Dispelling Some Myths: Lady Godiva’s naked ride
Did you know the city of Coventry has an official Lady Godiva? To be honest we didn’t until recently when we discovered that Pru Porretta MBE (pictured) is said person and has been for 40 years.
Background Coventry’s Lady Godiva Procession goes back as far as 1678, but the tradition gradually faded out and ended in 1962. After a twenty year gap, however, it was decided to revive the tradition for the Coventry Carnival of 1982. Interviews were held with young women for a volunteer to not only ride through Coventry but also be the official Lady Godiva for the year, spreading the story of the self-sacrifice she had made for Coventry’s citizens, and promote the city itself. Pru Porretta was duly chosen and rode in her first official Lady Godiva Procession on June 12th, 1982 that started from the War Memorial Park and circled for 6 miles around the city before returning to the park. Little did Pru know that she would still be in demand as Lady Godiva 40 years later.
But what of Lady Godiva herself? She is most remembered for the folklore story of her naked ride through Coventry that she allegedly made to free the city’s people from harsh taxes. Pru has re-imagined the role of Godiva as a strong female leader seeking social justice, but who was the real Lady Godiva, and did she actually ride naked through the streets?
The real Godiva Lady Godiva was a legitimate key figure in the history of Coventry. She was born in AD 990 although it is not known when she died . The real Godiva, or ‘Godgifu’ as some sources name her, was an 11th century noblewoman married to Leofric, the powerful Earl of Mercia and Lord of Coventry. Although subject to the Danish King Knut (‘Canute’) rule, Earls like Leofric effectively controlled Anglo-Saxon England. As the Earl’s wife Godiva was a rich landowner in her own right, and one of her most valuable properties was Coventry, but she was also known for being generous to the church.
The history Despite the historical legitimacy, which is to say that Coventry and Godiva both existed at the time, there is much doubt on her ride through Coventry due to a lack of contemporary records. The story first appeared approximately one hundred years after her death, and the monk, Roger of Wendover, who wrote of it in the 12th century was known for stretching the truth in his writings.
The 900-year-old story was first recorded, in Latin, by two monks at St. Albans Abbey, Hertfordshire. As the Abbey stood at an important road junction, it has been assumed the monks heard the story from travellers making their way to the London. That the story has transcended not just space, from the Midlands to London, but time, being part of folklore for over 900 years, just what makes it so enduring?
The Story In essence it is a titillating tale. Sometime in the 11th century a proud, pious noblewoman rode through Coventry on market day completely naked, covered by nothing but her long hair. The first question is why?
According to the legend, her husband Leofric was a tyrant. He intimidated the Church and held neither the same religious convictions as his wife nor her fondness for the Midlands and its people. He demanded that the townsfolk of Coventry pay Heregeld (‘army tax’), a crippling tax imposed to pay for King Knut’s bodyguard. Troubled by the crippling taxes Leofric had levied and aiming to help the citizens of Coventry, Godiva repeatedly pleaded for him to lessen the burden. Leofric supposedly quipped, ‘You will have to ride naked through Coventry before I change my ways’, confident that his demure, modest wife would never do such a thing.
But Lady Godiva took him at his word. On the morning of a market day in Coventry Godiva ordered the people to stay in their homes to preserve her modesty. As the story goes, she stripped naked and rode through the streets veiled only by her long golden hair, which was long enough to cover all her body such that only her face and legs were visible. One man, a tailor, disobeyed Godiva’s instructions and could not resist opening his window to look upon Godiva riding past. Upon doing so, this ‘Peeping Tom’ was struck blind.
Her naked ride completed, Godiva confronted her husband and demanded that he honour his end of the bargain. True to his word, Leofric freed the people’s from paying heregeld, and reputedly ceased his persecution of the Church. Leofric appears to have undergone a religious conversion after this incident and he and Godiva funded a Benedictine monastery in Coventry where they were both buried. Sadly all traces of this monastery have long since disappeared.
