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The History of Lady Godiva

By Edited Apr 3, 2016 0 0

The Bare Bones of the Matter

Most people are familiar with the picturesque tale of Lady Godiva, who rides her horse through the streets of Coventry, naked.  According to the old story the civic-minded Lady Godiva had pleaded with her husband Leofric, the Earl of Mercia, to lessen the burden of taxation on the townspeople. Finally exasperated by her frequent, impassioned appeals, the Earl declared he would lift the taxes, if she would ride a horse through the streets naked.

Lady Godiva: Edmund Blair Leighton depicts the moment of decision (1892)
Spirited and Bold

Lady Godiva: Edmund Blair Leighton depicts the moment of decision (1892)

So the spirited and bold Lady Godiva set out to ride though the streets of the town at midday, with only her long and luxuriant locks to ensure modesty. As can be imagined, due to this daring deed, the courageous gentle woman became an object of adoration amongst the thankful people of that town.

The tale is exhilarating with an altruistic and compassionate, yet privileged heroine, who actually cares for those of less fortunate circumstances. The ony problem it seems, is that the naked ride never happened, a fact agreed on by most scholars.

John Maler Collier (1850–1934)  	Lady Godiva
Pardon Me!

Lady Godiva by John Collier, c. 1897, Herbert Art Gallery and Museum

The story of Lady Godiva was however, based on that of a real person called, Godgifu,  the wife of Leofric, Earl of Mercia, who actually lived in the 11th-century in the town of Coventry, England. The Earl was a very powerful man, but his wife seems not to have been in any way exceptional, or noteworthy. Which begs the question, how did such a myth germinate and evolve into a celebrated legend? Also what of the subplot of the Peeping Tom which has become attached to this legend?

Peeping Tom?

Scholars have debated what may be the mainsprings of the Godiva tale, but views are divided. Some think the impulse for the story lies in pagan fertility rituals, while Daniel Donoghue, the author of Lady Godiva: A Literary History of the Legend (Blackwell), claims that two hundred years after the death of Godgifu"chroniclers in the Benedictine abbey of St. Albans inserted a fully developed narrative into their Latin histories” and the legend of Lady Godiva was born."

As to the tacked-on "Peeping Tom" incident, this seems to be a later embellishment. For Tom the town tailor, unlike the other townsfolk, who stayed indoors to protect the privacy of the lady, dared a single peep at the spirited dame. He was however struck dead, or at least blind, for his outrageous effrontery. Tom it seems merely functions as a type of scapegoat. Scapegoating is an ancient group practice which can be traced back to ancient Greece and Tom like other scapegoats carries the burden of guilt for the many others, who really wanted to oggle at the naked matron.

Jules Joseph Lefebvre Lady Godiva 1890
Legends and Art

Lady Godiva Jules Joseph Lefebvre (1836–1911) Wikipedia

The lady Godiva myth and legend is however, not so vibrant as it once was; in the past there were not only various colourful tales surrounding lady Godiva, but sundry paintings, poems and a film or two. Perhaps the reason for the demise of the Lady Godiva story is because today, riding through the streets naked is hardly risqué or noteworthy. I mean every second celebrity, seems to have a raunchy video junketing about the internet.

Lady Godiva of Coventry + The Son of Monte Cristo
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  1. by Charles Coe "Lady Godiva: The Naked Truth." http://harvardmagazine.com/2003/07/lady-godiva-the-naked-tr.html. 2003.
  2. Wikipedia Lady Godiva. From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lady_Godiva, ..

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