The Wild Ride of Lady Godiva - Fact or Fiction?

"Lady Godiva was a freedom rider, She was a sister who really could!"

Remember those lines from the theme song from the 1970's sitcom Maude? I do and I remember wondering who was Lady Godiva and what did she do that was so great that she was mentioned in a song? Was she even real?

Well, yes Virginia, Lady Godiva (1040-1080 or thereabouts, no one is actually sure of her date of birth or death) was real but as for her 'freedom ride' that appears just to be the stuff of legend. The story goes that Lady Godiva rode naked through the streets of Coventry in England in order to get her husband to repeal an oppressive tax that he had levied on his tenants. After Godiva's ride through the town, her husband kept his word and abolished the taxes. The origin of the phrase "Peeping Tom," also comes from later versions of the legend. All the villagers were ordered to shut their blinds so as not to see Lady Godiva in the altogether while she rode through the streets. The legend has it that one guy named appropriately enough Tom couldn't resist taking a peek and was struck down blind for being a voyeur. Thus the phrase "Peeping Tom."

What we do know about Lady Godiva was that she lived with her husband in Coventry in England during the reigns of Canute, Harold Harefoot, Hardacanute, and his successor, Edward the Confessor. And her name wasn't actually Godiva. It was Godgifu or Godgyfu which is Anglo-Saxon for 'Gift of God.' Godiva is the latinized version of her name and not just the name of a popular brand of chocolates! Apparently Godgifu was very popular at the time, sort like the way Elizabeth was popular in the sixties. She was married to Leofric, who was the Earl of Mercia, one of the most powerful nobleman at that time. He was one of only two Anglo-Saxons to still hold power during the reign of Canute, who made Leofric, Earl of Mercia. At the time, Mercia was a large and important land holding consisting of the counties of Cheshire, Gloucestershire, Herefordshire, Oxfordshire, Shropshire, Staffordshire, Warwickshire and Worcestershire.

Godgifu was a high born Anglo-Saxon woman who was probably wealthy in her own right. There is some conjecture that her father may have been Sheriff of Lincoln, or it may have been her brother. We do know that Leofric and Godgifu married in 1016, when he was 48 and she was probably in her mid-thirties in Norfolk. They had two children, Aelfgar, who succeeded as Earl, and a daughter, whose name remains unknown. Aelfgar's daughter, Ealdgyth was wed briefly to the Welsh King, and then after his death to Harold Godwineson, who was defeated by William the Conqueror making Godgifu briefly the grandmother of a Queen of England.

She's first mentioned in the chronicles of Ely, Liber Elensis, who writes that she was a widow when Leofric married her. Both Godgifu and her husband were generous patrons of the convents and churches of the time. In 1043, Leofric founded and endowed a Benedictine monastery in Coventry. He had been given by the future Archbishop of Canterbury the arm of St. Augustine of Hippo, a relic that needed a home. Another chronicler, Roger of Wendover, claims that Godgifu was instrumental in getting her husband to take this step, because there were no educational facilities for the clergy. They also granted land to a monastery of St. Mary, Worcester and also at Stow St. Mary, Lincolnshire. Leofric died in 1057, and Godgifu inherited his estates, meriting a mention in the Domesday book of 1086.

The legend first appeared in around 1236 again told by Roger of Wendover. In this version, Godiva rode through Coventry market, accompanied only by two knights, as the townspeople assembled to watch. There are some theories that if Godiva did ride through Coventry, she did so wearing the shift of a penitant which was a long white garment, similar to a chemise. However, there is no mention in contemporary chronicles of any woman named Godgifu riding through Coventry naked or otherwise. And Roger of Wednover was known for his exaggeration and biased embellishment. Apparently he was more a collector of stories than an actual historian. Other chroniclers simply mention her as a pious woman of some beauty.

Also, Coventry wasn't even founded until 1043, so it wouldn't have been big enough at the time to warrant such a noble gesture, and the biggest tax at the time would have been on horses. As the town grew, Leofric began taking on a greater role in the affairs, handling the financial matters and he initiated grand public works. Godgifu appears to have become a patron of the arts in the town.

So why has the legend persisted? Maybe because the story of Lady Godiva is one of the power of a woman to effect change. Godiva's husband challenges her to ride naked through Coventry in order to have the taxes lowered, probably figuring that she wouldn't dare to do so. Well, she did dare. A little nakedness was not going to deter the fictional Lady Godiva from helping the tenants who were suffering. Godiva was being tested and she came through.

The Norman invasion of 1066, upended Anglo-Saxon England. The story probably was based on a folktale or earlier pagan fertility rites associated with the May Queen. Coventry is located near the Forest of Arden, made famous by Shakespeare’s As You Like It. Put it in a blender and hit the button and pour out the cocktail of Lady Godiva, a tale guaranteed to attract pilgrims and of course revenue to the city of Coventry.

Despite the fact that legend of Lady Godiva is just that, the ride is commorated in Coventry every year on May 31st. She's also become something of a mascot to engineers, called the Patron Saint of Engineers or the Goddess of Engineering. I'm not quite sure what that's all about.

From the evidence, it's clear that Godgifu was a pious and generous woman, whose name was appropriated to create a romantic and enduring myth of virtue and innocence triumphing over cruelty and tyranny.


Anonymous said…
I loved reading your article. It was full of a wealth of information on this infamous lady. I love your blog and look forward to reading many more stories about scandalous women in history.
Thanks so much for the compliment. I've really enjoyed writing this blog. Keep coming back for more scandalous women like Kennedy's mistress, Judith Campbell Exner and Edith Piaf.
Anonymous said…
Another wonderful article Elizabeth!
Thanks Melisande. Lady Godiva was fun to write about. Its amazing to see how the myth took shape and how much was real and how much came from political or religious reasons.

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