Did the real Lady Godiva actually ride through Coventry naked is a question that we have all been asking for centuries. If it is true, it may be the most famous public act of nudity in recorded history. I have some personal doubts that it did really happen, particularly because accounts of her famous ride didn’t appear until some two hundred years after her death. Nevertheless, we will get to the detail of her famous ride shortly, but lets see what we first know about this enigmatic women.
The real Lady Godiva was born in the early to mid eleventh century. Some historians place her birth at about 1040 AD, but we cannot be sure. Very little, if nothing at all, is known about her childhood and upbringing. The first that we hear about her (and correct me if I am wrong) is from the Flores Historiarum by Roger of Wendover in the twelfth century and again later in the early thirteenth century by Mathew Paris. The general consensus is that Godiva and her husband Leofric, Earl of Mercia were both respectable people and also quite religious. Being of such good nature both gave generously to the Church and in 1043, founded and payed for a monastery at Coventry.
This is where the story gets a little murky. Leofric was according to some sources a tyrant. He apparently at first, did not hold the same religious belief as his wife, nor her good nature towards the townsfolk of Coventry and would repeatedly victimize, both the church and the people of Coventry. His greatest act of cruelty was evidently to install a tax called the Heregeld upon the poor people of Coventry. It is here that the legend of Lady Godiva is born, when out of pity for the town she pleads with her husband to put an end to the harsh tax. The Earl was alleged to have said that she would have to ride naked through the town before he ever even entertained such a request.
Just the same, Lady Godiva took him at his word, mounted one of their horses and only veiled by her long hair rode naked through the town. The Earl was so stunned by her act and equally amazed that no one had seen his wife’s body, that he immediately ceased the tax. Legend states that the people of Coventry didn’t dare watch her ride through town, fearing that if they did, they would be punished. (It is here that the saying of ‘peeping tom’ was also born. ‘Tom’ was apparently the only one couldn’t help himself and took a sneak peek at the gorgeous Lady Godiva riding across town through his window.) It is here also following her brave heroic act that the Earl welcomed the Church wholeheartedly into his life, henceforth endowing the Church with great gifts.
What we make of the story is entirely up to the reader. Some argue that is untrue. Why would a lady of such great standing do something so astonishing in the middle of the eleventh century, especially since she was so pious? Maybe extraordinary events, required extraordinary acts!
The header image is Lady Godiva painted by John Collier, circa 1897.