The famous John Collier painting of Lady Godiva 1897

The famous John Collier painting of Lady Godiva 1897.

Before we delve into this story that fuses fact and fiction together and has become the subject of legend, folklore, movies, poems, plays, books and songs, a thank you goes out to Sabine Schleese of Schleese Saddlery, female saddle specialists, for suggesting the topic.

Most of us know the legend about a woman named Lady Godiva who rode a horse naked through a town a long time ago. That’s the short story but research shows that the tale is actually far more complex and involves women’s rights, politics, and social customs and can even be given credit for the origins of the expression “Peeping Tom.”

The story begins in Anglo-Saxon times (from 550 to 1066) in Coventry, England.

Lady Godiva was married to Leofric, the Earl of Mercia and her name can be found in charters and in the Domesday Book, the record of the great survey of much of England and parts of Wales completed in 1086. Her name Godiva is actually the Latinised version of Godgifu or Godgfu meaning “gift of God.”

She and her husband were wealthy and generous, he having made his wealth in the mutton trade in Shrewsbury, Shropshire. They moved to Coventry and decided to make their mark despite their rather “new money” status. They gave money and land to religious houses, donated precious metals to goldsmiths, and valuable necklaces and roods or crucifixes to churches and even had a small abbey built. In the dedication ceremony Leofric was given lordship over 24 villages. They achieved their goal, gaining the social status they craved.

Lady Godiva enjoyed her life of wealth and privilege and especially the outings on horseback and hunting with the social events afterwards. She got to know the movers and shakers in the region and became interested in the arts. She wondered if she commissioned a portrait of herself, if the townspeople and others in the region would also become interested in the arts, but to no avail. She wondered why and began to realize that the men, women and children worked from dawn to dusk to make a living, pay taxes and put food on the table. There was no time for pretty paintings in their lives. By this time her husband was involved in public works and was taxing everything in sight…even manure!

Lady Godiva statue by Sir William Reid Dick in Coventry, England.

Lady Godiva statue by Sir William Reid Dick in Coventry, England.

Legend tells us that Lady Godiva felt sorry for the people of Coventry as their taxes were becoming intolerable. She pleaded over and over with her husband to take pity but to no avail. Finally, he was tired of her requests and said that if she rode naked through town he would bow to her wishes, abolish all taxes save for those on horses which were in place years before he took office. She then created a proclamation that all people on a certain day were to close their shutters, stay indoors and that nobody was to look at her as she rode down the streets. She sallied forth on the day with two female aides also on horseback riding behind her. One story says that her long hair was braided and fastened on her head and all was dignified. The ride was a success and Godiva’s husband abolished all the tax. One man, bored a hole in his shutters, took a fast peek and was, the legend tells us, struck blind. This was the beginning of the expression “Peeping Tom” to describe a person who gets a sexual thrill of watching women unseen.

So, let’s take a look at all the various elements of the legend, and you be the judge…did the ride really happen or was it just a myth that grew larger than life?

• Roger of Wendover who died in 1236 wrote about the famous ride from 1057; this was the first and earliest surviving record.

• Ranulf Higden, a historian who died in 1364 wrote about it in his Polychronicon .

• Henry Knighton who died in 1396 also mentions the ride but adds information about the abolition of the hated taxes.

• Edward I, being a curious King put pen to paper and wrote about the ride after researchers discovered that indeed, around 1057 there were no taxes levied except on horses, an unusual situation for those times, thereby giving credibility to the legend.

However, despite the written records, many medieval scholars say that the ride never actually took place. Daniel Donoghue, Professor of English and American literature and language at Harvard says that, “two centuries after her death, 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. “Nobody knows quite why the legend was invented and attached to her name,” he says, “but it does seem to function as a kind of myth of origin for the town of Coventry. At the end, Count Leofric seals the agreement about taxes with his own seal.”

Another site says that the ride never took place as Coventry, founded in 1043, was barely a town at the time of the ride. It was a small farming community growing around the abbey that Godiva and her husband founded and, apparently, they did not even live in the town. Leofric, was the third most powerful man in England at the time and would have had no interest in taxing an almost non-existent community. Add to these facts is the story of the “Peeping Tom” that is not written about until 600 years after the event.

Others say that the Godiva legend is full of contradictions:

• The lady is obedient to her spouse but challenges his position on taxation

• The lady rides naked through the town but remains chaste

• The lady is a member of the ruling class but feels for the poor and their plight

Like many myths which passed down through the ages encompassing history, tradition and shared values, this “myth” attempts to resolve conflicting social and sexual dynamics, a role that movies and TV have now taken over.

So, whether you think the legend is true or just a story that has become altered and added to over the centuries, Lady Godiva has become noteworthy as the subject of poetry, movies, plays, art, books and song. There are countless references to Lady Godiva in popular culture and pop culture; here are four:

• British group Peter and Gordon’s song “Lady Godiva” was a top seller in the mid 1960s. It is about a seventeen year old beauty queen who rides naked though an unnamed town. Like Coventry’s Lady Godiva, the Lady Godiva of the song has long flowing hair that covers her body. She then takes up striptease, until a Hollywood director casts her in a “Certificate X” movie. A barber cuts her hair because she “doesn’t need it long any more.”

• Alfred, Lord Tennyson wrote the famous poem Godiva in 1842.

• Lady Godiva chocolates feature a stylized logo with Godiva on her horse.

• In a season two episode of Mad Men, the comedian Jimmy Barrett suggests that Betty Draper arrive at a party on her horse, “like Lady Godiva.”

• Lady Godiva is also the patron Saint of Engineering because her story captures the essence of selfless dedication to the betterment of society, which all engineers are bound to.