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Lady Godgifu OF COVENTRY[1]

Female Abt 980 - 1067  (~ 87 years)

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  • Name Godgifu OF COVENTRY 
    Title Lady 
    Born Abt 980  Coventry, England Find all individuals with events at this location  [1
    Gender Female 
    Name Lady Godiva 
    _AMTID 330126065284:1030:114017017 
    _UID F4AAA2BB557D415CA903AC87AEA7D443B552 
    Died 10 Sep 1067  Coventry, West Midlands, England Find all individuals with events at this location  [1
    Buried Coventry, West Midlands, England Find all individuals with events at this location  [1
    • LADY GODIVA (Godgifu, in the spelling of her time.)


      An Anglo-Saxon gentlewoman, patron of the arts, equestrienne, and taxprotester, etc. All the historians say that she "flourished, circa 1040- 1080 A.D."

      Leofric, earl of Mercia, and husband of Lady Godiva, was a man of broadbut obscure interests; a religious man thoroughly Christian, and anentrepreneur, raconteur, and general all around good sport. At the sametime, he did have an avaricious streak in him, and it is for this reasonthat his name has survived through the ages, but more prominently forhis interesting response to the nagging of his bleeding-heart wife, whopestered him incessantly over details of the daily lives of the peasantsunder his control, and similar fussy matters.

      It's not that she was always being petulant about everything he did, butcertain of his actions caused her to be irritable, but that part of thestory comes later.

      Actually both Leofric and Godiva were quite religious, and upon theirmove to Coventry, Warwickshire, from Shrewsbury, Shropshire (whereLeofric had earned his fortune and title from amazing successes in themutton trade), they were immediately impressed by the lack of properfacilities for training and housing men of the cloth in or around theraucous little district of Coventry (pop. 6215). How, they thought, werethe spiritual needs of these simple souls to be cared for? At the sametime, being somewhat "nouveau riche" and anxious to make their mark inwhat passed for genteel society there (not having had the propercredentials to enter such circles back in Shropshire -- which may havebeen a big piece of the motivation for the move), they decided to applysome of their ready cash to a worthy public cause.

      Near the physical center of Coventry, where the bombed-out ruin ofmighty Coventry Cathedral stands today, Leofric and Godiva (in 1043)founded and funded an abbey (some accounts say monastery), named inhonor of Ste. Eunice of Saxmundham (an early martyr, slain by flaying atthe hands of the Romans). The abbey faced the rising sun, as was decreedit should by Leofric in a moment of romantic inspiration. A simpleaffair, made of wattle and daub with a roof of thatched reeds in themanner of the day, it was nevertheless imposing by standards in thevillage otherwise; it was the biggest structure in the entire region.

      Before long this edifice was something of a social focus for the town,functioning not only as a center for the education and housing of thosewho had received the calling, but also as a gathering point where morevulgar popular events and festivities could be celebrated. Leofric andGodiva came to be awarded the attention and respect they longed for fromthe start, and they had served the purposes of the church as well. Theydid not seem to mind that much of the activity circulating around theabbey was decidedly Druid in origin; at least the peasants were occupiedand happy. Coventry grew around the abbey.

      As a gentleman, and now established philanthropist of some local repute,Leofric assumed a growing role in the governance of public affairs, andwas given responsibility for certain financial matters (the town hadgrown enough to actually have financial matters), which he quicklyunderstood as presenting especially interesting opportunities. Onepublic work generated the idea of another, if only some money were athand to facilitate such growth...

      Meanwhile, Godiva's proficiency as a horsewoman had become polished to aconsiderable degree, as she had acquired a taste for the hunt and thesocial pleasantries which accrue to the activity "apres." Plus, thepeople she met during these excursions which provided such complacency,were of a disposition and delicacy of interest to which she had aspiredfor some time. She could do worse than to engage in certainpreoccupations of the intellect, and considerations of the aesthetic,and so she immersed herself in the arts and, therefore, society.

