Countess Godiva

Lady Godiva by John Collier

A legend is a valuable asset to any location, over the years attracting many pilgrims, visitors and tourists to the area associated with it; one has only to think of legendary figures like Robin Hood or King Arthur. Indeed so valuable is the legend of King Arthur that he is associated with many parts of the British Isles. The value and strength of a good legend lies in its relevance to and interpretation by the audience of the time and not allowing historical facts get in the way of the creation of an heroic figure, but the dangers are of an idealised or nostalgic view of our past. Like most ancient and mixed peoples we have a folk memory drawn from many different sources that were originally preserved or elaborated on, presented and passed on through an oral storytelling tradition. Our rich legacy of myths and legends and stories have been gathered together from many sources, over centuries, by the many inhabitants, invaders and settlers in the British Isles. The later tradition of recording through writing preserved only a fraction of these stories and in doing so captured a particular version, for a purpose desired by the writer, thus losing the original context of the story. This transformation is probably most obvious with Arthur whose origins as a local historical figure, a Romano British warlord for a small part of Britain, was taken out of time and overlaid with medieval or middle ages trappings to transform him into a powerful hero King of Britain; part myth, part legend and part fairytale, waiting only for the direst need of those listening to the story, to come again to the aid of Britain.

The legend of Godiva, who dates from the first half of the eleventh century, has been valuable to Coventry ever since the earliest version of the tax-lifting ride was written down at the turn of the thirteenth century. In common with many figures from myth, very little is known about the real eleventh century woman who gave her name to the legend, and in common with other legendary figures very little evidence can be assembled that can substantiate the legend.

Godiva is the Latin form of the Saxon name Godgifu or Godgyfu, meaning God’s gift; it was a popular female name of the time. She was a highborn Anglo Saxon woman, who lived in the eleventh century. She became the wife of Earl Leofric of Mercia one of the most powerful men in England. She was a wealthy and powerful woman yet despite this, the lady, around whom the myth was woven, remains a shadowy figure in history, even the place and dates of her birth and death are by no means certain. Various dates have been suggested for the birth of Godiva, none of them verifiable, she was born sometime between 980 and the turn of the century probably somewhere in England into a noble family. There are also several dates for her death which was probably sometime between the 1066 and 1086. The most popular date seems to be 1067 though this may be too early as she is mentioned in Doomsday, as one of few Anglo Saxons to retain land after the conquest, and the only woman mentioned as a landholder. It is possible to conjecture that she retained her lands through an agreement between William 1 and Leofric prior to the conquest. She is recorded as holding many estates in Warwickshire including Coventry. Godiva died and was buried somewhere in Mercia, possibly in Coventry though more likely in Evesham where she was living in retirement after the death of Leofric.

There is some confusion about her family; her father was possibly Thorold Sheriff of Lincoln though there is other perhaps stronger evidence that Thorold was her brother, as his name appears in Doomsday, which would indicate that he was her peer. He is, along with Godiva, one of few Saxons who retained land after the conquest. She was married to Leofric III Earl of Mercia who was born in 968 and who died in 1057. They married in 1016 when Leofric would have been 48 and Godiva was probably in her early to mid 30’s. The marriage of Leofric and Godiva took place in Norfolk in 1016. There is evidence that their union produced two children; a son Ælfgar who eventually succeeded his father as Earl, and also a daughter name unknown. Their daughter may have eventually married into the Malet family. There is a possibility that this union with Leofric may have been Godiva’s second marriage because depending which birth date is considered she may have been older than was normal for it to have been a first marriage. In addition F. Burbage quotes in his book from the Chronicle of Ely Monastery of the earliest reference that he found about Godiva, when she was in communication with Leofric. This same source, he interprets as describing Godiva as, the widow of an earl living in the time of Canute”. Dorothy Wenlock (1952) observes that in Saxon England a widow was free to decide for herself about a second marriage. Saxon women could also hold and dispose of land, a right that no longer existed in Norman England.

