Lady Godiva


Lady Godiva (c.1016-1067 AD) is both a historical and a legendary figure of the Middle Ages whose life and achievements has been immortalized in myth. Her naked ride through the streets of Coventry to free the people from oppressive tax has inspired many works of art and literature.

Historical Figure

Lady Godiva was a prominent figure in Edward the Confessor’s time and, in accordance with Anglo-Saxon law, was a large, independent landowner in the Midlands and East Anglia.
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Map of East Anglia (www.angliacleaning.com)
Whether these estates came to her through her family or her husband is unknown but a list of her possessions and land is found in the Domesday Book. [1] Lady Godiva was married to Leofric of Mercia, who became an earl under the Danish King Cnut during his reintroduction of aristocracy to England, replacing the old system of government of land holding and loyalties. The Earl of Mercia and Lady Godiva were married c.1035 AD and this meant that she now had an important stake in English politics. Most references to Godiva and Leofric are in monastic chronicles under his obit (obituary), which indicate that they shared a cooperative relationship but that Godiva also “exercised considerable legal and economic independence”. [2] Both Leofric and Godiva gave generously to the church and are credited with the benefaction and building of many religious houses, most notably the Holy Trinity Church in Evesham and the abbey at Coventry. [3]


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Holy Trinity Church, Coventry (www.search.windowsonwarickshire.org.uk)

Legend

Many Latin chroniclers recorded the legend of Lady Godiva’s naked ride through Coventry, including Roger of Wendover in c.1220 AD and Matthew Paris in his Chronica Majora c.1250 AD. Both were monks of St. Albans Abbey, which due to its position on a road junction was well placed for the collection of news. [4] According to both these sources Lady Godiva, pitying the servitude of the people of Coventry, petitioned her husband to relieve them of their oppressive tax. The earl chastised her for seeking something so detrimental to him and bade her not to ask him again, but she persisted until finally, in exasperation, her husband told her to mount her horse naked and ride through the market place from one side to the other while the townspeople were congregated and her request would be granted. Acknowledging that she was willing Lady Godiva asked her husband’s permission to complete the task, once granted, she mounted her horse naked and loosened her hair so as to reveal nothing but her legs. After completing her journey, unseen by a soul, she returned triumphant to her husband, who immediately released the city of Coventry from its subordination. [5] There is also an inscription from the 15th century window of the Holy Trinity Church in Coventry that makes reference to the outcome of Lady Godiva’s legendary ride, “I Luriche for love of thee, Doe make Coventrie toll-free”. [6]

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An Artistic Representation of Lady Godiva by John Collier (www.historic-uk.com)
Analysis of the Legend

It is a complex process separating fact from fiction but several elements of the legend are plausible and can be linked to historical events. Most taxes in Coventry would have been Godiva’s own responsibility except for one, the royal tax known as the Heregeld [7], which went towards paying the king’s bodyguard and would have been collected by Leofric. Edward the Confessor eventually rescinded this tax in 1051 AD but prior to this it was within the earl’s power to grant the community a tax reprieve. [8] Although this is a feasible explanation for the motive of Lady Godiva’s ride it does not explain the reasoning behind her nakedness. Many theories have been put forward to rationalize this part of the legend, including the notion that her nakedness was a symbolic gesture, meaning that she stripped herself of any finery that would elevate her above the common people. [9]

Lady Godiva Statue in Coventry (www.historiccoventry.co.uk)
Lady Godiva Statue in Coventry (www.historiccoventry.co.uk)
Legacy

Lady Godiva’s legacy has lived on through the theatrical and religious processions in Coventry and her namesake parade, first recorded in 1678, drew over 10,000 spectators. [10] These local processions have helped to keep Lady Godiva’s legacy flourishing and she still is a much-loved figure in Coventry today. Lady Godiva is a reminder of the importance and contribution of women in Anglo-Saxon times [11] and despite the legend only being partially defendable, does not detract from the woman who took her responsibilities to her people seriously.









References
[1] Donoghue,D. 2003. Lady Godiva: A Literary History of the Legend, Oxford, UK: Blackwell Publishing Ltd, p.17
[2] Cited in Donoghue, 2003, p.18
[3] Davidson, H.R. Ellis. 1969. "The Legend of Lady Godiva," Folklore 80:107-121, pp.107-109, Donoghue, 2003, pp.7-25 and Lacey, R. 2003. Great Tales from English History: The Truth about King Arthur, Lady Godiva, Richard the Lionheart and More, NewYork and Boston: Little, Brown and Company, pp.83-84
[4] Davidson, 1969, p.109
[5] Cited in Davidson, 1969, pp.109-110
[6] Cited in Davidson, 1969, p.111
[7] Cited in Davidson, 1969, p.111
[8] Davidson, 1969, p.111
[9] Lacey, 2003, pp.86-87
[10] Davidson, 1969, pp.111-120 and Donoghue, 2003, pp.47-96
[11] Davidson, 1969, p.12