Friday, September 9, 2016

Godiva: Her Literary Legend

by Octavia Randolph

Here we looked at the historical record concerning Lady Godiva, the 11th century noblewoman Godgyfu of Mercia.

Maureen O’Hara as Godgyfu: read on to see why I think this image is the closest to the truth…

IN the first of these two essays I stated that I was convinced that Godgyfu had in fact enacted her famous ride. Now we will examine the way her ride has been remembered through the ages in poetry, prose, and visual art, and then look at why she may have performed such an extraordinary act, what it meant, and how that meaning has been perverted over time.

Over the centuries the story of Godgyfu's ride has enjoyed a life of its own. This is the oldest surviving account of it:
The Countess Godiva devoutly anxious to free the city of Coventry from a grievous and base thralldom often besought the Count, her husband, that he would for love of the Holy Trinity and the sacred Mother of God liberate it from such servitude. But he rebuked her for vainly demanding a thing so injurious to himself and forbade her to move further therein. Yet she, out of her womanly pertinacity, continued to press the matter insomuch that she obtained this answer from him: “Ascend,” he said, “thy horse naked and pass thus through the city from one end to the other in sight of the people and on thy return thou shalt obtain thy request.” Upon which she returned: “And should I be willing to do this, wilt thou give me leave?” “I will,” he responded. Then the Countess Godiva, beloved of God, ascended her horse, naked, loosing her long hair which clothed her entire body except her snow white legs, and having performed the journey, seen by none, returned with joy to her husband who, regarding it as a miracle, thereupon granted Coventry a Charter, confirming it with his seal.

--from the Flores Historiarum by Roger of Wendover (d. 1236), translated from the Latin by Matthew of Westminster c 1300-1320
Later chroniclers embellished and expanded upon the legend:
But Gaufride sayth that this gentle and good Lady did not onely for the freeing of the said Citie and satisfying of her husbands pleasure, graunt vnto her sayde Husband to ryde as aforesayde: But also called in secret manner (by such as she put speciall trust in) all those that then were Magistrates and rulers of the said Citie of Couentrie, and vttered vnto them what good will she bare vnto the sayde Citie, and how shee had moued the Erle her husband to make the same free, the which vpon such condition as is afore mencioned, the sayde Erle graunted vnto her, which the sayde Lady was well contented to doe, requiring of them for the reuerence of womanhed, that at that day and tyme that she should ride (which was made certaine vnto them) that streight commaundement should be geuen throughout all the City, that euerie person should shut in their houses and Wyndowes, and none so hardy to looke out into the streetes, nor remayne in the stretes, vpon a very great paine, so that when the tyme came of her out ryding none sawe her, but her husbande and such as were present with him, and she and her Gentlewoman to wayte vpon her galoped through the Towne, where the people might here the treading of their Horsse, but they saw her not, and so she returned to her Husbande from the place from whence she came, her honestie saued, her purpose obteyned, her wisdome much commended, and her husbands imagination vtterly disappointed. And shortly after her returne, when shee had arayed and apparelled her selfe in most comely and seemly manner, then shee shewed her selfe openly to the peuple of the Citie of Couentrie, to the great joy and maruellous reioysing of all the Citizens and inhabitants of the same, who by her had receyued so great a benefite.

--from the account of Richard Grafton (d.1572) M.P. for Coventry
 The introduction of the voyeur famously to be known as Peeping Tom is even more recent, 17th century embroidery:
...In the Forenoone all householders were Commanded to keep in their Families shutting their doores & Windows close whilest the Duchess performed this good deed, which done she rode naked through the midst of the Towne, without any other Coverture save only her hair. But about the midst of the Citty her horse neighed, whereat one desirous to see the strange Case lett downe a Window, & looked out, for which fact, or for that the horse did neigh, as the cause thereof. Though all the Towne were Franchised, yet horses were not toll-free to this day.

--from the account of Humphrey Wanley (1672-1726)
It was left to Alfred, Lord Tennyson in 1842 to codify the tale into the form in which it became known around the world.


