Lady Godiva

Lady Godiva's rideLady Godiva Statue in Coventry
Painting by John Collier
Statue at Coventry
Photo By Sam Behling


© 1997, Sam Behling

About the year 1028, a wealthy widow named Godgifu, "gift of God", or Godiva (there are 17 different spellings of her name), believing herself to be on her deathbed, bequeathed her considerable property to the monastery at Ely, England. But she recovered and a decade or so later remarried, soon interesting her new husband, Leofric, the earl of Mercia, in her charitable donations. Leofric and Godiva moved to Coventry in Warwickshire from Shrewsbury, Shropshire where Leofric had earned his fortune in the mutton trade.

In 1043 the earl and his lady founded a Benedictine monastery at Coventry on the site of the present-day bombed-out ruin of Coventry Cathedral and nearby new Coventry Cathedral which was built by German students after World War II. On October 4, the monastery (or abbey) which was named in honor of St. Eunice of Saxmundham and was dedicated to St. Peter, St. Osburg, All Saints, and the Virgin Mary, to whom Godiva was particularly devoted. Her later gifts of gold and gems made the monastery chapel one of the richest in England. After the earl's death, Lady Godiva continued her patronage of at least half a dozen more monasteries.

Yet, it is not for such good works that Lady Godiva is remembered, but rather for her legendary ride through Coventry in the nude. The people of Coventry, as most subjects of Edward the Confessor in England, were suffering from the burden of high taxes. But their pleas for relief went unheeded by Leofric, who had his own obligations to meet and who was not above passing them on to the citizenry. Instead of mercy, Coventry's inhabitants received notice of a tax increase. To meet it they would have to impoverish themselves.

Filled with compassion for the desperate people, Lady Godiva approached her husband - as she had on earlier occasions - to ask that he suspend the onerous levies. Perhaps angered at her persistence, and wishing to put an end to her tiresome requests, the earl made an outlandish proposal. "Mount your horse naked," he said to his wife, "and pass through the market of the town, from one end to the other, when the people are assembled." On her return from the ride, he promised, Godiva would be granted her wish and the townspeople would be spared the burdensome new taxes.

Leofric expected his wife to withdraw in shock and embarrassment. Instead, to his astonishment, she agreed. The following day, completely unclothed , Godiva mounted a charger and rode through the marketplace. She was accompanied by two female servants also on horseback, though fully dressed.

The story of her ride first appeared in the Flores Historiarum of Roger of Wendover, an historian who lived some two centuries after Lady Godiva's time. He seems to have based his account on the work of an earlier but now lost chronicle. Subsequent writers steadily embellished the tale. In one version, Lady Godiva's body she was concealed by her flowing hair and another has her enveloped in a God-granted cloak of invisibility. In yet another, she orders Coventry's inhabitants to remain indoors behind shuttered windows on the morning of the ride, thus psaring herself the rude stares of the common folk. Early in the 18th century, another character was added to the narrative. A tailor named Tom, it was claimed, disobeyed her command. When he peeked through a crack in the shutter of his window, Tom was miraculously struck blind. The justly punished voyeur was the original "peeping Tom."

As for Leofric's taxes, the humbled earl rewarded his wife's act of compassion by lifting all tolls on Coventry except those for keeping horses. As late at the 17th century, the town was still boasting of such a tax-exempt status.

As recently as 1966, Lady Godiva made headline news of a wildly improbable nature. That year's edition of Debrett's Peerage, the definitive guide to who's who among Britain's aristocracy, took a new look at the lineage of Queen Elizabeth II. The queen, long known to count William the Conqueror among her ancestors, was now said also to be 31st in descent from Harold, the monarch William displaced. Diligent readers of Debrett's were quick to note than Harold's great grandparents were none other than Leofric and Godiva.


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