Christopher M. Cevasco, Author


Lady Godiva – the Naked Truth

Lady GodivaMention Lady Godiva, and the first thing most people think of is the line of chocolates bearing her name. Others may dimly recall something about her riding naked on the back of a horse. But who was Godiva, and why do we remember her at all?

In truth, very little is verifiably known about her. She was a wealthy, landowning woman of mid-11th-century Anglo-Saxon England, married to Leofric, the Earl of Mercia. Leofric effectively controlled most of central England in the name of the king and was one of the three major earls in power when Edward the Confessor’s ascension to the throne in 1042 ended nearly three decades of rule by conquering Danish kings (the other two earls were Godwine of Wessex and Siward of Northumbria). By all accounts, Godiva (Godgyfu in Old English) was highly respected, and she generously endowed the Church with her land and wealth. In particular she and Leofric are remembered for having founded a great abbey in the town of Coventry, which seems to have been their primary place of residence. Godiva’s grandsons, Edwin and Morcar, were earls at the time of the Norman Conquest, and her granddaughter Ealdgyth was Harold Godwineson’s queen when Harold fell at Hastings. Godiva outlived her husband by a decade and lived through the arrival of the Normans, dying in 1067, less than a year after William the Conqueror took Harold’s throne.

Had this been the sum total of Godiva’s legacy, impressive though it is, it seems unlikely chocolates would be named after her today. But a little more than 150 years after her death, the earliest surviving account of her legendary naked ride appeared in Flores Historiarum (Flowers of History), by chronicler and monk of St. Albans Abbey, Roger of Wendover. In this account, we are told:

The countess Godiva, who was a great lover of God’s mother, longing to free the town of Coventry from the oppression of a heavy toll, often with urgent prayers besought her husband, that from regard to Jesus Christ and his mother, he would free the town from that service, and from all other heavy burdens; and when the earl sharply rebuked her for foolishly asking what was so much to his damage, and always forbade her ever more to speak to him on the subject; and while she, on the other hand, with a woman’s pertinacity, never ceased to exasperate her husband on that matter, he at last made her this answer, “Mount your horse, and ride naked, before all the people, through the market of the town, from one end to the other, and on your return you shall have your request.” On which Godiva replied, “But will you give me permission, if I am willing to do it?” “I will,” said he. Whereupon the countess, beloved of God, loosed her hair and let down her tresses, which covered the whole of her body like a veil, and then mounting her horse and attended by two knights, she rode through the market-place, without being seen, except her fair legs; and having completed the journey, she returned with gladness to her astonished husband, and obtained of him what she had asked; for earl Leofric freed the town of Coventry and its inhabitants from the aforesaid service, and confirmed what he had done by a charter.

     – Roger of Wendover’s Flowers of History

The tale received further embellishments over the centuries, but it was not until 1678 that another equally famous figure was added to the mix. In this version, the people of Coventry, wishing to spare their noble and beloved Godiva any shame, hid themselves away indoors during her naked ride, shutters closed so that none would see her nakedness. Only one man, a tailor name Thomas, peeked out at her, and he was immediately struck blind (or in some versions dead) for his voyeuristic transgression. Thus did the concept of a Peeping Tom have its origins.

While it is possible Roger of Wendover had access to a now-lost antecedent text recounting some or all of the above, any such text, even if it existed, is likely to have been apocryphal.  The ride almost certainly never happened. First, it seems highly improbable a powerful and pious noblewoman of the time would have willingly engaged in such a scandalous act. Also, while there was indeed a rather contentious tax during Godiva’s lifetime, this was the national “heregeld” collected by the king to finance the military, so it was not a tax an earl could have unilaterally struck down. Even had the tax in question been some local tax, Lady Godiva owned the lands of Coventry in her own right, so it would have been up to her and not her husband to relieve Coventry’s people of the financial burden.

But far be it from me to deny the importance of the legendary ride, whether or not it actually happened. We remember Godiva today not in spite of her lurid objectification–noblewoman turned exhibitionist rider at whom Thomas lustfully peeps–but perhaps because of it. A beloved, pious, and noble figure such as Godiva, parading naked through the streets for all to see–propriety dictates the very idea of such a thing is scandalously distasteful. Adding Tom to the tale allows the reader to psychologically insulate him or herself from blame by viewing the ride through Tom’s eyes and then condemning Tom as a pervert for looking. In fact, we’re all peeping right along with him, a decadent pleasure akin to sneaking one too many chocolates…

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2 Responses »

  1. Just to say that this post is now up on the History Carnivalesque # 89:

    I very much enjoyed reading it, Judith

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