I waited for the train at Coventry;
I hung with grooms and porters on the bridge,
To watch the three tall spires; and there I shaped
The city's ancient legend into this:-
Not only we, the latest seed of Time,
New men, that in the flying of a wheel
Cry down the past, not only we, that prate
Of rights and wrongs, have loved the people well,
And loathed to see them overtax'd; but she
Did more, and underwent, and overcame,
The woman of a thousand summers back,
Godiva, wife to that grim Earl, who ruled
In Coventry: for when he laid a tax
Upon his town, and all the mothers brought
Their children, clamouring, 'If we pay, we starve!'
She sought her lord, and found him, where he strode
About the hall, among his dogs, alone,
His beard a foot before him and his hair
A yard behind. She told him of their tears,
And pray'd him, 'If they pay this tax, they starve.'
Whereat he stared, replying, half-amazed,
'You would not let your little finger ache
For such as these?' - 'But I would die', said she.
He laugh'd, and swore by Peter and by Paul;
Then fillip'd at the diamond in her ear;
'Oh ay, ay, ay, you talk!' -'Alas!' she said,
'But prove me what I would not do.'
And from a heart as rough as Esau's hand,
He answer'd, 'Ride you naked thro' the town,
And I repeal it;' and nodding, as in scorn,
He parted, with great strides among his dogs.
So left alone, the passions of her mind,
As winds from all the compass shift and blow,
Made war upon each other for an hour,
Till pity won. She sent a herald forth,
And bade him cry, with sound of trumpet, all
The hard condition; but that she would loose
The people: therefore, as they loved her well,
From then till noon no foot should pace the street,
No eye look down, she passing; but that all
Should keep within, door shut, and window barr'd.
Then fled she to her inmost bower, and there
Unclasp'd the wedded eagles of her belt,
The grim Earl's gift; but ever at a breath
She linger'd, looking like a summer moon
Half-dipt in cloud: anon she shook her head,
And shower'd the rippled ringlets to her knee;
Unclad herself in haste; adown the stair
Stole on; and, like a creeping sunbeam, slid
From piller unto pillar, until she reach'd
The Gateway, there she found her palfrey trapt
In purple blazon'd with armorial gold.
Then she rode forth, clothed on with chastity:
The deep air listen'd round her as she rode,
And all the low wind hardly breathed for fear.
The little wide-mouth'd heads upon the spout
Had cunning eyes to see: the barking cur
Made her cheek flame; her palfrey's foot-fall shot
Light horrors thro' her pulses; the blind walls
Were full of chinks and holes; and overhead
Fantastic gables, crowding, stared: but she
Not less thro' all bore up, till, last, she saw
The white-flower'd elder-thicket from the field,
Gleam thro' the Gothic archway in the wall.
Then she rode back, clothed on with chasity;
And one low churl, compact of thankless earth,
The fatal byword of all years to come,
Boring a little auger-hole in fear,
Peep'd - but his eyes, before they had their will,
Were shrivell'd into darkness in his head,
And dropt before him. So the Powers, who wait
On noble deeds, cancell'd a sense misused;
And she, that knew not, pass'd: and all at once,
With twelve great shocks of sound, the shameless noon
Was clash'd and hammer'd from a hundred towers,
One after one: but even then she gain'd
Her bower; whence reissuing, robed and crown'd,
To meet her lord, she took the tax away
And built herself an everlasting name.

Oh, the everlasting shame!
19th century sculpture by John Thomas, Maidstone Museum, Kent.

All of these accounts ignore important facts and are fraught with inconsistency and illogic. Coventry at the time of the ride is depicted not as a small village but as teeming metropolis (recall that twenty years after Godgyfu's death it had less than seventy families). There is no corroborating evidence to suggest that Leofric warranted the reputation of a husband who would order his virtuous wife to parade naked through town in an attempt to humiliate her at worst, or at best to prove the sincerity of her compassionate leanings. On the contrary, the long record of the joint benefactions of Godgyfu and Leofric indicate that theirs was a marriage of more or less equal tastes and aims.

Divorce was far from uncommon amongst Anglo-Saxon aristocracy; if Godgyfu had found herself in an untenable marital situation the union could have been speedily dissolved, with her retaining all the property she had brought into the marriage and custody of any minor children. Thus separation from a husband who exhibited abusive behaviour could be accomplished without undue economic hardship upon the departing wife.

But by far the most vital fact ignored in these retellings is that Godgyfu possessed the village of Coventry outright. She need not ask Leofric or anyone else to suspend or repeal any tax or toll upon it, as she controlled the collection of these herself. The sole exception was the heregeld, an onerous levy instituted by Cnut to pay for the king's personal body-guard. Until revoked by Edward the Confessor in 1051, it was a national tax, required of all. Godgyfu would not have been able to suspend it – but she certainly could have paid it from her own purse.

The reason for this persistent misrepresentation is simple, but profound in its implications to the unfolding of the tale. Because Anglo-Saxon woman -- indeed all women in England -- had by the time of even the earliest extant retelling lost the extensive property (and other personal and legal) rights they had enjoyed prior to the disaster of 1066, chroniclers wrote from the perspective of Norman law and mores.

As the tale became sentimentalized and ever-more erotically charged, the victimization of Godgyfu became paramount – she must become a virtuous victim, compelled by an unfeeling husband to perform (in the chronicler's eyes) a humiliating act, in a Coventry subjected, as was she, to his utter domination. There is no room in these later recountings for a woman of independence and intelligence, acting out of deep-seated devotion, and inspired by well-remembered (and in some instances, still enacted) pre-Christian agricultural rituals and Biblical acts of religious dedication and contrition.

I believe her ride was performed as an act of religious devotion and contrition, and that it was inspired by examples of both heathen and Christian ritual, including sacred nakedness. The devotion was rooted in her real and demonstrable piety and her many benefactions (some of them jointly made with Leofric) to various religious foundations, including building a stone church in Coventry, which they enriched with a shrine to a local martyr, the nun Osburgh, who had been killed in a Danish raid in Godgyfu's lifetime. The extraordinary relic of the arm of St Augustine of Hippo was also given a home in that church.