Legend becomes myth As with most tales of this sort they alter with the telling over the centuries. The character of ‘Peeping Tom’ for example appears to have been added in the 16th century since when it has become a common term for a voyeur. By the 17th century a revised version of the story said that before her ‘ride’, Godiva sent messengers throughout the town insisting that all the people stay indoors with their windows shuttered on the day. As she was very popular with the people (unlike her husband) and every taxpayer realised that they stood to gain from her ‘heroic act’, they did as she requested.
The annual Coventry Fair kept the Godiva story alive until the English Reformation of the 16th century when the festival was banned and not revived until 1678. From then on ‘Godiva’ rode through the Coventry streets on a snow-white horse accompanied by a man whose chief skill it seems lay in his ability to make rude, suggestive gestures. Lady Godiva’s story was mythologised in popular songs, and in verse by poets like Alfred, Lord Tennyson, who wrote his ‘Godiva’ in 1840. Also in the Victorian period such subjects were a staple of artists following the pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. A perfect example is Lady Godiva an 1897 painting by English artist John Maler Collier that portrays her well-known but apocryphal ride through Coventry. It may be viewed in Coventry's Herbert Art Gallery and Museum. As mentioned at the start, the Lady Godiva Procession was revived in 1982 and now takes place annually in June.
The story endures today largely because of the nudity, yet most historians consider this to be a crass and titillating myth. Lady Godiva was indeed a real person from the 11th century AD. She was known for her generosity to the church, and along with Leofric, she helped found a Benedictine monastery in Coventry. Contemporary accounts of her life note that ‘Godgifu’ was one of only a few female landowners in England in the 1000s. What the records make no mention of is a clothes-free horse ride on a market day in Coventry.
Moreover, there is modern misconception about what constitutes ‘naked’ in the past. The ancient Greek authors, for example, often used the word γυμνός (gumnos) when describing contemporary warriors. Modern translations often take this to mean these men went into battle ‘naked’ or ‘nude’ but, as can be seen in the InfoBox right, gumnos can have the intended meaning of ‘unarmed, without armour, or defenceless’. So, which do we believe is the more likely in the Greek example, and was Lady Godiva naked as depicted in Collier painting?
The short answer is probably not. It is possible that the nudity myth originated in Puritan propaganda designed to blacken the reputation of the notably pious Lady Godiva. Chroniclers of the 11th and 12th centuries mention Godiva as a respectable religious woman of some beauty but make no allusion to nude excursions in public.
A more plausible rationale for the legend is based on the custom at the time for penitents to make a public procession in their shift, a sleeveless white garment similar to a slip today and one which was certainly considered ‘underwear’ in Godiva's time. If this were the case, Godiva might have actually travelled through town as a penitent in her shift, likely unshod and stripped of the jewellery that was a trademark of her high status. Similarly, for a noblewoman of Godiva’s standing being in public without her head covered or with long flowing, loose hair would have been considered a sign of impropriety - loose hair, loose woman. It is most likely that, if she did indeed ride through Coventry, her unadorned state in public would have been considered highly unusual and give rise to descriptions of her going naked. If correct, then it becomes easier to see how such an event would be so memorable and bring about the legend which would later be romanticised in folk history.
Andrews, E., (2014), ‘Who was Lady Godiva?’, History.com, Available online (accessed July 21st, 2022).
Coventry Society News, (2022), ‘Coventry’s official Lady Godiva Celebrates her Ruby Anniversary‘, Available online (accessed August 6th, 2022).
Johnson, B., ‘Lady Godiva’, Historic UK, Available online (accessed July 21st, 2022).
Simcox, G., (2018), ‘The Truth Behind The Legend of Lady Godiva’, The Culture Trip, Available online (accessed July 21st, 2022).
1. Her death is assumed to be between 1066 and 1086 but that leaves a rather large twenty year window of uncertainty.