Leofric was the son of Leofwine, who had been ealdorman of the Hwicce under Æthelred, and according to Sir F. Stenton was one of only two Englishmen to remain in power during the reign of Danish king Cnut, Earl Godwine being the other. It was Cnut who made Leofric Earl of Mercia. Mercia was a large and important land holding which consisted of the counties of Southern Buckinghamshire, Cheshire, Gloucestershire, Herefordshire, Oxfordshire, Shropshire, Staffordshire, Warwickshire and Worcestershire.  Dorothy Wenlock (1952) observes that by the tenth century the office of Ealdorman was more or less hereditary. Both Godwine and Leofric had accumulated extensive lands through inheritance, gift and by purchase. The Anglo Saxon chronicles record that when Harold succeeded to his earldom on the death of his father Godwin, that the earldom he had previously held was given to Leofric’s son Ælfgar. It further records that in 1055 Ælfgar was outlawed without having done anything to deserve his fate”, indicating a struggle for power between the families of Wessex and Mercia. It is interesting to note that Ælfgar took immediate action, he went to Ireland with a force of 18 ships and then to Wales, King Gruffydd in a very shrewd move considering what was to happen in 1056, supported Ælfgar and they marched on Hereford where they did a great deal of damage. The result of this action was a deal in which the Ælfgar’s outlawry was revoked and all his lands were returned to him.

By the end of Cnut’s reign Godwine Earl of Wessex and Leofric of Mercia were his chief advisors. Such was their power that Sir F. Stenton comments, The rivalry of the families which they bought to eminence fatally weakened the possibility of a united English resistance to the Norman invasion of 1066. Commenting on Leofric; Stenton goes on to say that, “Leofric himself was regarded by contemporaries as an upright man…. he seems to have maintained himself in power for more than twenty years without violence and aggression. That they were both accomplished statesmen and the equal of each other in political intrigue is demonstrated by the fact that Leofric and Godwine remained in their powerful positions of influence after the death of Cnut, throughout the violent difficulties of the Anglo Danish successions and on into the reign of Edward I also known as ‘the Confessor’. In 1056 Leofric, though an old man, remained in a position of power and influence, he was one of a powerful group of nobles who negotiated a settlement between Gruffydd ap Llywelyn king of Gwynedd and Powys, and Edward, in which Gruffydd accepted Edward as his lord in return for extensive territories. When Leofric died in the autumn of 1057 his sole surviving son Ælfgar succeeded him. The Anglo Saxon Chronicle says of Leofric “He was very wise in all matters, both religious and secular, that benefited all this nation.”

Godiva and Leofric were generous benefactors to a number of religious establishments including Evesham, Worcester and Chester. Their connection with Coventry began in 1043 when Countess Godiva and Earl Leofric founded a Benedictine monastery there. This priory was built on the site of a former nunnery reputed to have stood there for a century or two, which had stood near the River Sherbourne in a clearing in the Forest of Arden. One interpretation of the origin of the name Coventry is to link convent a religious house and tre, which is a Celtic word for settlement. The Danes destroyed this nunnery in 1016. Leofric and Godiva endowed the monastery with great wealth and valuable goods including a decorated copper shrine to St. Osburg the Benedictine nun who had founded the original nunnery. A town began to grow out of the settlement supplying the priory that attracted craftsmen and merchants and employed labourers.


Remains of West wall of Coventry’s first cathedral St. Mary’s

Popular myth places the date of the ride c1045, but it must be noted that by the middle of the eleventh century Coventry was probably little more than a small agricultural and crafts based community of wooden framed wattle and daub constructed houses and workshops around the abbey which was probably also still under construction. If Godiva did ride through Coventry it would have been an extremely brief ride weaving in and out of low timber constructed houses, houses it should be noted that had very few windows. Evidence from Doomsday states that by c1086 there were still only 69 families living in Coventry. There is no evidence that Leofric and Godiva ever spent time in Coventry, though it may be expected that they would have passed through on a visit to the religious house they had endowed. There was no castle or establishment in the area that would have been suitable for their occupation so the only place they could have stayed in locally would be the guest house of the priory if one existed. The priory and priory cathedral would have been the major landmark and the only stone building in the area.