We forget how close to the bone our heathen background was back then; there was a tremendously rich mixing of heathen ritual and magic combined with Christian worship. One well-known ritual, preserved in the British Library, is called in Old English Æcerbot, or Field Remedy. It is a heady combination of patently heathen practice (herb craft, charms, magical signing, the calling out to Mother Earth) and Christian ritual (the Latin Mass, participation of a priest) and is typical of the Anglo-Saxon era. For examples of sacred nakedness, the ritual bathing of the Old Saxon Earth Goddess Nerthus, responsible for all fruitfulness, was recorded by the Roman historian Tacitus, and on the Christian side there were many, many depictions of the repentant Mary Magdalen and St. Mary of Egypt, clothed only in their hair.

Her ride could also represent an act of referred contrition, as a particular response to her husband's destruction of Worcester. You will recall that Worcester was actually Leofric's own property, but that at Hardacnut’s order following the killing of two tax collectors there Leofric carried out a complete harrowing of the town. He simply destroyed it, even the church, and left not one grain barn standing.

So if Godgyfu relieved the residents of Coventry by paying the heregeld tax from her own purse, and then followed it with a miniature pilgrimage on horseback to the site where a revered holy woman, Osburgh, had been martyred – a site where she would soon build an impressive stone church, laden with treasure – these acts would have been remarkable enough to ensure her memory be preserved in the tiny and heretofore unimportant hamlet of Coventry.

Despite – or because of – the perverting of the tale, it grew. But however obscured, its underpinnings remain sound. As Joan C. Lancaster, former City Historian of the City of Coventry, states in her definitive study, Godiva of Coventry, the legend was predicated on a
"genuine local tradition known to the Coventry people in the 12th century...It was based on memory of her piety and her share in atoning for her husband's sins, and also the removal of the heregeld when she was ruling over them."

It is this Godgyfu I choose to celebrate and honour.

An unashamed Godgyfu
Scultpure by Sir William Reid Dick, 1949 in Broadgate, Coventry

Selected Bibliography

Godiva of Coventry, Joan C. Lancaster, Coventry Corporation, 1967

Lady Godiva: Images of a Legend in Art & Society, Ronald Aquilla Clarke and Patrick A.E. Day, City of Coventry, 1982 (pamphlet)

Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, G. N. Garmonsway, trans., J.M. Dent & Sons, 1975

Domesday Book, Thomas Hinde, editor, Coombe Books, 1996

The Beginnings of English Society, Dorothy Whitelock, Penguin, 1974

This post was originally published on Sunday, August 25, 2013.


My novella about Lady Godiva, 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 best selling five volume Circle of Ceridwen Saga, set in 9th century England and Scandinavia.


  1. Great post! It may interest you to know that in the 1830's, Lady Godiva appeared nightly in London thanks to Madame Warton, whose personation -- presented as a 'tableau vivant' -- could be seen at her "Walhalla" exhibition room, located in Savile House in Leicester-Square. It was, apparently something like an earlier version of the Windmill Theatre! I have a handbill online here.

  2. Russell, that is fascinating - I have read about Tableaux Vivant - with those lovely bodies smeared with liquid chaulk for propriety's sake - Obviously Lady G would be a perfect subject. Your handbill is most handsome and I thank you for providing a link to it!

  3. Very interesting personage! Thanks for the history lesson on her. It's amazing what "tales and stories" will add on top of a real even to turn it into a legend worthy of their respective audiences!
    the reach and scope of history is a fascinating thing, and certainly beyond any of us now to know for certain; but it is so much fun to delve into and try to glean little bits and pieces of "nearer truth" than is commonly passed around!
    Thanks for sharing!
    Elizabeth Kaiser

    1. Elizabeth, thank you. I believe one of noblest goals of Historical Fiction is to help solve mysteries - to try and take the "historic facts" as received and attempt to answer lingering questions about actions and their motivations. This might, as you so well put it, bring us closer to that "nearer truth"...

  4. Octavia,

    Thanks for another wonderful post. It is wonderful to see the clouds of time parted and have some light shone on what is widely misunderstood today, due in part to fictional retelling. To me it points out the need for authors, poets, and playwrights to handle history with care. Surely stories can be written without purposefully changing the known facts, at least in the hope that these remaining facts can be spared for the future.

  5. Beautifully stated, Debra. I think we DO have a responsibility not to muddy the waters willfully, or mindlessly, in pursuit of our craft. Truth is nearly always more marvellous, more startling, than any made up confection ever could be...

  6. Altogether a wonderful set of essays on Godiva. The "legend" is a perfect example of history written by the victors. We are much better informed today.

  7. Everyone has heard of Lady Godiva, but it's wonderful when someone looks deeper into history we believe we know...thanks!


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