Who was Lady Godiva?
Lady Godiva was an 11th century gentlewoman married to the powerful yet insensitive Earl of Mercia and Lord of Coventry, Leofric. Legend has it that the citizens of Coventry were highly depressed and disheartened due to heavy taxes imposed by the cruel Leofric. Despite repeated requests by Lady Godiva, he refused, but agreed to lessen the burden provided she rode through the market town naked on horseback. Left with no alternative and determined to help her townspeople, she completed the challenge, following which the taxes were abolished leaving aside those on horses. An addition to this legend included that of the ‘Peeping Tom’, who couldn’t resist getting an eyeful of the Countess and opened his window only to be blinded immediately. This Anglo-Saxon noblewoman is also known for her generosity towards her religion evident from her contribution towards the establishment of a Benedictine monastery at Coventry, along with Leofric. She also supported the establishment of various churches and monasteries in different counties across England.
Childhood & Early Life
Believed to have been born in 980AD , Lady Godiva was an English Saxon woman who rose to popularity during the Medieval Times through her historical act.
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She is said to be the main driving force behind the establishment of a Benedictine monastery at Coventry by her husband, Leofric, in 1043.
Legend has it that she was a noblewoman and was concerned for the citizens of Coventry unlike her unsympathetic husband, who did not care for the welfare of his subjects.
She was completely against the heavy taxation levied on the Coventry people and requested Leofric to reduce the burden, who refused to listen despite her repeated efforts and requests.
Tired of her endless appeals, he agreed to lessen the crippling taxes provided she rode naked through the crowded marketplace.
Left with no option, she agreed to his demand and stripped off her clothes and galloped through the market square on horseback with her long flowing hair covering her body, except her legs, to help the public.
A chronicle later added indicates that before riding through the town, she asked the people of Coventry to stay inside their homes and shut their windows and doors, which they did willingly out of extreme respect for her.
All people obeyed, except one man, Tom, would couldn’t resist catching a glimpse of the Countess and hence, opened the window but was struck blind before he could satisfy his desire.
True to his words, Leofric abolished the heavy taxes across Coventry, except on horses.
The story of the ‘Peeping Tom’ became a part of the legend during the 17th century and added another story indicating that he was struck blind as punishment or was probably beaten and blinded by the people of the town.
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Being religious, she is credited for sponsoring the foundation of various monasteries at Chester, Evesham, Leominster, and Much Wenlock, apart from donating land for the church at Stow St. Mary, Lincolnshire.
Personal Life & Legacy
She was married to the Earl of Mercia and Lord of Coventry, Leofric, with whom she is believed to have had one son – Aelfgar, Earl of Mercia.
While Leofric passed away in 1057, she is said to have survived for another few years, with her death occurring apparently between 1066 and 1086 during the Norman Conquest.
Her burial place is debatable – the Evesham Chronicle lists the Church of the Blessed Trinity, Evesham, as her burial site, while the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography states that she was buried at Trinity Church, Coventry.
The myth of Lady Godiva riding the horse rose to popularity through songs and poems, especially Lord Tennyson who penned the famous ‘Godiva’ in 1840.
Her story became an inspiration for the popular Belgian chocolate company, Godiva Chocolatier, featuring the image of her infamous ride as its trademark.
A number of films have been produced narrating her story, some being ‘Lady Godiva’ (1911), ‘The Ghost Talks’ (1949), ‘Lady Godiva Rides Again’ (1950), ‘Lady Godiva of Coventry’ (1955), and ‘Lady Godiva: Back in the Saddle’ (2007).
The Herbert Art Gallery & Museum, Coventry, holds regular exhibitions on Lady Godiva, which features the oldest painting of her naked ride composed by Flemish artist Adam van Noort in 1586.
The Godiva story was kept alive through the annual Coventry Fair, but was banned during the Reformation and was revived only in 1678. The tradition continues till date through the Godiva procession, held after every 7-8 years