Lady Godiva the Naked Truth

Staggering beneath the yoke of oppressive taxes, the medieval residents of Coventry, England, pleaded in vain for relief. Ironically, deliverance would come from the wife of the very lord who scorned their pleas. Lady Godiva repeatedly urged her husband, Leofric, to lessen the people’s tax burden, and time and again he refused. Yet she persisted, and one day in exasperation he told her he would lower taxes when she rode a horse, naked, through the streets of the town at midday. When she took him at his word and set out on her famous ride, the highborn Lady Godiva became an instant heroine to the common people of Coventry.

Today most medieval scholars believe this historic tale is in actuality, a cultural myth. The story is based on a real woman from the eleventh century, Godifu. Godifu lived in Coventry and was married to one of the most powerful men in England. But historical references do not consider Godifu noteworthy. Writings merely mention her as the wife of a famous man.

The story that we are familiar with does not appear until the thirteenth century. Benedictine chroniclers developed the narrative and inserted it into documentations as a historical event.

In the seventeenth century a second character appears in the story of Godiva, “Peeping Tom”. The people of Coventry, as a gesture of respect and appreciate for Lady Godiva’s actions on their behalf, stay indoors behind shuttered windows to preserve her modesty as she rides pass. Everyone except Tom who sneaks a peak and as punishment is blinded.

By the Victoria age, Tom further develops into a true scapegoat, he is the symbolic guilt for people’s desire to look at a naked woman. Lord Tennyson’s poem “Godiva” alters the tale even further into a highly romanticized legend. Tom provides sexual tension between the observer and the observed, the punished and rewarded. By the late 20th century, Peeping Tom has been virtually extricated from the Godiva legend.

Even with the absence of Peeping Tom, the Godiva myth remains filled with contradictions. The lady is obedient to her husband, yet boldly challenges his position on taxes. She rides naked through the streets of the city, yet remains chaste. She is a member of the ruling class who nonetheless sympathizes with the plight of ordinary people. The tale of Godiva offers ways to symbolically resolve conflicting social and sexual dynamics that have retained relevance throughout the centuries.

Godiva is a form of “cultural work” a tale passed down through history, a tradition, and a composite of shared values. In our current century, television and movies have replaced the art of storytelling, of oral cultural compass points. The meaning of such tales as Godiva are trivialized by corporate branding so children know Godiva as yummy chocolates and nothing about the story.

Enjoy your weekend WARHorses! Spend time with horses or ride them. If you choose to ride them NAKED for heaven’s sake, don’t post any photos please. We’re “G” rated!

References: Charles Coe for “Harvard Magazine”, 2003. (edited)
Painting by John Collier, 1898.