The popular legend of how Lady Godiva rode naked on horse back through the streets of Coventry to save the people from a crippling and unjust tax known as the Heregild, is one of the most renowned stories in British folklore. The Heregild was a tax imposed on the English by the Danish King Canute to pay for his body guard.
According to the legend the event happened on a market day and had profoundly beneficial consequences for the people of Coventry.
The problem with legends is that there are often more than one versions of the same story and events that happened in the distant past get changed and exaggerated until it is difficult to discern the accuracy of accounts. This article presents a version of the popular legend of Lady Godiva as it exists today and has been put together from a number of other versions. It is the first of a planned series on the subject each of which will present different view points on the legend, such as the historical and pagan contexts of the story.
The Heregild Tax
Earl Leofric was a powerful lord loyal to King Canute and owed his position to his goodwill. As such he was not prepared to risk losing that goodwill. He strictly imposed the Heregild on the people and made sure it was collected
Lady Godiva was also rich and owned valuable land and assets in her own right in the area and was very fond of the local people. One of those assets was the town of Coventry. She was a devout Christian and was renowned for being pious, virtuous and faithful to the Christian Church and its ideals. In comparison, it was said that Leofric, although thought to be a Christian, did not hold quite the same religious convictions as his wife.
Lady Godiva could see the suffering it was causing to her beloved people and persistently begged Leofric to put an end to the tax. With his patience running thin through his wife’s continuous pestering he is reputed to have told her that she would have to ride naked through the streets of Coventry before he would repeal the tax.. He probably said this out of exasperation, thinking his very prim and pious wife would never do such a thing. However, Leofric badly underestimated his wife’s devotion to the people and her determination to help them.
Lady Godiva takes up the Challenge
Godiva took up the challenge and rode naked on a horse through the streets of Coventry. There are a number of variations to the legend, but one says that the people of Coventry were so grateful to Godiva, that they kept to their homes and covered the windows and no one took advantage of the situation to try and peek at her.
Another later variation tells how she had sent out messengers to clear the streets in front of her as she rode. All the citizens of Coventry obeyed except for one who tried to peep but was immediately struck blind. His name was Tom who was a tailor, and from that day on he became known as Peeping Tom.
In Coventry’s Cathedral Lanes Shopping Centre there is a rather peculiar carved painted wooden effigy said to be a depiction of Peeping Tom. Its eyes are blank possibly because the paint has worn off or possibly for other reasons. Either way, Lady Godiva completed the ride veiled only by her long golden hair which was long enough to cover her body, leaving only her face and legs visible.
Leofric Keeps His Promise
It seems her husband, Leofric, was so impressed that his demure and pious wife would dare to do such a thing for the people of Coventry and so amazed that no one had seen her that he changed his own religious convictions. He regarded it as a miracle and keeping his word to his wife he repealed the hated Heregild and founded a Benedictine monastery with her, although no trace of this remains today.
The grateful people of Coventry held an annual fair keeping alive the story of Godiva and her heroism. Unfortunately this was banned during the Reformation.
The Godiva Procession
Around 1678 the fair was revived with a representative of Lady Godiva riding through the streets on a snow white horse accompanied by a man making lewd and suggestive gestures. The Godiva Procession is an annual event which takes place in June.
Although the naked ride of Lady Godiva is one of Britain’s most famous legends there is no proof that it actually happened though Godiva and Leofric were both historical and important figures in their day. It is still debated whether this was the same Godiva or a different person. Historically, back in the days when the event was supposed to have happened Coventry was just a small settlement and nothing like the city we know today. Many scholars think that the legend has its roots in pagan ceremonies such as the May Queen. These and other ideas will be dealt with in future articles.
References and Attributions Lady Godiva - From Wikipedia BBC – Lady Godiva LIBER GENTIUM MEDIEVAL BIOGRAPHY - Lady Godiva - the eleventh century Coventry legend Image - File:Lady Godiva by John Collier.jpg - From Wikipedia - Lady Godiva, by Artist, John Collier (1850–1934) Credit line Photographer, user:Hautala