|A name that has resounded
for over a thousand years of English history is that of the notorious Lady
Godiva who is reputed to have ridden naked through the ancient town of
Coventry in the eleventh century. Could such a thing have happened, a
noblewoman respected in the community takes off her clothes and rides in
broad daylight through the center of the market square of the town?
It could, and chances are good that it did. Much of the evidence for the existence and “infamy” of Lady Godiva (or Godwa or Godgifu) and her husband Leofric, the Earl of Mercia, comes from the Doomsday Book of 1086 and the accounts by historians and legend keepers such as Roger of Wendover, writing in his CHRONICA, and Henry Knighton, who gave specifics of the account, writing in the next century. Even the famous historian Ranulf Higden in his POLYCHRONICON covered the Coventry Tale in detail. Some time later King Edward I, in seeking to uncover the truth about the notorious Godiva even commissioned an inquiry into ancient records to verify the story.
What the ancient pictures uncovered is that the noble couple existed in the tenth century, that they originally lived in Shewsbury where Leofric made a fortune dealing in mutton, and in the early part of the 11th century, they moved to the raucous little town of Coventry, where their wealth and devotion to the faith made them honored citizens. The couple, perhaps having been unable to rise among the landed gentry in Shrewsbury because they were the “nouveau riche,” were happy to gain the respect of the citizenry of Coventry. They decided to found and fund a considerable abbey, or monastery, in the very heart of Coventry, in honor of St. Eunice of Saxmundham. Although it was a simple building of wattle and daub, with a reed-thatched roof of the times, it was also the largest structure in the entire area, and eventually became the foundation for the mighty Coventry Cathedral which was not spared in the Nazi bombings of World War II, and whose shell can still be viewed today as a significant part of the newer, more unusual cathedral structure..
In its original era, though, the abbey edifice became the center of the little community, and, as well as educating and preparing those to be ordained—the noble couple’s original impetus for building it--it hosted Druidic, secular and other popular activities of the time. Leofric and Godiva were casual in their administration of the fine structure and its environs, and thereby finally gained the respect and honor they had longed for. Thanks to the Earl and his mate, the town grew and fared well.
But as their wealth and fame grew, the apparently much older Leofric seemed bent on taxing the peasantry to death in order to improve the public holdings as well as his own position. He was given financial responsibilities for the town of Coventry, and quickly learned the ins and outs of political maneuvering.
His wife, taken with the arts and the genteel life which included the hunt and a great deal of horseback riding began thinking in terms of improving the lives of the peasants through education and exposure to art. She sat for fine portraits, allowed pictures of herself to be passed around the community and began to press for relief for the poor, as her mind was elevated to higher things. Soon she found herself at odds with her husband, who was more concerned about providing clean water for the community or providing other municipal improvements. It is suspected that Godiva had words with her husband, and bade him to modify the taxation efforts for the sake of the poor. But her hoped-for changes were long in coming.
The fact that, as records show, Leofric was a much older man than his spirited young wife, may have affected what happened next. In his megolomaniac ways Leofric was currently taxing everything he could get his hands on, including manure. It is around this time, perhaps in the few years just prior to 1057, a short time before the conquest by the Normans, that Lady Godiva determined to impress upon her single-minded husband the needs of the peasantry.
“Reduce the taxes,” she begged. Laughing, Leofric is said to have fallen off his stool and injured his wrist. When he recovered,he found his strong-willed wife more determined than ever to nag him into compliance. Imagining a failed water works for the town, or the lessening of the respect he was currently earning from his fellows, Leofric insisted he would now also place a levy on pictures that Godiva’s artistic friends might produce! Since these all belonged to Godiva, the smite is a curious one.
The classic war of wills had begun. Finally, in desperation, Leofric told his wife that if she removed her clothing and rode buck naked down the main street of the town, he would remove what she considered the offensive taxes, thereby reducing the burden on the townspeople. One can imagine his tongue planted firmly in cheek.
But the old Leofric was no match for the spirited Godiva. She asked only for permission for this strange ride, and she would be happy to lead the procession unclothed for the freedom from unjust taxation, and when her laughing husband granted personal permission, she acceded to his wishes. When her shocked husband realized she was serious, he was taken aback. If you care that much, and can do this brave act, he is said to have told her, I will remove not only a portion of the taxes, but all of the taxes, except for the tolls on horses, which were already in effect when he moved to the town. (Records have been found in place, via Edward I’s investigation, verifying this ultimate result—only the taxes on horses remain after 1057 in Coventry!).)
Therefore, on a Thursday in August in the midst of the marketplace, where people kept arriving in eager anticipation to witness the heralded event, the noble lady, flanked by two maids in completely normal dress, rode on her steed through the town in a regal and proud manner, wearing only the skin which God had provided her. Her hair was not long, flowing, and covering her nudity as she was pictured in later illustrations probably by panicked leaders of the Christian church, but rather coiled in two fine long braids down her back. She wore, legend has it, a look of composure on her face, sitting unashamed and straight in her saddle, and no doubt believing every bit in her proud cause.
Later writers speculate that townspeople may have averted their eyes as the rider came into view, and that only one bold fellow perused the scene wide-eyed. Supposedly, he came to be called “Peeping Tom,” although other originations of the Peeping Tom legend also proliferate. Some historians of the day, however, speculate that there was no shame associated with Godiva’s ride, so pure of heart was she, and so certain to inspire in her viewers an appreciation for yet another factor in the wondrous creation by God of all good things. At the time, the only naked people outside their own families the masses would have observed would be the religious depictions of Christ, and Adam and Eve, so there was more a sanctity echoed in Godiva’s famous ride, than disgrace. The fact that her stunned husband complied with her wishes to recant the taxes on the peasantry would seem to affirm this view.
My multiple lines of descent from Lady Godiva :
|The PDF below
documents a number of lines from Lady Godiva to gateway ancestor Robert
Abell. The majority of the lines have been verified in multiple texts
and is a work in progress.
Last updated on 6/25/17