Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Uncovering Lady Godiva

by Octavia Randolph

The first of a two part article.  This month we look at the “real” Lady Godiva.

NO other early Englishwoman has been remembered as long, or as provocatively, as Lady Godiva. The name instantly conjures an image of a woman on horseback, clad only in her hair. Whether depicted in a 15th century print or gracing a modern chocolate box, Godiva lives – and rides – on in our imaginations.

Lady Godiva (1867) by P Pargetter for Minton Pottery.
Godiva is the latinised form of the Old English name Godgyfu or Godgifu (literally, "God's gift" or "good gift"). Godgyfu was an 11th century Anglo-Saxon aristocrat whose life spanned one of the most tumultuous periods in early English history. Despite her illustrious husband, renowned piety, and religious benefactions, without the tantalising legend of her ride through the Midlands town of Coventry she would likely be completely forgotten.

What is known of Godgyfu is found in the chronicles of various religious foundations, mentions of her or her husband in charters, and the post-Conquest compilation known as the Domesday Book. The first positive record of her is in 1035, when she was already married to Leofric, Earl of Mercia. Her birth date is unknown. Similarly, the date of her ride through Coventry cannot be known, possibly it was linked to the dedication of the Priory she and Leofric built there in 1043.

Here I must also acknowledge that despite records dating to the late 12th century concerning her ride, there are some modern scholars who doubt that it ever took place. I am persuaded that it did.

To return to fact: Like other Anglo-Saxon women of her class, Godgyfu owned property in her own right, both given to her by her parents and acquired through other means - gifts from her husband, inheritance from relatives, and purchases and exchanges from individuals and religious foundations. The modest farming village of Coventry was one of them. The Domesday Book lists it, twenty years after her death, as having sixty-nine families.

It is not known why Godgyfu and Leofric turned their attention to Coventry, which after all, was a small and seemingly unremarkable farming community. As early as 1024 Bishop Æthelnoth (later to be Archbishop of Canterbury) gave to Leofric a priceless relic, the arm of St.Augustine of Hippo, which had been purchased by the bishop in Rome and which he apparently indicated was intended – we do not know why – for Coventry.

The response of Leofric and Godgyfu was to create a suitable sanctuary to house this exceptional relic. The lavishly decorated Benedictine Priory of St.Mary, St.Osburgh, and All Saints was dedicated by Archbishop of Canterbury Eadsige in 1043, on property owned by Godgyfu. Within was a shrine to St. Osburgh (a local holy woman who had earlier founded a nunnery in Coventry) which held her head encased in copper and gold. St.Augustine's arm took its place in a special shrine, and Godgyfu and Leofric also presented to the new Priory many ornaments of gold, silver and precious stones, so that it was famed for its richness. Leofric further endowed the Priory with estates in Warwickshire, Gloucestershire, Leicestershire, Northamptonshire, and Worcestershire.

Their religious endowments were many, restoring, enriching, or founding houses in Much Wenlock, Worcester, Evesham, Chester, Leominster, and Stow in Lincolnshire. This last, the Priory Church of St. Mary's Stow-in-Lindsey, is of particular interest as a significant portion of the beautiful and impressive extant church there issued from their hands. The earliest stonework in the church dates from 955; Godgyfu and Leofric greatly endowed and enriched it from 1053-55. The lofty crossing features four soaring rounded Saxon arches (which now enclose later pointed Norman arches built within the original Saxon arches). A 10th or 11th century graffito of an oared ship is scratched into the base of one of the Saxon arches, possibly a memento from a Danish raider who sailed up the nearby Trent.

The north transept houses a narrow, deep Saxon doorway of honey-coloured stone, which would originally have been lime-washed and over-painted with decorative designs. It likely led to a chapel in Godgyfu's day, and surely she passed through this very arch. To experience St. Mary's Stow, built just ten years after the dedication of the Coventry church, is to begin to imagine what the Priory Church of St. Mary, St Osburgh, and All Saints may have been like.

St. Mary's Stow-in-Lindsey, a 10th c church endowed by Godgyfu and Leofric in the mid-11th c. Note the three windows in the transept, shown below from the interior.

St. Mary's Stow-in-Lindsey.
Three windows, three ages.
The circular window is Saxon;
the very narrow round-headed
one beneath it is Norman; the larger
pointed one later Medieval.

