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Lady Godiva

The Anglo-Saxon gentlewoman (also known as Godgifu), is famous for her legendary naked ride on horseback through Coventry.


Lady Godiva was the wife of Leofric , Earl of Mercia. Her name occurs in charters and the Domesday survey, though the spelling varies. The Old English name Godgifu or Godgyfu meant "gift of God"; Godiva was the Latinised version. Since the name was a popular one, there are contemporaries of the same name.


If she was the same Godgifu who appears in the chronicles of Ely, Liber Eliensis (end of 12th century), then she was a widow when Leofric married her. Both Leofric and Godiva were generous benefactors to religious houses. In 1043 Leofric founded and endowed a Benedictine monastery at Coventry.[6] Writing in the 12th century, Roger of Wendover credits Godiva as the persuasive force behind this act. In the 1050s, her name is coupled with that of her husband on a grant of land to the monastery of St Mary, Worcester and the endowment of the minster at Stow St Mary, Lincolnshire. She and her husband are commemorated as benefactors of other monasteries at Leominster, Chester, Much Wenlock and Evesham.


The manor of Woolhope in Herefordshire, along with three others, was given to the cathedral at Hereford before the Norman Conquest by the benefactresses Wulviva and Godiva - usually held to be this Godiva and her sister. The church there has a 20th century stained glass window representing them.


Her mark, "di Ego Godiva Comitissa diu istud desideravi," appears on a charter purportedly given by Thorold of Bucknall to the Benedictine monastery of Spalding. However, this charter is considered spurious by many historians.Even so it is possible that Thorold, who appears in the Domesday Book as sheriff of Lincolnshire, was her brother.


After Leofric's death in 1057, his widow lived on until sometime between the Norman Conquest of 1066 and 1086. She is mentioned in the Domesday survey as one of the few Anglo-Saxons and the only woman to remain a major landholder shortly after the conquest. By the time of this great survey in 1086, Godiva had died, but her former lands are listed, although now held by others. Thus, Godiva apparently died between 1066 and 1086.


The place where Godiva was buried has been a matter of debate. According to the Evesham Chronicle, she was buried at the Church of the Blessed Trinity at Evesham, which is no longer standing. But, according to the authoritative account in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, "There is no reason to doubt that she was buried with her husband at Coventry, despite the assertion of the Evesham chronicle that she lay in Holy Trinity, Evesham."


Dugdale (1656) says that a window with representations of Leofric and Godiva was placed in Trinity Church, Coventry, about the time of Richard II.


The legend

Lady Godiva statue by Sir William Reid Dick unveiled at midday on 22 October 1949 in Broadgate, Coventry, a £20,000 gift from Mr WH Bassett-Green, a Coventrian. (photo 2005)According to the popular story,Lady Godiva took pity on the people of Coventry, who were suffering grievously under her husband's oppressive taxation. Lady Godiva appealed again and again to her husband, who obstinately refused to remit the tolls. At last, weary of her entreaties, he said he would grant her request if she would strip naked and ride through the streets of the town. Lady Godiva took him at his word and, after issuing a proclamation that all persons should keep within doors and shut their windows, she rode through the town, clothed only in her long hair. Only one person in the town, a tailor ever afterwards known as Peeping Tom, disobeyed her proclamation in one of the most famous instances of voyeurism. In the story, Tom bores a hole in his shutters so that he might see Godiva pass, and is struck blind.In the end, Godiva's husband keeps his word and abolishes the onerous taxes.


The oldest form of the legend has Godiva passing through Coventry market from one end to the other while the people were assembled, attended only by two knights. This version is given in Flores Historiarum by Roger of Wendover (died 1236), a somewhat gullible collector of anecdotes, who quoted from an earlier writer. The later story, with its episode of "Peeping Tom," appeared first among 17th century chroniclers.


Lady Godiva: Edmund Blair Leighton depicts the moment of decision (1892)At the time, it was customary for penitents to make a public procession in only their shift, a sleeveless white garment similar to a slip today and one which was certainly considered "underwear." Thus, some scholars speculate, Godiva may have actually travelled through town as a penitent, in her shift. Godiva's story may have passed into folk history to be recorded in a romanticised version. Another theory has it that Lady Godiva's "nakedness" may refer to her riding through the streets stripped of her jewellery, the trademark of her upper class rank. However, both these attempts to reconcile known facts with legend are weak; there is no known use of the word "naked" in the era of the earliest accounts to mean anything other than "without any clothing whatsoever."


Moreover, there is no trace of any version of the story in sources contemporary with Godiva, a story that would certainly have been recorded even in its most tame interpretations. Additionally, with the founding of Coventry circa 1043, there was little opportunity for the city to have developed to an extent that would have supported such a noble gesture. Lastly, the only recorded tolls were on horses. Thus, it remains doubtful whether there is any historical basis for the famous ride.


Like the story of Peeping Tom, the claim that Godiva's long hair effectively hid her nakedness from sight is generally believed to have been a later addition (cf. Rapunzel). Certain other thematic elements are familiar in myth and fable: the resistant Lord (cf. Esther and Ahasuerus), the exacted promise, the stringent condition and the test of chastity. Even if Peeping Tom is a late addition, his being struck blind demonstrates the closely knit themes of the violated mystery and the punished intruder (cf. Diana and Actaeon).


