The Origins of the Lady Godiva Legend

LADY Godiva is a real person. Her name was actually Godgifu, god’s gift, an Anglo-Saxon translation of Theodora and quite a popular name at the time, Godiva is the Latinized version. She was the wife of Leofric, who was Earl of Mercia under four Danish kings and died in 1057. The couple was known for their generosity towards religious houses. Their wedding date is not known, Godgifu might have been a second wife and still young when Leofric died.

The first surviving account of the legend itself is in the Flores Historiarum, a Latin chronicle begun in the late 12th century and continued until 1326. From about 1215 to 1236 it was maintained by Roger of Wendover, who related many events of his lifetime first-hand, including the signing of the Magna Carta. Otherwise the Flores are mostly a compilation of older sources, which must be true for the Godiva legend as well, which he records under the year 1057:

The Countess Godiva, who was a great lover of God’s mother, longing to free the town of Coventry from the oppression of a heavy toll, often with urgent prayers besought her husband that, from regard to Jesus Christ and his mother, he would free the town from that service and from all other heavy burdens; and when the Earl sharply rebuked her for foolishly asking what was so much to his damage, and always forbade her evermore to speak to him on the subject; and while she, on the other hand, with a woman’s pertinacity, never ceased to exasperate her husband on that matter, he at last made her this answer: “Mount your horse and ride naked, before all the people, through the market of this town from one end to the other, and on your return you shall have your request.”

On which Godiva replied, “But will you give me permission if I am willing to do it?”

“I will,” said he.

Whereupon the Countess, beloved of God, loosed her hair and let down her tresses, which covered the whole of her body like a veil, and then, mounting her horse and attended by two knights, she rode through the marketplace without being seen, except her fair legs, and having completed the journey, she returned with gladness to her astonished husband and obtained of him what she had asked, for Earl Leofric freed the town of Coventry and its inhabitants from the aforesaid service, and confirmed what he had done by a charter.

This is, of course, typical hagiography. The woman who is naked yet covered by her hair reminds of Saint Agnes and some versions of penitent Magdalene, Donatello’s for example. There is most certainly no historical merit in this story, though some actual events may have contributed to it. In 1040, two tax collectors of the greedy Harthacnut were killed in Worcester, and the King ordered Leofric and the other earls to burn and plunder the city. The association with high taxes and a certain grimness would thus be understandable.

It seems that the next rewrite of the story was by Richard Grafton, who was elected Member of Parliament for Coventry in 1562/63. He invented the detail that Godiva ordered the whole population inside and all shutters closed before she rode through town. Peeping Tom, however, is a later addition with no specific author.

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