the eleventh century Coventry legend
Statue of Lady Godiva in the Old Guildhall, Coventry
Godgifu (Godiva) was a common name inside late eleventh century England, many daughters having been named after princess Godgifu, the sister of King Edward the Confessor and the late Aetheling Alfred. Our particular Godgifu was the sister of Thorold, the sheriff of Lincolnshire, and was herself the Lady Godgifu of Mercia.
She is remembered as having staged a protest on behalf of her own subject-tenants who were overly burdened by the heavy taxation imposed upon Mercia by her own husband, the Lord Leofric, Earl of Mercia under King Edward. This would have been mid-century, around A.D.1050.
Her protest took the form of a public humiliation of her noble husband. She rode through the streets of their regional capitol, the town of Coventry, without clothing on, symbolizing her own willingness to divest herself of the extravagant trappings of wealth if it meant that her own people could thereby afford the basic necessities: the action of a woman who is sure of her personal support in the community, and equally certain of her husband's respect.
Roger of Wendover in the early thirteenth century, wrote in his Flowers of History :The Countess Godiva devoutly anxious to free the city of Coventry from a grievous and base thralldom often besought the Count, her husband, that he would for love of the Holy Trinity and the sacred Mother of God liberate it from such servitude.
But he rebuked her for vainly demanding a thing so injurious to himself and forbade her to move further therin. Yet she, out of her womanly pertinacity, continued to press the matter insomuch that she obtained this answer from him:
"Ascend," he said, "thy horse naked and pass thus through the city from one end to the other in sight of the people and on thy return thou shalt obtain thy request."
Upon which she returned:
"And should I be willing to do this, wilt thou give me leave?"
"I will," he responded.
Then the Countess Godiva, beloved of God, ascended her horse, naked, loosing her long hair which clothed her entire body except her snow white legs, and having performed the journey, seen by none, returned with joy to her husband who, regarding it as a miracle, thereupon granted Coventry a Charter, confirming it with his seal.
If the story were true, it was likely not the protest of the young beauty of popular representation, but of a middle-aged gentlewoman of singular willfulness and generosity of heart. That is why her ride may be supposed to have taken place as late as 1050, instead of 1030 when she was a young lady. The Godiva of legend is celebrated for her hard-headed willfulness and audacity, matched equally by her own Christian charity and sense of personal responsibility for her whole community. She is the archetype of the "in-your-face" social activist, a worldly-wise gentlewoman for all time.
However, as one reader has emphasized, the story is recognized as a legend, and is not regarded as historical. She added the following contribution to the discussion:
"The ride is a legend: it never took place. Coventry was barely even a town let alone a regional capital. In the mid 11th century Coventry was little more than a farming community growing around and serving the abbey which was founded by Godiva and her husband Leofric and would at the time have still been under construction. Indeed the abbey was almost definitely the only stone building; the castle was not constructed until much later. Leofric and Godiva did not live in Coventry. Leofric, as the third most powerful man in England, would have had no interest in the taxation of a tiny rural community. Indeed, it seems likely that Coventry was just one of many places held by Godiva herself."
The Earl Leofric's successor in 1055 was their son Aelfgar. When Aelfgar himself died in 1062, the King appointed Aelfgar's son Eadwine to succeed him in the Mercian dynasty. Lady Godiva's grandson Eadwine is supposed to have been only fourteen years old when he became Earl of Mercia. Eadwine had a younger brother, Morkere, who succeeded, by a rebellion of the Northumbrian nobility, to the ill-fated Tostig's Earldom of Northumbria in 1065. Young Morkere was deprived of it by the Conqueror, who gave Northumbria to Gospatrick of the royal Scottish line.
In 1086, when the Domesday census was compiled, it was recorded that after the Norman Conquest the old Countess Godiva (Lady Godgifu of Mercia under the previous AngloSaxon regime) still had landholdings in Leistershire, Nottinghamshire, and Warwickshire which had not yet been re-granted to friends of the new Norman regime. Her grandsons had quickly been deprived of their titles.
The Conqueror's unwillingness to deprive the old Lady of Coventry, while destroying the rest of her dynasty, is indicative of her enormous personal popularity among the English people, a popularity which has not diminished one iota in the last one thousand years.
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