Popular culture

 In Lady Godina's Rout (1796), James Gillray appealed to the Godiva legend in caricaturing the fashions of the time.The Godiva Procession, a commemoration of the legendary ride was instituted on 31 May 1678, as part of Coventry fair, and was celebrated up to the 1960s. The part of Lady Godiva was usually played by a scantily clad actress or dancer and the occasion often attracted controversy. For instance in 1854 the Bishop of Worcester protested against "a Birmingham whore being paraded through the streets as Lady Godiva." These annual processions were enlivened by constant rumours, beforehand, that the girl playing the part of Lady Godiva would actually appear nude, like the original. These hopes were eventually realised in a play staged in 1974, at the Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, entitled The only true story of Lady Godiva, in which Lady Godiva appeared naked, riding a motor bike. The celebration has been revived as part of the Godiva Festival.


The wooden effigy of Peeping Tom which, from 1812 until World War II, looked out on the world from a hotel at the northwest corner of Hertford Street, Coventry, can now be found in Cathedral Lanes Shopping Centre. It represents a man in armour and was probably an image of Saint George. Nearby, in the 1950s rebuilt Broadgate, an animated Peeping Tom watches over Lady Godiva as she makes her hourly ride around the Godiva Clock.


From the mid 1980s a Coventry resident, Pru Porretta, has adopted a Lady Godiva role to promote community events and good works in the city. In 1999 Coventry councillors considered eliminating Godiva from the city's public identity. As of 2005, Porretta retains the status of Coventry's unofficial ambassador. Each September Poretta marks the occasion of Lady Godiva's birthday by leading a local pageant focusing on world peace and unity known as The Godiva Sisters. In August 2007, the Godiva Sisters was performed in front of 900 delegates from 69 countries attending the World Council for Gifted and Talented Children Biennial Conference held at the University of Warwick.


Engineering mascot

In many[who?][where?] university engineering faculties, military engineering corps and other engineering organisations, Lady Godiva is regarded as a mascot and called the "Patron Saint of Engineers" or "Goddess of Engineering." The origin is unclear, although it probably developed in Britain, where several early engineering schools were founded during the industrial revolution. The practice migrated to North America through Canadian schools, such as the University of Toronto and McMaster University which today holds an annual "Godiva Week" in January consisting of events intended to engender school spirit. By the mid-20th century, the practice of engineering organizations associating themselves with Lady Godiva was well established in the United States.


A particular tradition associated with this is that of drinking songs, which make reference to Lady Godiva, particularly Godiva's Hymn.

Historically, certain college organisations staged an annual "Godiva Ride" in which a naked female (or a costumed male) rode a horse across campus. This practice may have declined with the advent of modern feminist attitudes.




Several popular songs make contemporary usage of the Lady Godiva image.




Dorothy Reynolds portrayed Lady Godiva in the BBC TV series Hereward the Wake (1965).

In the Charmed episode "The Bare Witch Project," a student in Magic School accidentally conjures Lady Godiva and Lord Dyson out of a history book. Later, Phoebe, inspired by Lady Godiva, decides to ride naked through a crowded street in support of women's liberation.

In an episode "The Godiva Affair" of the British sitcom Dad's Army, women in the town of Walmington-on-Sea compete for the part of Lady Godiva to head a carnival procession in the town, ultimately performed by Elizabeth, the wife of Captain Mainwaring, causing him to collapse in astonishment and shame.

The Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling featured a character named Godiva who rode to the ring on a horse and wore a sheer bodysuit.

The Histeria! episode "Tribute to Tyrants" featured a sketch about the legend of Lady Godiva, portrayed by the World's Oldest Woman.

In one Frasier episode, a girl is wearing a Lady Godiva costume.

In another Frasier episode, the character of Maris was involved in an unfortunate chemical bonding incident while performing a Lady Godiva impression on a horse saddle her husband Niles Crane had bought her.

In the 'Twelve Hungry Men' episode of Hancock's Half Hour, a spoof of Twelve Angry Men, Hancock demonstrates his mangled view of the Godiva legend by comparing it to the case in hand: "Take the case of Doubting Thomas who was sent to Coventry for staring through a keyhole at Lady Godiva. Can anybody prove he was looking at her? Can anybody prove it was he who shouted 'Get your hair cut!'?"

In the Blackadder Goes Forth episode "Private Plane," Captain Blackadder (Rowan Atkinson) describes the Royal Flying Corps as "the biggest show-offs since Lady Godiva entered the royal enclosure at Ascot claiming she had literally nothing to wear."


In the Round the Twist episode "Linda Godiva," Linda helps Pete win a cross-country horse race by being invisible, she is later turned visible and is seen riding the horse naked.

In the first episode of The Vicar of Dibley, several characters reminisce about when Letitia Cropley rode through Dibley stark naked in a Lady Godiva reenactment.

In the Seinfeld episode "The Apology," Jerry's girlfriend regularly walks around in his apartment naked, and at one point he refers to her as "Lady Godiva.



Lady Godiva (1928), a British silent short with Gladys Jennings in the title role.

The Ghost Talks (1949), a short film featuring the Three Stooges in a slapstick send-up of the Lady Godiva legend. The film changes key elements of the legend, eliminating Tom's blindness as his penalty and inventing a relationship between the tailor and the Lady. After an encounter between the Stooges and a haunted, empty suit of armour occupied by the spirit of Peeping Tom, the Stooges act out the ghost's narrative of the events of the famous day in costumes based on the clothing of a period many years later than the life of the historic Godiva.

Lady Godiva of Coventry (1955) starring Irish actress Maureen O'Hara in the title role.

Lady Godiva in Coventry