Lady Godiva – we have all heard of this legendary noblewoman in one way or another purely through cultural osmosis. Whether it be through a fleeting reference in Queen’s ‘Don’t Stop Me Now’ (“I’m a racing car, passing by like Lady Godiva”), or perhaps in the name of ‘Godiva Chocolatiers’; I’m sure we can all recognise the Countess of Mercia, posited in the Belgian chocolate company’s logo, atop her steed as an iconic motif of English folklore. The image of the naked Godiva – Godgifu in Old English, meaning ‘good gift’ or ‘gift of god’ – and her act of political rebellion against her own husband – Leofric, Earl of Mercia – has permeated popular culture for centuries, yet public knowledge of this woman appears to stop there.
Little is known of Godgifu outside of her alleged ride through the town of Coventry. Even basic biographical details like her birthdate are pretty spurious, with no solid historical consensus on when to place it exactly (most estimate between the late-tenth to early-eleventh century). Furthermore, there are tenuous family links to Godgifu that suggest that she was the sister of Thorold of Bucknall, once the Sheriff of Lincolnshire. However, there are conflicting dates and scraps of information that leave these potential family ties feeble at best or erroneous at worst. This apparent lack of concrete biographical information has made the study of her person quite difficult, with academics such as Daniel Donoghue, Professor of English at Harvard University, lamenting over the ‘obscure’ nature of Gofgifu’s past.
However, whilst very little is known of the woman, most can effortlessly recall the legend of the more commonly conceived mythical narrative of Lady Godiva, the noble woman who triumphantly stood up for her subjects against her tyrannical husband and his unreasonable taxes. The legend, first told by Roger of Wendover during the late twelfth-century, claims that the money-hungry Earl of Mercia told his wife – presumably in a sneering, largely condescending tone – that he would only lessen the toll if she were to ride through the streets naked. What Leofric did not expect, however, was for Godiva to hold him to his word. According to legend she climbed atop her horse, stark naked, accompanied by two guards, and rode through the town of Coventry; veiled only by her long, blonde hair. Remarkably, Leofric stood true to his word and freed the people of Coventry from his oppressive taxation, effectively characterising Lady Godiva as a hero of the people, despite her position within the nobility.
Whilst this legend has gained widespread popularity throughout English folklore, it is almost certainly an historical fabrication, as is the case of most myths and legends. The tale is filled with far too many inconsistencies in its narrative, such as the fact that Godgifu owned a large number of estates across the West Midlands whilst simultaneously arguing against land taxation against her own best interests, an unlikely position to hold in the reality of Medieval England. Furthermore, the act itself is highly incompatible with the social expectations of Medieval society, especially one so opposed to even the mildest expression of female sexuality or transgressive behaviour: ‘…to ride openly and unveiled would be thought almost as immodest in countries where strict seclusion is imposed upon women’. Due to these inconsistencies, as well as the probable artistic license of those telling the tale, historians such as E. S. Hartland assert that ‘Roger of Wendover’s narrative is [not] to be taken seriously’, whilst H. R. Ellis Davidson highlights the challenges this legend poses to the historian due to its intertwined and entangled ‘relationship between historical events, written records and popular tradition’.
The clear distinction between the mysterious, unknowable figure of Godgifu and the legendary, mythologised character of Godiva demonstrate the relationship between truth and myth, thus highlighting what is truly important about this tale – its cultural significance. Similarly to Robin Hood for Nottingham, the legend of Lady Godiva has grown to become a part of the local cultural identity of Coventry, even going so far as to hold reenactments of Godiva’s ride through the town, erecting a statue depicting Godiva, and the building of the Godiva Clock, a cuckoo clock that plays a wooden animation of Lady Godiva on her horse on the hour each day. Thus, whether or not this tale is historically accurate or even true is mostly unimportant, as the development of folklore from historical figures, in this case Godgifu and Leofric, highlight the significance of the legend in cultural identity, as well as a demonstration on how tales and legends develop and distinguish themselves from the original source material from generation to generation. Therefore, if there’s one thing you should take away from this article, it should be that Godiva, or rather Godgifu, was so much more than just a naked woman on a horse. Consider the significance of the legends surrounding our culture, as they may reflect a little more of our own reality than you might have previously thought.
Coe, C., ‘Lady Godiva: The Naked Truth’, Harvard Magazine (August 2003), https://harvardmagazine.com/2003/07/lady-godiva-the-naked-tr.html.
Donoghue, D., Lady Godiva: A Literary History of the Legend (Cornwall, 2003).
Ellis Davidson, H. R., ‘The Legend of Lady Godiva’, Folklore vol. 80.2 (1969), pp. 107-121.
Hartland, E. S., ‘Peeping Tom and Lady Godiva’, Folklore vol. 1.2, (1890), pp. 207-226.
‘Lady Godiva’, BBC History – Historic Figures (2014), available at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/historic_figures/godiva_lady.shtml.
Marriage, A., ‘Lady Godiva: Gift of God’, Women’s Literary Culture and the Medieval Canon (October 2016) Available at: https://blogs.surrey.ac.uk/medievalwomen/2016/10/17/lady-godiva-gift-of-god/.
Williams, A., ‘Godgifu [Godiva]’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2006).
Lady Godiva by John Collier, c. 1897, Herbert Art Gallery and Museum. Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lady_Godiva#/media/File:Lady_Godiva_(John_Collier,_c._1897).jpg.