We know Lady Godiva existed. Her name Godiva written in Old English as Godgifu, meaning ‘gift of God’ can be found in charters and church records. Although some care must be taken as Godgifu was a popular name there are contemporaries who had the same name. She was born around 990 AD. Whilst we do not have the names of her parents, we know she was of noble rank, as she held lands in Coventry, Warwickshire, Ansty and Madeley in her own right. Despite this being allowed under Anglo-Saxon Law, it was unsal for women of the time, making her the first woman mentioned in Domesday Book. The Liber Eliensis, written at Ely Abbey towards the end of the 12th century, writes that Lady Godiva was a widow before her marriage to Leofric, the Earl of Mercia and Lord of Coventry, sometime before 1010.
Further proof that Lady Godiva existed can be found in the records of the gifts she gave to the church, these also demonstrate her kind and pious nature. Including donations of money and land to many religious houses across the country. It was said that she and Leofric gave so many jewels and holy relics to the monastery in Coventry, that “…the very walls seemed too narrow for all this treasure.” Some believe that Leofric was converted to religion by his wife after her naked ride, although this, and much of what we know of Leofric is open to interpretation.
Leofric, was made Earl of Mercia by King Cnut, who according to the Chronicle of Crowland Abbey “…held him in great affection.” He was one of the three great Earls of the 11th century who took an active role in public affairs. As myth has blended with history, there are differing views on Leofric and his character. Some suggest he was a tyrant, who “…tyrannised the Church and did not hold the same religious convictions as his wife, nor her fondness for the Midlands and its populace.” Whilst others believe that the label of tyrant was given to him to add to the Lady Godiva legend and consider him a “…a wise and religious figure…” The latter seems more likely as there are no contemporary sources that record him as being cruel, but many accounts of his political savvy, such as his ability to prevent civil war by acting as mediator between Edward the Confessor and Earl Godwine in 1051. It is also said he showed generosity towards the church, beyond that of other Lords of the time.
Fact of fiction?
The story goes that King Harthacnut levied an unpopular tax on the people and Leofric made sure his people paid it, and in 1041, he was involved, perhaps reluctantly, in the pillage and destruction of Worcester, after the people killed a royal tax collector. This heavy taxation caused the people of Coventry distress and upon witnessing this Lady Godiva wanted to ease their burden and here is where the monk Roger of Wendover’s story picks up:
“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 Flores Historiarum.
It’s said after Lady Godiva completed her ride, Leofric was not only true to his word and scrapped the tax, but also underwent a ‘religious conversion’ after which the two made many gifts to the church. In the 1040s they paid for a church in Coventry, thought to have been on the site of an earlier building which had been destroyed by the Danes in 1016. They also funded a Benedictine monastery in Coventry where they were both buried, sadly, nothing of the monastery remains today.
Leofric died in 1057, Godiva outlived her husband, there’s no clear date for her death just that it was sometime between the Norman Conquest, in 1066 and the taking of the Domesday Survey in 1086. It’s said that on her deathbed, Godiva gave her personal rosary to the church, which became a major centre of pilgrimage in the early Middle Ages.
Is the story true?
We know both Leofric and Lady Godiva were important figures of their time, yet there are no contemporary references to the event, which we Gemma Hollman writes, “If we consider that Anglo-Saxon chroniclers were avidly recording every morsel of news that came their way, it is highly suspicious that not a single one wrote about the naked ride of one of the most important women in England.”
Indeed, the first account of the story comes around a 100 years after Lady Godiva’s death. It appears in the book Flores Historiarum written by the English monk, Roger of Wendover in the 13th century. Roger was a monk at St Alban’s Abbey, his credibility is questioned by historians as he is known to have exaggerated details in his accounts to make them more interesting.
However, there is an argument that just because Wenover was the first to write it down, it does not mean it did not happen. The argument claims that although contempries did not create a written record of the ride it was remembered and shared via oral stories, and this was how he came to hear it. Furthermore, this argument suggests that the story had too many “particular details” to be a figment of Roger’s imagination. Another version of how Wendover came to know the story was provided by Richard Grafton, a chronicler from the 1560s. He suggested that the story was recorded in a lost chronicle written by the prior of Covernerty monastery sometime between 1216 and 1235 and this was where Wendover first encountered the story.
Although the first to record the story, Wenover was not the last and it underwent a change in the sixteenth century when the character of ‘Peeping Tom’ was added. This new version stated that before undertaking her ride, Godiva sent out a message to the people of the town, telling them to stay indoors with their windows shuttered. A request they complied with as Godiva was a popular figure. However, one person a tailor named Tom, could not resist and snuck out to watch, and was,“…blinded by the wrath of Heaven’ for his temerity in not obeying the order.”
The annual Coventry Fair kept Godiva’s story alive until the Reformation when the festival was banned. It was revived in 1678, when the story changed once more, this version tells that, “Godiva rode through the streets on a snow-white horse, accompanied by a man whose chief skill lay in his ability to make rude, suggestive gestures. Peeping Tom again.”
Lady Godiva’s story continues to be told and has been written in songs and in verse by the likes of Alfred, Lord Tennyson, who wrote a famous poem called “Godiva” in 1840. She even gets a mention in the Queen song ‘Don’t Stop Me Now’ which was released in 1978.
Another argument which supports the ride being a figment of myth is put forward by Gemma Hollman. Hollman argues that it was Godiva, not Leofric, was the overlord of Coventry, and as she held the city in her own right, she was responsible for the city’s taxation, not her husband. Which means, “…if she wished to have their taxes reduced, she could do so herself.” Meaning there would have been no need for her to make her now famous ride.
Furthermore, at the time the ride was alleged to have taken place, Coventry was not a significant town, the Domesday Book recorded 69 families living in the town and one monastery. With such a small population, Coventry might not have had a marketplace for Godiva to ride through. Lastly, the only tax levied on the people of Coventry at the time was on a reasonable toll on horses, and as such it would seem there was no need for Godiva to make her ride.
If the Lady Godiva did not ride through the marketplace, where did the story come from? Some sources suggest the Celtic goddess Epona, who was associated with horses and fertility, and accounts of fertility ceremonies in which a woman would ride naked or dressed in nothing but a sheer shift were the inspiration for the story.
The story of Lady Godiva and her naked horse ride has endured from the Middle Ages and continues to amuse and intrigue audiences today. Whilst I believe it is likely the ride never actually happened, I still believe Lady Godiva’s story should be known, because when the myth is stripped away, we are left with a powerful woman, who was smart, kind and generous and that should be enough to make her worth remembering and celebrating.
So, did it really happen? Let us know what you think in the comments below or on social media.
Myth and Legends of Britain and Ireland. By Richard Jones.