Abbey records, this was Godiva’s second marriage. She was a widowed Countess and thus carried, not only her own estates, but those of her dead husband’s into the marriage. It seems likely in fact that the marriage was a pretty lucrative little arrangement for all involved.
Whether it was a political marriage or not it seems as if the Earl managed to land himself with one remarkable lady as a wife. It is always going to be difficult, peering through the murky lens of history, to get a glimpse of this extraordinary woman but we can discern a few things about her. She was likely considerably younger than the Earl for he died at a “good old age” in 1057 and she may have outlived him by as much as nearly thirty years. She was no submissive little retiring wife dominated by her husband either. Even without the story of her infamous ride through the streets of Coventry there is enough historical evidence to suggest that she ruled the fief of Mercia alongside her husband and was extremely influential in all his deeds. Both she and the Earl were great benefactors of the church within the borders of their realm, bestowing munificent grants and endowments upon the monasteries and ecclesiastical establishments. The Abbey records suggest that these were at least equally due to Godiva’s influence and possibly even that she was the driving f***e. This was a girl who knew her own mind!
That we know Godiva to have been, strong minded, independent and deeply concerned and involved with the running of Mercia lends credibility to her legendary ride. The story has it that she became more and more concerned about the onerous burden of taxes imposed by her husband on certain regions of Mercia and upon Coventry in particular. Just what these taxes were is a little uncertain because from what we can deduce Coventry itself was actually part of Godiva’s own territories and thus, since Salic Law did not apply, she would have been responsible for levying most of the taxation on it. In fact the one direct tax that the Earl himself appears to have placed on Coventry was a tax on horses. This gives a little credence to the story in that if Godiva was protesting an unfair tax on the possession of horses then she picked the perfect way to demonstrate her opposition.
Be that as it may, the story goes that she nagged her long suffering husband incessantly about the issue until, in desperation for some peace and quiet, he told her that he’d lift the taxes only if she was so concerned about it that she’d ride naked through the streets of Coventry. He should have kept his big mouth shut! Doubtless he hardly expected her to take him at his word. But, of course, she did exactly that and thus bequeathed us the legend that we all love to this day.
It sounds as if Godiva’s infamous ride was a carefully orchestrated affair. The entire population was ordered to remain indoors behind shuttered windows and not to look under the most draconian threats of dire retribution should they do so. It would have been fairly easy to arrange this. Coventry in the mid 10th century was not the great sprawling city it is today. Apart from the Abbey there were only about seventy extended families listed in the place and its population was probably about that of a small market town today. Keeping that lot under wraps as she rode through the place with her kit off would have been fairly straightforward whereas these days it would have been viral on You Tube before the day was out!
Only one man is said to have taken a quick glimpse through a hole in his shutters; a baker called Thomas who has bequeathed the expression “Peeping Tom” to the English language to this day. Sadly this little embellishment seems to have been a later addition to the story. Thomas was not an Anglo-Saxon name and it is very unlikely that there was anybody called that in Coventry in the middle of the 10th century.
Which all begs the question of just how much of this story is true. Well it has to be said that there are more holes in it than a piece of Emmental cheese but there still remains enough of it to add some credence to the tale. It was not recorded in writing until the 13th century in Roger of Wendover’s Flores Historiam taken from the oral tradition of the regions folklore so just how much the tale was altered in the intervening period is hard to discern.
It has been suggested that the whole story is a garbled reference to an ancient pagan ceremony when a naked maiden was led naked on a horse to the sacred Cofa’s Tree though this sounds dubious to me. Later versions of the story have been sanitised by more pious historians who have suggested that Godiva was not naked at all but wore a simple plain shift in good Christian penance or even that “naked” meant she simply rode without her customary jewellery. This sounds even more unlikely. Anglo-Saxon as a language was nothing if not blunt and straight to the point. When it says naked it means just that!
I like to think that there was a real oral history of the Lady’s audacious ride and that there may be some truth in the whole story. If not, well does it really matter? She has given us one of the most charming stories of public exhibitionism in our folklore as well as a shining example of personal sacrifice in a deeply felt cause. The Lady Godiva example is still used to this day to draw attention to worthy causes and nothing draws attention more than a personable young lady shedding her clothes in the cause of her beliefs.
The lady outlived her husband and even survived the Norman conquest of 1066 as one of the few great landowners to retain her possessions after the Norman invasion. Even the rapacious Normans didn’t mess with this girl! She may have lived to around 1086 although the exact year of her death is uncertain. What is certain is that her name lives on and the story of her equestrian feat is possibly the most famous horseback ride in our cultural heritage. She has been emulated innumerable times. Her story has been depicted in art ever since and she has even made it to the silver screen with the delectable Maureen O’Hara (The lady who has received more cinematic spankings than any other star in Hollywood history) playing the Lady. Lady Godiva rides on... and rides on forever more.