The Legend of Lady Godiva: Depictions in Art, Literature, and History

Lady Godiva by John Collier, 1897.
Lady Godiva by John Collier, 1897.

The scandalous tale of Lady Godiva’s ride has been in circulation for nearly ten centuries.  In that time, it has provided inspiration for innumerable poets, painters, and sculptors.  Inevitably, Lady Godiva is depicted as naked on horseback, covered only by her long hair, as she rides through the town of Coventry.  But did such a ride ever take place?  According to some sources it did.

The legend was first recorded in Roger of Wendover’s 13th century Flores Historiarum (Flowers of History).  Since then, it has been listed as fact in several other historical texts, including both Charles Knight’s A History of England and Chambers’ Encyclopaedia.

Lady Godiva by William Holmes Sullivan, 1877
Lady Godiva by William Holmes Sullivan, 1877

According to the legend, Lady Godiva was so distressed about the high taxes levied on the citizens of Coventry that she appealed to her husband, Leofric, Earl of Mercia, to give them relief.  In response to her plea, Leofric informed her that he would not lower taxes unless she stripped naked and rode through the town on horseback.  Taking him at his word, Lady Godiva did just that.

In more recent years, the tale has come to be regarded as “Only one of many legends of the Middle Ages—a relic of the simplicity and credulity of our early ancestors.”  The 1888 issue of American Notes and Queries has a particularly compelling rationalization for the legend.  It reads in part:

“Coventry, or Coventria, was a village so named because a convent, of which Saint Osburga formerly was Abbess, existed there; it was burned down when Eadrick ravaged the country.

“This spot had become the property of Earl Leofric, and he chose the site of the ruined convent, at the earnest solicitation of [Lady] Godiva, for the building of a magnificent abbey.  The determination once formed, the munificent founders lost no time in putting their design into execution; for Oderic Vitalis records that Lady Godiva gave to the good work all her treasures, and sending for goldsmiths she devoutly distributed all the gold and silver that she possessed, to make the sacred books, and texts, and crosses, and images of saints, and other marvelous church furniture.  She also endowed the convent with much land and possessions, both in that and other parts of the country.  In a word, she literally denuded or stripped herself of all her possessions to build this convent.  This was in 1043 or 1044.”

Lady Godiva by Edmund Leighton, 1891.
Lady Godiva by Edmund Blair Leighton, 1891.

Another version of this explanation reads:

“The people were heavily taxed with sin, and felt the weight thereof; they cried out for relief which could only be had by religious teaching.  Churches were necessary for this religious teaching, and Lady Godiva, from the goodness of her heart, and, in loving sympathy for these people, appealed to her husband, Earl Leofric, for relief for them, by erecting a church.  The earl responded that if she had such sympathy and would prove it by stripping herself of all her luxuries and earthly possessions, and so go through life, he would build the convent with them, and thus relieve the people.  The result was one of the grandest churches of that time.”

Lady Godiva by Marshall Claxton, 1850.
Lady Godiva by Marshall Claxton, 1850.

To make the people appreciate the great personal sacrifice made by Lady Godiva in stripping herself of all her possession in order to fund a church, the priests illustrated the story with a picture that represented a woman riding naked through the streets.  It was this picture which caught the imagination of future historians, like 13th century chronicler Roger of Wendover, as well as artists like John Collier and poets like Alfred, Lord Tennyson.

What do you think?  Is the Legend of Lady Godiva based on fact?  Or are the depictions of her naked on horseback a mere symbol of her great personal sacrifice to build one of the grandest churches of her time?  Let me know in the comments!  In the meanwhile, I leave you with Tennyson’s famous poem, Godiva (1840).

Godiva

I waited for the train at Coventry;

I hung with grooms and porters on the bridge,

To watch the three tall spires; and there I shaped

The city’s ancient legend into this:

Not only we, the latest seed of Time,

New men, that in the flying of a wheel

Cry down the past, not only we, that prate

Of rights and wrongs, have loved the people well,

And loathed to see them overtax’d; but she

Did more, and underwent, and overcame,

The woman of a thousand summers back,

Godiva, wife to that grim Earl, who ruled

In Coventry: for when he laid a tax

Upon his town, and all the mothers brought

Their children, clamoring, “If we pay, we starve!”

She sought her lord, and found him, where he strode

About the hall, among his dogs, alone,

His beard a foot before him and his hair

A yard behind. She told him of their tears,

And pray’d him, “If they pay this tax, they starve.”

Whereat he stared, replying, half-amazed,

“You would not let your little finger ache

For such as these?” — “But I would die,” said she.

He laugh’d, and swore by Peter and by Paul;

Then fillip’d at the diamond in her ear;

“Oh ay, ay, ay, you talk!” — “Alas!” she said,

“But prove me what I would not do.”

And from a heart as rough as Esau’s hand,

He answer’d, “Ride you naked thro’ the town,

And I repeal it;” and nodding, as in scorn,

He parted, with great strides among his dogs.

So left alone, the passions of her mind,

As winds from all the compass shift and blow,

Made war upon each other for an hour,

Till pity won. She sent a herald forth,

And bade him cry, with sound of trumpet, all

The hard condition; but that she would loose

The people: therefore, as they loved her well,

From then till noon no foot should pace the street,

No eye look down, she passing; but that all

Should keep within, door shut, and window barr’d.

