Unlike her legendary "cousin" Robin Hood, from up
the road in Nottingham, Lady Godiva definitely existed. She lived in the 11th
Century and was the wife of Leofric, Earl of Mercia, one of the most powerful
noblemen in the land.
She is mentioned in the Domesday Book of 1086 as holding many
estates in Warwickshire including Coventry, inherited from Leofric who died in
Documents show that she and her husband were generous
benefactors to religious establishments at Evesham, Worcester, Chester and
The connection with Coventry began in 1043 when Leofric and
Godiva founded an Abbey there after noting the lack of educational facilities
for the clergy.
As the town of Coventry grew, so Leofric began assuming a
greater role in its public affairs. He began handling the town's financial
matters and initiated grand public works.
According to the story, Lady Godiva, who was much younger than
Leofric, became a patron of the arts, believing they would raise the
consciousness of the populace.
But a love of aesthetics was of little interest to a peasantry
striving to keep body and soul together. So when Godiva persuaded her reluctant
husband to reduce their tax burden, he agreed to do so at a price.
He pointed out that the ancient Greeks and Romans viewed a
nude human body as one of the highest expressions of the perfection of nature.
If his dear Lady wife truly believed in her crusade for art, she should lead by
If she would ride naked through Coventry market-place at
midday as a celebration of the perfection of God's work, he would in return
abolish all local taxes save those on horses. To his surprise, she agreed.
On the appointed day, flanked by two fully clothed horsewomen,
she rode naked through the market, straight in her saddle, with a composed
expression, unashamed of her nudity. The taxes were duly removed.
Regrettably, though, the story of Lady Godiva's ride is almost
certainly a myth. The earliest written record of it comes from one Roger of
Wendover more than a century after Godiva's death. This medieval scribe is
renowned for his exaggeration and politically biased embellishment; more a
collector of stories and legends than genuine historian.
Matthew of Westminster, writing in the 14th Century, infers
that a miracle took place because the pious lady, in her state of undress, was
not observed by anyone.
By the 17th Century the story had been elaborated to include a
local boy named Tom who took a peek at Lady Godiva in all her natural glory. The
expression Peeping Tom comes from this version of the story - but it was
probably puritan propaganda desgined to blacken the reputation of the church
before the Reformation.
Chroniclers of the 11th and 12th Centuries mention Godiva as a
respectable religious woman of some beauty but do not allude to nude excursions
It has been suggested that Godiva may have been naked in the
sense that she was unadorned by jewels and the trappings of power. This seems
unlikely too, since the ride would still have been noteworthy, and the word
naked has no great record of being ambivalent. Look at Chaucer.
The academics' best guess is that some local church historian
may have borrowed from various aspects of folklore concerning fertility rites
which commonly feature ladies on horseback.
A tale was made up about the pious Lady Godiva in order to
attract pilgrims, and therefore, revenue, to Coventry. Others suggest the myth
may have been constructed to disguise pagan activities.
So who was this Notable Lady? A leader of social equality; a
true patroness of the arts; or the feverish imaginings of Rodger of Wendover?
Who knows. All I know is that, like her male counter part
Robin hood, she will live on in legend and her name will be synonymous with some
damn good chocolate.