The Naked Facts; HISTORY the Lady Godiva Legend Has Captured the Imagination over the Centuries. Clive Upton Looks at the Truth

The Birmingham Post (England), February 6, 2009 | Go to article overview

The Naked Facts; HISTORY the Lady Godiva Legend Has Captured the Imagination over the Centuries. Clive Upton Looks at the Truth


Byline: Clive Upton

Godgifu was an Anglo-Saxon landowner and the wife of an earl in 11th-century Coventry.

As such she was unusual - in being a woman - but far from unique.

Saxon law was remarkably evenhanded in its treatment of men and women, and the property a woman brought to a marriage remained hers. Like her near contemporary, Wulfruna of Wolverhampton, Godgifu chose to bestow much of this income upon the Church, and Coventry's first cathedral (of three) was endowed by her and her husband.

As such Godgifu would probably have remained a footnote in Anglo-Saxon history. But one event transformed her reputation, translated her nameinto the more user-friendly Godiva, and made her probably the most famous Saxon of them all. Even my students, who no longer hear at school the tale of King Alfred and the cakes, have heard of Godiva's naked ride through Coventry.

Yet all of the contemporary evidence, and for more than a century after Godiva's deathin 1067, present thewomanin conventional, if pious, terms. She is, more than anything, the wife of Earl Leofric of Mercia, and therefore no more thana bit-player in 11th-century history. If WilliamofMalmesbury, themore than chatty 12th-century chronicler, had the merest inkling of a tale involving nudity, he would certainly have set it down.

The anecdote we most associate with Godiva first turns up in the mid-13th century, 200 years after her death, in the chronicles of St Albans monastery. In the version written down by Matthew Paris, Godiva wished to challenge what Paris calls "an oppressive and shameful servitude", exacted by her husband.

MatthewPariswas against all forms of taxation, which is what he means by "servitude". Exasperated by his wife's endless pleas, Leofric off-handedly challenges her to ride naked through the Coventry market-place, "when all the people are gathered". Only thenwould he grant Coventry freedom from the tax.

Godiva takes Leofric at his word, but "releasing the braids of her hair, veiled thewhole of her body, except for her brilliant white legs." And once she had completed the task, "unseen by anyone" she returned to Leofric who granted the town exemption. The story is so fully formed and full of detail and dialogue that it must have been passed down to the St Albans' monks by others, either orally or in some earlier lost chronicle.

But there are plenty of reasons why this story does not ring true of Anglo- Saxon England. For one thing, as Coventry's landowner, Godiva already had the right to exempt her people from taxation herself. For another, there were no such tolls in 11th-century England anyway. The only possible tax thismight have applied towas directly levied by the king, andGodivawould have had to take her entreaties to him.

What is also odd about the tale is that Godiva rides "unseen by anyone". Was this magic, did Godiva's hair hide her face as well, or were the people of Coventry so used to women riding bare-back through the market that they never noticed? …

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