01 January 2013

Myths & Misconceptions: Godiva's Naked Ride

By Lisa J. Yarde

"...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, clamoring, "If we pay, we starve!"                                                   

She sought her lord, and found him, where he strode about the hall, among his dogs, alone, his beard a foot before him, and his hair a yard behind. She told him of their tears, and prayed him, "If they pay this tax they starve."
Whereat he stared, replying, half amazed, "You would not let your little finger ache for such as these?"  

"But I would die," said she.
He laughed, and swore by Peter and by Paul: Then filliped at the diamond in her ear;  "O, ay, ay, ay, you talk!"

"Alas!" she said, "But prove me what it is I would not do."        

And from a heart as rough as Esau’s hand, he answered, "Ride you naked through the town, and I repeal it;” and nodding, as in scorn, he parted, with great strides among his dogs..."
Lady Godiva by Edmund Blair Leighton. Source - Wiki Commons
The legend of Godiva's naked ride through the streets of Coventry in response to her husband's dare stirred Alfred, Lord Tennyson to write his poem Godiva in 1840, more than  six centuries after the story first became popular. Thanks to Roger of Wendover, a 13th century monk of St. Albans Abbey, this is the most commonly held view of Godiva, inspiring books, films, statues and paintings:

Lady Godiva by John Collier. Source - Wiki Commons
Is the account of Godiva in Roger of Wendover's Flowers of History true? To unravel the mystery, consider her origins. Godiva is a Latin form of the Anglo-Saxon name Godgifu, meaning God's gift. In the early eleventh century, Godiva married Earl Leofric of Mercia, one of the most powerful men in medieval England and a supporter of King Cnut. Earl Leofric and Countess Godiva became the patrons of several Benedictine monasteries throughout England. They first endowed a priory at Coventry. A settlement had grown up around the religious house and when Leofric died in the years before the Norman Conquest, he was buried on the priory land. During his lifetime, the couple were also benefactors at the monasteries of St. John's and St. Werburg's in Chester, at Leominster and Much Wenlock, and in Worcester and Evensham. Leofric's widow survived him by several years, continuing the good works she and Leofric started. The Domesday Book indicates the lands Godiva once held in her own right after her husband's death.

Statue of Godiva in Coventry. Source - Fotolia
By the time of the Domesday Book, 69 families lived in Coventry, best described as a hamlet. The famous ride would have taken place at least forty years earlier. Yet, writers of the period do not mention the event. Even the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, which recorded English history, does not include it. It's unlikely chroniclers of the time would have ignored the naked display of a high-ranking Christian noblewoman, a countess of England and wife of one of its most powerful earls, noted for her beauty and piety. Earl Leofric might have had something to say before it happened too, though perhaps nothing so humorous as:

Part of the legend states that Godiva was able to ride through Coventry, long hair strategically covering parts of her body, after a proclamation ordered everyone to stay indoors. It's given rise to another aspect of the story, Peeping Tom. Supposedly, no one in Coventry defied the proclamation except a tailor, forever after known as Peeping Tom, who witnessed Godiva's nakedness and instantly became blind. The idea of Peeping Tom became popular in the 17th century, as part of the growing myth embellished by successive generations. 

Sources: Historic Coventry, The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, The Blackwell Encyclopaedia of Anglo-Saxon England and The Domesday Book Online.

Lisa J. Yarde writes fiction set in the medieval period. She is the author of historical novels set in medieval England and Normandy, The Burning Candle, based on the life of Isabel de Vermandois, and On Falcon's Wings, chronicling the star-crossed romance between Norman and Saxon lovers. Lisa has also written Sultana and Sultana’s Legacy, novels set during a turbulent period of thirteenth century Spain,where rivalries and ambitions threaten the fragile bonds between members of a powerful family.