Then fled she to her inmost bower, and there

Unclasp’d the wedded eagles of her belt,

The grim Earl’s gift; but ever at a breath

She linger’d, looking like a summer moon

Half-dipt in cloud: anon she shook her head,

And shower’d the rippled ringlets to her knee;

Unclad herself in haste; adown the stair

Stole on; and, like a creeping sunbeam, slid

From pillar unto pillar, until she reach’d

The Gateway, there she found her palfrey trapt

In purple blazon’d with armorial gold.

Then she rode forth, clothed on with chastity:

The deep air listen’d round her as she rode,

And all the low wind hardly breathed for fear.

The little wide-mouth’d heads upon the spout

Had cunning eyes to see: the barking cur

Made her cheek flame; her palfrey’s foot-fall shot

Light horrors thro’ her pulses; the blind walls

Were full of chinks and holes; and overhead

Fantastic gables, crowding, stared: but she

Not less thro’ all bore up, till, last, she saw

The white-flower’d elder-thicket from the field,

Gleam thro’ the Gothic archway in the wall.

Then she rode back, clothed on with chastity;

And one low churl, compact of thankless earth,

The fatal byword of all years to come,

Boring a little auger-hole in fear,

Peep’d — but his eyes, before they had their will,

Were shrivel’d into darkness in his head,

And dropt before him. So the Powers, who wait

On noble deeds, cancell’d a sense misused;

And she, that knew not, pass’d: and all at once,

With twelve great shocks of sound, the shameless noon

Was clash’d and hammer’d from a hundred towers,

One after one: but even then she gain’d

Her bower; whence reissuing, robed and crown’d,

To meet her lord, she took the tax away

And built herself an everlasting name.

 

Lady Godiva by P Pargetter for Minton Pottery (1867). On display in Herbert Art Gallery and Museum, Coventry. (Photo by Cglee, CC BY-SA 3.0)
Lady Godiva by P Pargetter for Minton Pottery (1867).
The Herbert Art Gallery and Museum, Coventry.
(Photo by Cglee, CC BY-SA 3.0)
Mimi Matthews is the author of The Pug Who Bit Napoleon: Animal Tales of the 18th and 19th Centuries (to be released by Pen and Sword Books in November 2017).  She researches and writes on all aspects of nineteenth century history—from animals, art, and etiquette to fashion, beauty, feminism, and law. 

Sources

Donoghue, Daniel.  Lady Godiva: A Literary History of the Legend.  Oxford: John Wiley & Sons, 2008.

Haviland, David.  The Not-So-Nude Ride of Lady Godiva: & Other Morsels of Misinformation from the History Books.  New York: Penguin, 2012.

Tennyson, Alfred.  The Complete Works of Alfred Tennyson, Poet Laureate.  New York: R. Worthington, 1882.

Walsh, William Shepard.  “Lady Godiva’s Ride A Myth.”  American Notes and Queries, A Medium of Intercommunication for Literary Men, General Readers, etc. Vol. 2. Nov. 1888 – April 1889.


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9 Comments on "The Legend of Lady Godiva: Depictions in Art, Literature, and History"

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Sarah Waldock
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I’m inclined to think that the stripping of her possessions is more likely. Leofric wouldn’t want even a chance of anyone else looking upon a possession that was purely his. It’s a charming legend, and up there with the lady who was promised as common land for the people as much land as she could encompass with the hide of an ox, and in cutting it into thin strips laid it round the edge of I think 2 caracutes [but it’s a long time since I read it so I may be wrong and that’s an awful lot of land…]
Mimi Matthews
Guest

Thanks for commenting, Sarah! I agree with the stripping of the possessions theory. It made a lot of sense to me, as opposed to those who assert it was a pagan ritual or something to that effect. Ironically, sometimes the most commonsense explanations are buried in obscure history books or academic journals. Perhaps the truth is simply not as attractive as the legend?

Sarah Waldock
Guest

nah, it’s just that people are prurient and like to metaphorically peek

Mimi Matthews
Guest

Too true. I can just imagine how an image of Lady Godiva (however metaphorically meant) must have captured the imagination of all those who saw it.

Linda Lee Williams
Guest

Fascinating perspectives on the legend. I always enjoy learning something new. Plus, I admire the sculptures and paintings of Lady Godiva–how she’s depicted. Thanks for posting!

Mimi Matthews
Guest

So glad you enjoyed it, Linda. Thanks for commenting!

Sarah M. Fredericks
Guest
Dear Mimi, I find the whole story of Lady Godiva very fascinating and think that there is probably some truth in most legends. From a historical point of view, especially with regard to English law, a woman, when she married, became her husband’s “possession” with no legal rights whatsoever. It is unlikely that Leofric would allow his beautiful wife to ride naked in the streets – totally vulnerable – and at risk of being “acquired” by another man. Of course, perhaps Lady Godiva was an intelligent, independent-minded woman like Joan of Arc, or Queen Elizabeth I, who rode her horse… Read more »
Mimi Matthews
Guest

Thank you for such a thoughtful comment, Sarah. I think you are exactly right in saying that Leofric would not allow his wife to ride naked through the streets. I think it is far more likely that the whole legend derived from Lady Godiva’s selfless act of stripping herself of her worldly goods. It is a shame that we will never know the whole story, but at least we can now remember her for a bit more than a single scandalous act which likely never even happened.

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