Wednesday, October 13, 2010

The Legend of Lady Godiva

To the north the citizens of Coventry, in the central England, were for centuries treated to a solemn reenactment of Lady Godiva’s ride through the town. Today tourists visit this site more out of respect for the myth than for historical accuracy, rarely asking whether this event happened at all
And who is Lady Godiva? According to the story, she was the matriarch of Coventry who rode naked through the town to save it from paying taxes. There are indeed records of a Godiva who married Leofric, the 11th century erl of Mercia. Leofric was required by King Edward the Confessor to raise the large tax from his populace in Coventry, and the distraught citizenry turned to the earl’s wife for help. Godiva begged her husband to lower the levies, and he responded by saying that he would do so after she rode through the town naked on a horse –probably a medieval version of “fat chance”.
Yet so dedicated was Godiva to the towns people that she took up her husband’s challenge, mounting  a horse and riding through town unclothed, her body cloaked by her flowing hair and the townsfolk staying respectfully indoors. Leofirc had little choice by to keep his word.



It is a moving legend, combining civic virtue with the slightest hint of prurient fascination. And it may very well be true. The story is first referred to in the chronicles of  13th century historian, Roger of Wendover, who relied on documentation since vanished. But there are plenty of historical records of a Godiva, who throughout their life showed an impressive dedication to the people of Coventry. She founded a Benedictine monastery in the city in 1043, which through her generosity became one of the richest in the land. Up until the 17th century, Coventry also boasted a number of tax exemptions, which some claim to have derived from Leofric’s concession.
This is not to say that the legend has not evolved through time. In the early 18th century, the tale included a tailor named Tom, who peeked through the shutters of his home at the naked Godiva and was struck blind – the origin of the phrase “peeping Tom”.