Lady Godiva

Summary

Godiva (Old English: Godgifu, “God”s gift”), often referred to as Lady Godiva, was an Anglo-Saxon noblewoman living in the 11th century who, according to legend, rode naked through the streets of Coventry in order to obtain a reduction in the burdensome taxes imposed by her husband on his tenants. The name Peeping Tom for a Peeping Tom comes from later versions of this legend, in which a man named Tom allegedly stalked her and then blinded or died.

Lady Godiva was the wife of Leofric, Count of Mercia.

According to legend, Godiva took pity on the people of Coventry who were suffering severely because of the heavy taxes imposed by her husband. Lady Godiva appealed again and again to her husband who stubbornly refused to remit the taxes. Finally, tired of pleading, Leofric said he would grant her this favour if she would strip naked and ride out into the city streets like this. Lady Godiva took his words to heart and, after issuing a proclamation that everyone should stay indoors with their windows closed and shutters drawn, she walked through the city dressed only in her long hair. Only one person in the entire town, a tailor later known as Peeping Tom, disobeyed her proclamation, and it became one of her most famous acts of voyeurism. Legend has it that he punched a hole in his porthole so he could see Godiva pass by, and as a result he went blind. In the end, Godiva”s husband kept his word and abolished the onerous tax.Some historians have traced the legend of Lady Godiva to pagan fertility rituals in which a young ”May Queen” was led to Cofa”s sacred tree to celebrate the renewal that spring brings. The earliest form of the legend says that Godiva passed through Coventry”s market place from one end to the other as people were gathered, followed by two knights. This version is given by Roger de Wendover (d. 1236) in Flores Historiarum a collector of anecdotes of note who quotes from earlier anonymous writings.At that time it was customary for penitents to make a public procession wearing a white garment similar to a slip today and which was certainly considered underwear. Some scholars have speculated that Godiva traveled through the city as a penitent. However, Godiva”s story may have gone down in popular history in a fictionalized version. Another theory says that Godiva”s nakedness may refer to walking the streets “stripped” of jewelry, the jewelry that marked the upper class to which she belonged. However, both attempts to reconcile the known facts in the legend are weak; in that era the word “naked” gets the explanation “without any clothing”.The later story, with the episode “Peeping Tom”, first appeared in 17th century chroniclers.Of course, the story is not found in contemporary Godiva documents. Coventry was a small settlement with only 69 families (and the priory) recorded in the Domesday Book a few decades later. The only taxes recorded are for horses and so the story remains dubious as long as there is no historical basis for the famous ride. The story is doubtful because there are variants that Countess Godiva herself was responsible for setting taxes in Coventry, the Salic Law not applying in Saxon society. Because of the nudity in the story, its popularity has been maintained and spread internationally, with many references in modern popular culture.

The Herbert Art Gallery & Museum in Coventry maintains a permanent exhibition on the subject. The earliest painting, it was commissioned by Coventry County Council in 1586 and painted by Adam van Noort, a Flemish refugee artist. In addition, the Gallery has collected many Victorian interpretations of the subject described by Marina Warner as “a quaint Landseer composite, an enthusiastic Watts and a sumptuous Woolmer Alfred”. “Collier”s Lady Godiva (above) was bequeathed by the social reformer, Thomas Hancock Nunn. When he died in 1937, the painting was given to the Hampstead Corporation. It was declined, presumably on grounds of decency, and so was offered to the City of Coventry, and now hangs in the Herbert.

Sources

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  2. Lady Godiva