      Perhaps, she earnestly thought, aid to those industrious in this fieldof elevated concern (artists) would inspire the rude masses by means ofexample. Commissioning a proper portrait of herself would be a goodplace to start; it would be an inspiration for simpler souls, so thework was begun.

      It only slowly entered Godiva's consciousness that the lack of successshe was having in interesting the base masses in artistic concerns,beautiful pictures of herself spread around or not, was rooted in thefact that nearly all of them spent 100% of their waking hours inpartially effective efforts to feed and clothe themselves, and toprovide some form of shelter from the elements. Most were having a hardtime of it, in light of the fact that Leofric, in his new-foundmegalomaniacal grand-public-works mode, had been taxing everything hecould think of, even including a levy on manure.

      Lady Godiva would not have such noble aspirations -- such as art foreveryone -- placed on a back burner for the sake of boringconsiderations like a municipal water supply. Men had such ignoblevisions, always functional and mechanical, mostly never above waistlevel. This would not do, the taxes must be reduced if this earlymedieval subsistence-agriculture village was going to pull itself upinto the 11th century and its more cultured concerns. She went to have apointed talk with Leofric.

      Beside himself with raucous laughter, Leofric injured his left wristslightly as he fell off his stool in the hall of the village burghers,and this sobered him up rather quickly. Reduce taxes in order to fosterthe peasants' appreciation of silly pictures? Was she mad? Nowaterworks? There would be no tax reduction; as a matter of fact,Leofric added a new tax on pictures, which only had to be paid by hiswife since she was the only person who had any, except for the churchwhich was exempt.

      Their argument became a classic war of wills, taking the equally classicform of nagging versus stone-walling. However, at very long last, sincehis wife would not give up and was driving him to distraction and worse,Leofric capitulated, but, regarding it all as something of a sport,attached an interesting condition to his offer to allow some reductionin taxation.

      The ancient Greeks, he pointed out, and those coarser Romans as well,viewed the nude human body as one of the highest expressions of theperfection of Nature. Nudity was not seen as erotic in any sense, but aspurity, and a celebration of the wonderful form of a sensuous beingdisplayed in all its marvelous glory for the betterment and appreciationof those enlightened enough to consider this aesthetic. To present awell formed nude body as an object of great beauty, even art, would beto offer a lesson of inestimable value to the simple peasants ofCoventry, whose experiences and perceptions had never been enlightenedto appreciate such perfection.

      If Lady Godiva truly believed in the crusade she was promoting, then sheshould lead it herself, and offer to the citizens of Coventry an exampleof the glorious beauty to be understood by careful consideration of aperfect nude human body. There could be no shame in this, it would bethe most gross error to consider it as such. Was she ashamed of thewonders of God's work? Besides, with all that horse-back riding, andsimilar, she had lost some weight and looked pretty good.

      Therefore, Leofric proclaimed that if Lady Godiva would ride her horsethrough the crowded market-place of Coventry, in the full light ofmid-day, clothed in only that which God had given her, as an example ofthe perfection of God's work and as an expression of the highestpossible aesthetic -- she had been spreading pictures of herself aroundanyway -- then he would reduce taxes on the populace, lifting from themthe burden Godiva perceived, and erasing from himself any further doubthe might harbor of the sincerity of Godiva's convictions.

      To Leofric's absolute surprise, she agreed, once she had ensured thatshe actually had his "permission" to do so.

      Taken aback by his wife's courage and certainty in her purposes Leofric,somewhat overwhelmed, then stated that he fully accepted the truth ofLady Godiva's belief in the merits of her cause, and so in response, oncompletion of her ride he would not just reduce taxes, but would removeall of them -- save those tolls on horses which were already in placebefore he assumed his office, and which were necessary for basic needsof the city.

      A day was chosen for the event, and while no particular effort had beenexpended to publicize the ride, talk of it had spread in whispersthroughout the whole of Coventry. Not wishing to reveal that thisconcealed discussion had taken place, and since people were curiousabout all aspects of the affair and did not want to interrupt it, themarketplace's business proceeded as it might have done on any other lessinteresting Thursday in late August.

