The Naked Truth on Lady Godiva and Her Nude Ride to Help the Poor
Lady Godiva was an English noblewoman who lived during the 11th century AD. Although she belonged to the upper class, she had a reputation for being sympathetic towards the less fortunate and was known to have been a charitable person. It was due to her concern for the poor that the most famous legend about Lady Godiva arose. As a matter of fact, it is due to this legend, in which the noblewoman rode through the town on horseback completely naked, that Lady Godiva lives in our memories till this day.
Who was Lady Godiva?
‘Godiva’ is said to be the Latinized form of the Old English name ‘Godgyfu’ or ‘Godgifu’, which may be translated literally to mean ‘God’s gift’ or ‘good gift’. Little is known about the early life of Lady Godiva – when and where she was born, who her parents were, etc.
In fact, the historical Lady Godiva survived in the records thanks to her husband, Leofric, the Earl of Mercia. Leofric was one of the most powerful English noblemen who lived during the 11th century. When the English king, Cnut, died in 1035, Leofric was a supporter of Harold I, known also as Harold Harefoot, who became the king of England. In 1051, it was thanks to Leofric that civil war was avoided, as the earl was able to resolve the conflict between King Edward the Confessor and Earl Godwin of Gloucester before the two sides met each other in battle.
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Leofric is also remembered for being a benefactor of religious houses. It is in such records that Lady Godiva is mentioned along with her husband. For example, according to the chronicler John of Worchester,
Among his other good deeds in this life, he and his wife, the noble countess Godgiva, who was a devout worshipper of God, and one who loved the ever-virgin St. Mary, entirely constructed at their own cost the monastery there [Coventry], well endowed it with land, and enriched it with ornaments to such an extent, that no monastery could be then found in England possessing so much gold, silver, jewels, and precious stones.
Page from a 13th century Abbreviatio (abridgement) of Domesday Book. Above King Edward the Confessor and Earl Leofric of Mercia see the face of Christ appear in the Eucharist wafer and below the return of a ring given to a beggar who was John the Baptist in disguise. ( The Commons )
The First Account of the Famous Lady Godiva Story
The chronicler, however, does not mention Lady Godiva’s famous ride. As a matter of fact, the earliest known version of the story is found in the Chronica of Roger of Wendover (a monk at St. Albans Abbey ), which dates to the 13th century. Under the year 1057 AD (the year of Leofric’s death), the chronicler wrote that the earl had levied heavy taxes on the people of Coventry. Lady Godiva had often urged her husband to stop taxing the townspeople, so as to ease their burdens, though to no avail.
Leofric rebuked his wife time and again, but Lady Godiva did not give up. Eventually, the earl agreed to grant Lady Godiva’s request, on the condition that she rode through the town on her horse, naked. She agreed to do so and asked for her husband’s permission, which was granted.
‘Lady Godiva ’ (1892) by Edmund Blair Leighton. ( Public Domain )
Lady Godiva took off her clothes, covered her whole body with her long hair, and mounted her horse. Accompanied by two knights, Lady Godiva rode through the town. Leofric kept his promise and the people of Coventry were no longer required to pay taxes to the earl.
‘Lady Godiva’ (1850) by Marshall Claxton. ( Public Domain )
A Peeping Tom Subplot
Several different versions of the story emerged as time went by. The most famous of these is the one with the ‘Peeping Tom’ subplot, which was added during the 17th century. In this version of the tale, Lady Godiva requested the people of Coventry to remain indoors and to not peek at her as she rode through the town, so as to protect her modesty.
The townspeople did as she requested, except for a man by the name of Thomas, who could not resist, and peeked as Lady Godiva. In most accounts, he was struck blind or dead as he looked out of his window. It is due to this anecdote that a voyeur may also be referred to as a ‘Peeping Tom’.
Drawing of Peeping Tom's wooden statue in Conventry by W.Reader (published 1826). ( Public Domain )
But Did the Famous Ride Even Happen?
Some scholars have argued that Lady Godiva’s ride was a fabrication. Mostly they base the claim on the lapse in time between when it was said to have taken place and when the first known account of the story appears. Those researchers say that the naked ride would have reached the chronicles of Lady Godiva’s day.
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There is also a debate on whether the reason behind the supposed ride makes any sense. Lady Godiva is said to have had power, wealth, and land of her own. It has even been said that she would have been the one in charge of the taxes of the land, not her husband. When Lady Godiva was alive, she would have had the right to divorce her supposedly cruel husband and hold on to the property and wealth she had inherited.
Lady Godiva statue at Broadgate, Coventry in October 2011. (Cmglee/ CC BY SA 3.0 )
So, if she did take her naked ride, there are some who say that it would have been more likely to have taken place as a form of religious penance (remember she was a rather devout religious woman), probably not to try to lower peasants’ taxes. That charitable version of the story fits better with the times in which the story first appears in written records (a time around when Robin Hood also appears).
Top image: ‘Lady Godiva’ (1898) by John Collier. Source: Public Domain
Updated on January 8, 2021.
Andrews, E., 2014. Who was Lady Godiva?. [Online]
Available at: https://www.history.com/news/who-was-lady-godiva
Coe, C., 2003. Lady Godiva: The Naked Truth. [Online]
Available at: https://harvardmagazine.com/2003/07/lady-godiva-the-naked-tr.html
penelope.uchicago.edu, 2018. Lady Godiva (Godgifu). [Online]
Available at: http://penelope.uchicago.edu/~grout/encyclopaedia_romana/britannia/anglo-saxon/flowers/godiva.html
The BBC, 2014. An Anglo-Saxon Tale: Lady Godiva. [Online]
Available at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/ancient/anglo_saxons/godiva_01.shtml
The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2013. Lady Godiva. [Online]
Available at: https://www.britannica.com/biography/Lady-Godiva