St. Mary's Stow-in-Lindsey.
The crossing. The later, pointed Norman
arches were actually built within
the larger rounded Saxon ones.

St. Mary's Stow-in-Lindsey.
North transept. Narrow Saxon doorway
with your author inserted for scale.
St. Mary's Stow-in-Lindsey.
Ancient stone steps to tower.
Photos by Jonathan Gilman.

Leofric was a man of considerable talent and statesmanship; no man could survive forty years as Earl without these qualities. Elevated to Earl (a title and position new to the English, replacing and expanding the Anglo-Saxon ealdorman) in 1017 by the Dane Cnut, he survived and thrived through Cnut's reign. Then followed that of Harold Harefoot (1035-1040), in whose selection as successor to Cnut Leofric was instrumental. Hardacnut, Cnut's other son, reigned next (1040-1042), and then began Edward the Confessor's rule (1042-1066).

Unsurprisingly for his age, Leofric could alternate between great rapacity and great piety, his depredations and subsequent generous benefactions upon the town of Worcester being a case in point. In 1041, when Hardacnut was king, two of his tax collectors were murdered by an angry and over-taxed group of Worcester citizens.

 An act of this nature, upon the direct representatives of the king, was seen as almost an assault upon the king’s body itself. In reprisal Hardacnut ordered Leofric to lay waste to Worcester, which Leofric did with complete and horrifying efficiency, made perhaps even more reprehensible as Worcester was the cathedral city of his own people. Afterwards (and seemingly as personal reparation) Leofric bestowed many gifts of treasure and lands upon the religious foundation there, enough to ensure that his memory would be revered and not reviled.

He seems to have been successful in this. Near the end of his life Leofric experienced four religious visions which were carefully recorded by the monks at Worcester and published after his death in 1057. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle entry for 1057 noted, "...In this same year, on 30 October, Earl Leofric passed away. He was very wise in all matters, both religious and secular, that benefited all this nation. He was buried at Coventry, and his son Ælfgar succeeded to his authority..." (G.N. Garmonsway translation).

Following his death, Godgyfu made additional gifts to the religious foundation at Worcester to aid in the repose of Leofric's soul and for the benefit of her own. These gifts included altar frontals, wall hangings, bench covers, candlesticks, and a Bible, and joined a long list of items and estates the two had granted to Worcester in the years prior to Leofric's death.

Leofric and Godgyfu had one known child, the above-mentioned Ælfgar, who died in 1062. His daughter Ealdgyth was wed briefly first to a Welsh king and following his death, to Harold Godwineson, killed by William of Normandy's men on the field at Hastings. Thus for nine months Godgyfu was grandmother to the queen of England.

Godgyfu died in 1067, the year following Hastings. At her death she was one of the four or five richest women in England with estates valued at £160 of silver. Her lands were then forfeit to new king William.

Godgyfu was buried next to her husband in the Priory church in Coventry they had created. According to chronicler William of Malmesbury, her dying act was characteristically pious: as a final gift to the Priory, she ordered hung about the neck of a statue of the Virgin Mary her personal rosary of precious stones. (The church was alas, destroyed like so many others during the Reformation, the treasures looted and dispersed.)

Now that we have taken a look at the historical record concerning Godiva, next month we’ll examine the literary legend of her famous ride.


My short story about Lady Godiva, Ride, was published in Narrative Magazine, and has just been translated and published in Russia in The Translator. Ride is my attempt to re-frame her act in light of the realities of 11th century Anglo-Saxon law and social and religious custom. It is also my tribute to the efforts of women everywhere who seek peace over their own personal comfort.

Octavia Randolph is also author of The Circle of Ceridwen Trilogy, and Book One is available free all day July 24th and 25th. Please claim your copy! Click here for Amazon USA and click here for Amazon UK.


  1. Another great article. I enjoyed very much this biography of Lady Godiva. I also recommend without reservation Octavia's beautiful rendition of the famous lady's ride. Also, to the author, gracias mil for the gift of your book. It is now part of my Kindle PC library.

  2. Octavia's love for her subject shines through as she treads the stones where Lady Godiva once did, and makes the legendary figure flesh and blood.

  3. What a great post on this highly interesting historical character! I love how Octavia has brought to life the woman behind the legend... and what an interesting life it is!
    Very much enjoyed reading this. Fascinating stuff!!
    Thanks so much for sharing.


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