I was reading a novel by Mavis Cheek this week and there was a one line mention of Lady Godiva. It got my writing juices going and I did some research.
She is always known as the Lady who rode on her horse through the town of Coventry in England, with no clothes on! But is this true or is it myth and why did she do it? I will tell you the story and you can make up your own mind.
Godiva was born in 1040 and was probably known as the old English name of Godgifu or Godgyfu; Godiva is the later Latin name. She was married at a very early age to the Dane Leofric, known as the ‘grim’ Earl of Mercer and Lord of Coventry. He had been given all his lands by King Canute.
In 1043, the Earl and his Countess Godiva founded a Benedictine house for an abbot and 24 monks on the site of St. Osbury’s Nunnery, which had been destroyed by the Danes in1016. Earl Leofric, through this charter, also gained Lordship over 24 villages to create maintenance for the Benedictine house.
The Countess was a benevolent person and endowed the monastery with many gifts in honor of the Virgin Mary. It is said that she had all her gold and silver melted down to create the crosses, images of the Saints, and many other decorative pieces for the monastery.
Coventry, at this time, was quite a small settlement with just 69 families. Godiva wanted her town
to appreciate the arts, but this was extremely difficult for the townsfolk and the peasants of Coventry, as they were too busy trying to feed and clothe their families due to very high taxes. The arts were definitely not a priority! Godiva nagged her husband constantly to lower the taxes to improve the lives of her residents.
In the end, to put a stop to the nagging, Leofric told her that the Romans and the Greeks thought that the human body was symbolic of the perfection of nature and God’s work and if she rode through Coventry naked, he would lower the taxes.
So Lady Godiva took up the challenge. Her horror of doing it was exceeded by her compassion for her people. She ordered all her residents to stay inside on the allotted day and bar up their windows. At 7am, she set out on her horse with her long hair covering her, and rode through the town.
When she reached the other end of the town, the silence was broken by the cheers of the the townsfolk. It’s said that only one man, Tom, bore a hole to take a peek and was struck blind. (this is from where the term ‘Peeping Tom’ originated).
The Earl kept his word and abolished all the heavy taxes, just keeping taxes on the horses. He died in 1057 and was buried with great ceremony in one of the porches of the Abbey church. Godiva was only 17 years old when he died, so maybe she was a spirited lady! She died in 1070 and was buried nearby her husband.
The story of Lady Godiva riding through Coventry was not written down until nearly 100 years later by a man who was known for being politically biased and an exaggerator of facts. (Not unlike the tabloids of today!). But, true or not, it has not stopped many wonderful paintings and sculptures being created throughout the centuries of Lady Godiva, naked on her horse.
There is even chocolate named after her. Master chocolatier (what a lovely word), Joseph Draps founded a chocolate company in 1926 in Brussels, Belgium. His chocolate was rich in taste and design and Joseph wanted a name to match his product. Even now, it is still sold all around the world, so her name lives on.
In Coventry in early June, the legend of Lady Godiva is recreated and a ‘Naked Lady’ rides the
same route that Lady Godiva rode many hundreds of years before.
Whether true or myth, the legend has managed to stay with us. Maybe we like to believe that there once was a Lady who took up a challenge to improve the life of her people, however daring!
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