Anglo Saxon house

The priory buildings eventually occupied land from what is marked on a modern map as Priory Row to Pool Meadow. It was a huge important building, comparable in size to Lichfield Cathedral and contained many holy relics which made it an important centre for pilgrims. Controversy enveloped the Cathedral of St. Mary’s at the turn of the 12th century when Robert de Limsey ambitious Bishop of Chester persuaded Pope Paschal to authorise him as the first Bishop of Coventry. Once in post he began to strip the cathedral of much of it's wealth and allowed the buildings to fall into disrepair, he was also guilty of forging charters to legitimise his actions. This desecration continued until 1119 when Pope Innocent III was persuaded to hand the Priory back to the monks. Building work began again with the construction of the church of Holy Trinity for the priory. It was around this time that the construction of St. Michael’s church and Coventry’s first Castle were also started. The priory founded by Leofric and Godiva lasted for 400 years, becoming the site of Coventry’s first cathedral, until its destruction during the dissolution in the reign of Henry VIII.


The Coventry that we imagine would have existed at the time of the ride with its two or three storey stone buildings, bustling market place and cobbled streets is a Coventry of a much later age, this is the Coventry recorded by much later poets and artists (refer to the picture at the start of this article). Coventry was not large or important enough to warrant a castle until the reign of King Stephen in the twelfth century. Earl Ranulf Gernons erected a castle (1129 –1153), it is unknown whether the castle was built of wood or stone but it was most likely to have been positioned on an artificial motte. The castle fell victim to the conflict in England at the time between Stephen and Matilda. In 1143 Sir Robert Marmion besieged the castle, presumably because Ranulf Gernons was a supporter of Matilda. In 1145 Stephen imprisoned Ranulf and deprived him of his castles and eventually had the castle in Coventry destroyed. It was later rebuilt and is referred to in a charter by Earl Hugh of Chester (c1160 –1176); this subsequent castle was likely to have been of a more ambitious construction. The Earls of Chester built many stone castles; therefore, it is probable that this castle had a stone keep or tower and perhaps stone curtain walls. Castles of this time had a keep on a mound surrounded by a deep ditch.

Very little is known of Coventry castle or subsequent series of castle constructions and positions, they were likely to have been in existence for a very short period of time, roughly one hundred years, and since then the possible location has been greatly altered and built over. Streets often take their names from local castles, so Broadgate, Bailey Lane and Hay Lane may offer clues to the location of the castle. The castle was still in existence in the early thirteenth century it was referred to in a charter by Earl Ranulf Blundeville (c1200 – 1210), from these dates it would seem most likely that Coventry Castle was finally destroyed by order of King John during a purge of the castles of his opponents. It may be of note that around this time and during this dip in the fortunes of Coventry that the earliest version of the Godiva ride was being recorded. There are no further references to a castle in Coventry. By 1249 Coventry’s fortunes seem to be on the up again with a report that Earl Roger de Montalt was occupying Cheylesmore manor and improving fortifications or building a new manor house. The Coventry eventually had a wall for its defence, which was begun in 1355 and destroyed in 1662.

