David Gee (1793–1872) was a Coventry artist who seems to have painted mainly local sights and events. This picture shows the Lady Godiva Procession of 1829.

Tennyson’s poem certainly changed the reception of the Lady Godiva legend. The 1842 two-volume edition of his poems, in which it was first printed, was an immediate success. In 1850 he became Poet Laureate. Queen Victoria was an ardent admirer of his work. What had previously just been the founding legend of a local custom of dubious value (the Godiva Processions were often criticized by clergymen for their ribaldry) had now a quasi-official seal of approval as a national tradition.

This statuette was made by William Behnes, Sculptor in Ordinary to Queen Victoria. It was exhibited at the Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of all Nations in London 1851 and now sits atop the mantlepiece in the Old Mayoress’s Parlour of St Mary’s Guildhall, Coventry. The creation date is given as around 1844. If this is true, then it was probably the first depiction of Lady Godiva based on Tennyson’s poem.

Alfred, Lord Tennyson: Godiva

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:

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After less than hundred years, Adam van Noort’s Godiva painting was in such bad shape that the City of Coventry ordered a copy. This copy was made by a local artist known only as Mr. Ellis the Limner, of whom no original works are known.

The copy lacks the face in the window, but Peeping Tom had, only recently, become a fixed part of the legend. In 1634, three soldiers from Norwich visited Coventry and recorded the legend, as it was told them, in a journal. This account contains a reference to a possible onlooker that is so vague that it could be detected only in hindsight. It consists only of two lines probably from a lost ballad:

Her fayre long hayre did much offend
The wantons glancing Eye.

This might actually be from a ballad that was based on the older account by Roger of Wendover and his unknown source, before the changes by Richard Grafton, when Godiva still rode through the crowded market, but was covered by her hair. But in 1659, there was already a wooden statue of a man looking out of a window, and a traveler was told that this was the man who looked out of that window at Godiva, and for that he was stricken dead. Later on, the supernatural punishment would be reduced to blinding.

Coventry held an annual fair since 1218 that started on Trinity Sunday (the first Sunday after Pentecost) and lasted a whole week. From 1678 on, this fair was opened by the Godiva Procession. The Godiva business was blooming, but it was still a local custom that would scarcely be known to anyone who had not visited Coventry.

Thomas Deloney: How Couentry was made free

LEofricus, that Noble Earle
Of Chester, as I reade,
Did for the City of Couentry,
Many a noble deed.
Great priuiledges for the towne.
This Nobleman did get,

And of all things did make it so,
That they tole-free did sit:
Saue onley that for horses still,
They did some custome pay,
Which was great charges to the towne,
Full long and many a day.

Wherefore his wife, Godiva faire,
Did of the Earl request,
That therefore he would make it free,
As well as all the rest.
So when the Lady long had sued,
Her purpose to obtaine:

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This is the first ever painting of the Lady Godiva legend. It was commissioned by the City of Coventry in 1586 and executed by Flemish painter Adam van Noort, a refugee at the time. It follows the Richard Grafton version of the legend, the town is empty and the covering hair has been omitted. During festivals it was displayed outside at the Coventry Cross, so after less than a hundred years it was in such a bad shape that the city ordered a copy to be made, which now hangs in St Mary’s Guildhall. The original, restored in 1976, is found in The Herbert Art Gallery & Museum.

In the top right window, a bearded face is discernible. Most likely supposed to be Leofric, the curators of The Herbert think that it caused the character of Peeping Tom to be woven into the legend. This character is first traceable fifty years and fully fleshed out a hundred years after the painting was made.

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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.

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And now, for something completely different. I noticed that there are only very few paintings based on the Lady Godiva legend, which at first glance seems strange, since artists otherwise rarely shun a good excuse to paint a naked woman. But Lady Godiva’s ride was for the longest time just a local tradition of Coventry, little known elsewhere. I’ll explore its development in the next couple of posts.

As a sort of overture, here an excerpt from the 1955 Hollywood movie Lady Godiva of Coventry, showing the famous ride. The movie puts the ride in a completely different context, which however fits the historic Leofric well, but has all the elements of the legend as it exists since the mid 17th century, except that the blinding of Peeping Tom is due to natural causes here.