      As noon approached, so did Lady Godiva. She was not alone, but wasaccompanied by two female aides also on horseback, but normally clothed;one rode on each side and slightly to the rear. Three horses walking onthe cobbles in formation at a measured gait did not have the sound ofthe usual traffic and bustle, and so -- since all were secretly andeagerly anticipating the event -- her appearance was announced clearlyto everyone.

      She sat straight and properly in the saddle with a look of composure onher face; relaxed, confident, unashamed. Her hair was done in two largebraids which were curled snugly at the back of her head, one on eachside; she wore no jewelry or other adornment. People looked at her andsaw that she was not merely naked, or nude; rather she was in a higherstate of presentation -- being a correct and elevated quality of hercomposure, and resulting also from the people's appraisal, appreciation,and consideration beyond simple voyeurism.

      To all present this was an experience like no other in their lives. Theonly images of people unclothed they had ever seen were in the church:Adam and Eve, and the crucified Christ. This was a lady, simple andnormal with a body like that of every other woman present, a human, acreature of God's earth. Though he half meant it as a joke, Leofric'swords rang true: here was a celebration of being in its perfection.

      Perhaps, as well, some believed with Zoroaster that sex is the bounty ofGod.

      So, all survived the event with peacefulness and dignity, and the taxeswere removed.

      In the CHRONICA, written by Roger of Wendover (who died in 1236), theaccount of the year 1057 tells the story of Godiva's ride in fulldetail, and is the earliest surviving written description.

      Even more complete versions are provided by the famous historian RanulfHigden (died in 1364) in his POLYCHRONICON, and by Henry Knighton (diedc. 1396) who followed him, which explain not only the details of theride and its reasons, but also the specifics of the removed taxes, inparticular that all save those on horses were eliminated.

      Much later, King Edward I, being an inquisitive man (he devised anearnest, but rather awkward system for the classification of songbirdsin Wales), wished to discover the truth of the Godiva story and,therefore, commissioned an inquiry of ancient records which showed thatin 1057 and thereabouts, there were indeed no taxes levied in Coventryexcept those on horses, which was a rather anomalous situation not seenelsewhere at the time, thereby establishing the merit and probableaccuracy of the legend.

      The tale of "Peeping Tom", who was struck blind (or dead) when he alonegazed upon Lady Godiva was not added until the 17th century. This isalso true of the detail of the story, often added, that Godiva wascovered totally, except for her legs, by an enormous and improbablequantity of hair.

      Doubtless both of these embellishments were supplied later by prudishChristian churchmen who entirely missed the point and considered thatviewing the unclothed human body under any circumstance was a heinousact which would damn one to eternal hell fire; they certainly thoughtthe female body to be dirty and inferior to appreciation, and onlyworthy of being hidden from view. On the face of it such a view wouldseem to be a perversion, and affront to the beauty of God's work. TheGreeks felt that the idealized human form was the only one worthy torepresent the gods on earth. On the other hand, the Christian faith isunique in that it alone has, throughout its history, suppressed anycelebration of the beauty of the human body.

      So, what was Lady Godiva? A visionary; a social climber; a patron of thearts; a dilettante of the worst order?

      In any estimation, she had the guts to follow her convictions, and mayhave brought a degree of enlightenment to a small corner of 11th centuryEngland. And, probably, no one went to Hell because of it.

      © Jerome C. Krause
      A Festival in her honor was instituted as part of Coventry Fair in1678.
    Person ID I6905  Work in progress june2018
    Last Modified 9 Dec 2009 

    Family Leofric AP GRUFFYDD, of Merica,   b. 974, Norfolk, England Find all individuals with events at this location,   d. 31 Aug 1057, Bromley, Norfolkshire, England Find all individuals with events at this location  (Age 83 years) 
    Married 1016  Norfolk, England Find all individuals with events at this location  [1
     1. Algar Gruffydd MALET,   b. Abt 1002, Norfolk, England Find all individuals with events at this location,   d. 1059, England Find all individuals with events at this location  (Age ~ 57 years)
    Last Modified 30 Jun 2018 
    Family ID F3772  Group Sheet  |  Family Chart