Partly reconstructed manor house

According to the Anglo Saxon Chronicles Earl Leofric died in October 1057 at his villa at Bromleage (Bromley in Staffordshire). “…who was very wise before God, and also before the world; and who benefited all this nation. He lies at Coventry. His son Ælfgar inherited his lands and titles. Although it is stated in the chronicles that Leofric was buried in Coventry, in the monastery that he founded, there is no evidence that Godiva was buried with him. Indeed Burbage interprets the chronicles of Evesham as showing that Godiva retired to live there after the death of her husband and was buried in the church of the Blessed Trinity (no longer standing). He quotes from the chronicle about Prior Æfic of Evesham. Then your worthy Prior Æfic departed from this daylight …. and his grave worthily exists in the same church of the same pious Countess Godiva, and of whom, so long as he lived, he was a friend. Amongst other gifts to religious houses, Godiva left a necklace of precious gems to adorn the statue of the Virgin Mary in the abbey church in Coventry. It is recorded that in c1075 just before she died Godiva left by will to the statue of Our Lady in a certain monastery the circlet of precious stones which she had threaded on a cord in order that by fingering them one after another she might count her prayers exactly.” (Malmesbury, “Gesta Pont.”, Rolls series 311). As it was not until mid twelfth century that the Ave Maria or Hail Mary came into general use this was probably to count Paternosters, repetitions of the Lord’s Prayer.

It should be noted that chroniclers of the 11th and 12th century write of Godiva with respect as a religious woman, some mention her beauty, but significantly there is no mention of the ride by those of her contemporaries who knew her well. The Evesham chronicler refers to gifts of Leofricus and Godgiva and the creation of the church of Holy Trinity at Evesham and Godiva’s burial there but makes no mention of the ride. The fact that none of the contemporary chroniclers who wrote about Godiva mention anything about the ride is a substantial piece of evidence against the ride ever having taken place. Something so amazing, so shocking as the wife of one of the most powerful men in England riding naked or otherwise, through a small settlement would have required at least a mention. It has been suggested that Godiva may have been naked in the sense that she was unadorned by the jewels and the trappings of power, or that it may have been an unadorned pilgrimage as a display of piety. This would even so have been an event of note in the life of the famous lady and would have required some mention by her chroniclers, especially if as is claimed it resulted in taxation changes.

In fact the earliest written recording of the ride comes over a hundred years after Godiva’s death. It dates from c1188 – 1237 in ‘Flowers of History’ by Roger of Wendover (a history writer to the Abbey of St Albans). Roger of Wendover it must be noted does not have a reputation for accurate reporting of even contemporary events, being prone to exaggeration and embellishment for political bias. His stories are not accurate recordings of historical events but more the collection of stories and legends attached to a rough framework of historical facts. He records the death of Leofric Earl of Chester “a man of praise-worthy life: he was buried in the monastery which he has founded at Coventry.” He adds that this foundation was by the advice of his wife Countess Godiva; and that they also endowed and enriched other churches Worcester, St. Mary of Stone and St. Wereburg, and the monasteries of Evesham, Wenloc and Lenton. Having praised the Earl and made his observation of how Godiva apparently had no difficulties persuading Leofric to part with money to endow these religious houses, he then goes on to record a story which shows them both in a contradictory light, the Earl mean and despotic and Godiva having to resort to desperate measures to extract money from her husband. His account tells that Godiva longing to free the town of Coventry from heavy tolls appealed to Leofric who rebuked her for advocating an action to his financial detriment. Godiva persevered and at last Leofric said that he would remove the tolls if she rode naked through the market. So Godiva loosed her hair so that it covered her body and then made the journey on horseback attended by two knights, her state of undress unseen except for her legs. Leofric then agreed to remove the tolls and confirmed this by a charter.

Matthew of Westminster writing in the 14th Century recorded a similar story and makes the inference that a miracle took place because the pious lady in her state of undress was not observed by anyone. Ranulphus Higden (d. 1364) monk of St. Werburga’s at Chester also recorded the story but with slight differences, he says Godiva rode at dawn and that Leofric freed Coventry of all tolls or taxes except for those on horses. Henry Knighton c1363 a canon of Saint Mary’s Abbey Leicester also recorded the story and based his version on Higden’s. John Brompton c1436 Abbot of Jorvaux based his version on those of Roger of Wendover and Matthew of Westminster. In addition he noted that Leofric was buried at Coventry in the monastery that he and his Godiva founded, adding where there is also the shrine containing the arm of St Augustine. John of Tynemouth c1366 a monk of St. Albans who wrote about the lives of various saints recorded a similar version to the original. John Rous, possibly of Brinklow, educated at Oxford and priest of Guys Cliff, Warwick also recorded a similar version. Robert Fabian alderman of the City of London 1493 – 1511 also recorded a similar version of the story but this time in English. A later version was written by Richard Grafton MP for Coventry 1562 – 1563, he was also a printer and a Protestant; again he based his version on previous versions.

