Lady Godgifu (Godiva) flourished ca. 1040–80. She was a pretty woman, and married to Leofric, Earl of Mercia. She got famous for riding through Coventry in Warwickshire on a horse.
Today the name 'Godiva' is used as a trademark all over the world for striptease clubs and skimpy underwear, advertised by smiling young women with long, rippling hair. Yet these modern Godivas do not use their long hair to hide their nakedness. To the contrary, they seem rather keen to reveal it . . . On the other hand the original Godiva was generous, kind-hearted and, by all accounts, highly respectable, maintains the English historian Robert Lacey (2003, 83).
He divulges that in Anglo-Saxon her name was Godgifu, or 'God's gift'. She was a prominent figure too. She owned large estates in her own right in the Midlands and East Anglia, and she was married to Leofric of Mercia, one of the three powerful earls who had placed Edward the Confessor on the throne in 1042. Leofric controlled most of central England.
Godgifu and Leofric gave generously to the Church. In the Middle Ages, the rich or powerful at times they showered their riches on the local church – or churches, as in the case of Godgifu. In Coventry "she devoted a great deal of her wealth to making its humble abbey the pride of the county of Warwickshire and beyond," writes Lacey, and cites the chronicler Roger of Wendover from the early thirteenth century: "There was not found in all England a monastery with such an abundance of gold and silver, gems, and costly garments."
It was Roger of Wendower who first wrote down the tale:
Longing to free the town of Coventry from the oppression of a heavy tax, Lady Godiva begged her husband to free the town of Coventry from from the oppression of a heavy tax and from all other heavy burdens. The earl rebuked her sharply. She was asking for something that would cost him much money, and forbade her to raise the subject with him again. But she would not stop pestering her husband, until he finally said:
"Mount your horse, and ride naked before all the people, through the market of the town, from one end to the other, and on your return you shall have what you have asked for."
Godiva replied, "But will you give me permission if I am ready to do it?"
"I will,'' her husband replied.
The countess loosed her hair and let down her tresses, Her long hair covered the whole of her body like a veil. And then, mounting her horse, and attended by two knights, she rode through the market place. Only her fair legs were seen. And having completed the journey, she returned with gladness to her astonished husband, and got from him what she had asked for: Earl Leofric freed the town of Coventry and its inhabitants from the taxes, except for horses.
That is about the story that Roger scratched down in Lation into his parchment around the year 1220. Roger Lacey explains further:
This colourful episode was not recorded until many years after it was supposed to have happened . . . Long before Roger was born, a number of historians had mentioned Godgifu in their chronicles, and not one of them had anything to say about naked horseback riding. But there are several reasons for believing that Roger did not make the whole thing up. He was a monk at the Benedictine Abbey of St Albans, which had close links with the abbey founded in Coventry by Leofric and Godgifu. The monks went for prayer and study sessions at each other's abbeys, and their libraries exchanged manuscripts. So it is quite possible that the St Albans chronicler might have come across some since-vanished Coventry document that recounted Godgifu's stratagem for relieving the community's over-taxed poor. . . .
This was at a time when royal tax collectors even had been murdered by irate townsfolk.
But did she ride in the nude? Maybe not. Godiva was one of the last great Anglo-Saxon women landowners. She inherited Leofric's vast estates after his death in 1057, and her possessions were listed in the Domesday Book. This God-fearing founder of monasteries and nunneries would hardly have ridden naked through rows of gaping peasants, however complete the camouflage of her luxuriant hair, is Roger Lacey's estimate.
As for Coventry in the eleventh century, the Domesday Book shows it was scarcely a village back then: just sixty-nine families are listed as living there. Coventry grew into a bustling centre of trade in time, with citizens that had become proud of the naked, riding lady they had been told about, so they started their own annual Godiva procession. An account of 1678 describes a Godiva procession that attracted tens of thousands of visitors.
Around this time another detail was added to the legend. In this later version, the medieval villagers had shown their solidarity with Godiva's tax protest by staying indoors on the day of her ride, with their shutters decently closed so that she could pass by unobserved. No one, it seems, was so cheeky as to look out at her, with the exception of a tailor called Thomas. He was promptly punished for his curiosity by being struck blind (or even struck dead, depending on the storyteller). In this is the origin of another English folk character–Peeping Tom.
A Godiva procession, from 1678 part of Coventry Fair, is held every seven or eight years. The Godiva story has given rise to other works of art: Paintings and sculptures first, and with the advent of photography many long-haired women posing on horseback or otherwise, and public horseback rides for naked women and more woman freedom has also appeared - so far.
It started with a story of a lady, just as ancient Greek tales in time gave rise to paintings, sculptures and fuelled the Renaissance as well.
(See Lacey 2003, 83-88)
More from the background
The earliest extant source for the story is the Chronica (under the year 1057) of Roger of Wendover (d. 1236). He recounts that her husband, in exasperation over her ceaseless imploring, declared he would reduce Coventry's heavy taxes if she rode naked through the crowded marketplace. She did. Ranulf Higden (d. 1364), in his Polychronicon, says that as a result Leofric freed the town from all tolls save those on horses. An inquiry made in the reign of Edward I shows that at that time no tolls were paid in Coventry except on horses. A later chronicle asserts that Godiva required the townsmen to remain indoors at the time fixed for her ride.
[More Godiva art and historical findings: Wikipedia, sv. "Lady Godiva"] As for Medieval nakedness, for centuries, adult persons were baptised nude in the church. It was the custom then.