Woman of the week - Godiva

Name: Godiva (latinised form of the Saxon Godgifu - God's gift)
Born: Unknown - impossible to even guess.
Dead: After 1066 and before 1086.
Married to: Leofric, earl of Mercia
Children: Possibly Ælfgar.
Occupation: Noble woman and landowner.

Lady Godiva is mostly known to people today as a figure in an old tale. The people under her husband's rule were so oppressed by taxes that she wanted to do something to help them and right her husband's wrong. He told her that he would listen to her if she rode naked through the city of Coventry (that was a part of his land-holdings). She was serious in her will to help so she took him literally and did just that - dressed only in her long hair (and after posting a decree that everyone was supposed to stay inside and not look at her). After she had done this her husband relents and agrees to take away the taxes.

The oldest version of this story that is know is from the 13th century, but it quotes an earlier, lost story. The very well-known addition about the Peeping Tom (a man who didn't listen and tried to watch the lady's ride but was struck blind by God) is not known prior to the 17th century.

But lady Godiva is an actual, real person. But it is hard to find much information about persons from the 11th century, even when it comes to nobles, so the outline of her life is rather sketchy. It is possible that Godiva was married before she was married to Leofric, but if that was not the case it is also possible they married early she was the mother of the earl's only known child Ælfgar. She, along with her husband, were great benefactors of religious houses, for example founding a Benedictine monastery in Coventry, and they were commemorated as benefactors of the convents at for example Chester and Evesham. She is mentioned in Florence of Worcester (from 1118) with great respect due to her good work for the church - but this text says nothing about her riding around to reduce takes; let alone doing so naked.

Leofric died in 1057 and left her a wealthy widow and landowner. She is mentioned in the Domesday book as being the only major female landholder after the Norman conquest. But at the time of the writing of the manuscript (in 1086) she had died and the land passed on to others. When this happened more precisely is not known. The matter of where she is buried is also a matter of debate. The Evesham Chronicle claims that she was buried there in the church of the Holy Trinity, which is no longer standing. But it is actually much more likely she was buried in Coventry where her husband was.

Lady Godiva appears in several pictures, mostly from the 19th century - like the one at this entry, painted by John Collier in c. 1898.

Other pop-cultural references worth mentioning is the chocolatier Godiva, and the pop-song written by the duo Peter & Gordon called Lady Godiva.


Anonymous said...

I really love your posts. They are interesting, well-researched and insightful!

DameBoudicca said...

Thank you so very much!