Peeping Tom is a much later embellishment of the story dating from the 17th century. Paul de Rapin first recorded Tom in a version of the Godiva story in his ‘History of England’. Burbidge suggests from his investigations that Peeping Tom was invented or introduced just prior to the Restoration, suggesting from evidence he discovered, that for many years after his introduction the character of Tom was dressed in the style of Charles II. This may have been intended originally as a political mockery, or it may have been intended as an insult to the monarchy as being lewd and disrespectful to pious women. By the beginning of the 18th century the character of peeping Tom was firmly established and referred to by several visitors to Coventry including Daniel Defoe. Many of these visitors included a mention of the carved figure of Peeping Tom. Interestingly the carved figure is very old, and predates the introduction of Tom, the carving may have come originally from one of the local religious houses, maybe as a casualty of the dissolution. The figure appears to have originally been the carving of a knight wearing armour and a close fitting helmet and possibly dates to the c14th century.

Burbage reports a tradition recorded by a churchwarden of St. Michael’s church and published in 1876 that the Coventry pageants had been altered when Catholicism was banned. Intended as a mockery a naked woman rode through the streets she was followed by a jester called a Merry Andrew in a house on a cart who was to look at her out of the window and to make rude jokes – another form of peeping Tom. However it seems that following the death from a fall of one jester during the procession no one would take the role and it ceased to be part of the procession. The Godiva pageant in one form or another continued on and off through the years, often with the marked disapproval of the local clergy.

Where history, myth and folklore meet there are often confusions and hybrids, again we have only to look at the many versions of the story of King Arthur. Folklore traditions from the Forest of Arden contain many references to women on horseback, this range from fertility rites to stories of fairy tale. There are ancient traditions of a cult of Godda a Goddess or in other versions a Fairy Queen said to ride about the countryside dressed in green and mounted on a white horse. Some versions of this tradition name her Godiva. So there is potentially a Godda or Godiva of story easily confused in an oral tradition with a Godiva of history. Other local traditions connected to this are to be found in rhyme, for example

 ‘Ride a cock horse to Banbury Cross,  
              to see a fine lady upon a white horse,  

              rings on her fingers and bells on her toes,
              she shall have music wherever she goes’.

In another version the words Coventry Cross replace Banbury Cross. Southam also laid claim to the Godiva figure of history or legend having had in the past a pageant in which a white and a black Godiva figures rode together.

Joan C. Lancaster in ‘Godiva of Coventry’ has a chapter contributed by H. R. Ellis Davidson on local folklore, where a suggestion is made that Godiva was naked in the sense that she was stripped of her finery, her jewellery and adornments which were to be given to the church. Or alternatively that the horse she rode was stripped of finery, where the marks of rank were removed, again as an act of penance or humility. Here the suggestion made is that in the oral tradition of storytelling, this might then have become confused with stories of local pagan fertility rites. These stories or even practices may well have lingered in isolated rural areas in the forest of Arden long after the conversion to Christianity, where a virgin possibly riding on a donkey, was paraded naked around the village and fields in the spring to ensure fertility of the land. Many local traditions still in evidence now have their origins in pre Christian times and are associated with fertility rituals for example well dressing, bonfires and maypole dancing, these would have been held in spring or at midsummer and have their origins in ensuring the fertility of the land and the community.

With the Christian churches ability to adopt and religiously legitimise Pagan festivals by overlaying them with Christian ones it could be argued that the church aimed to disguise or adopt, as Christian, local pagan activities with the construct of the Godiva myth. Indeed by attaching to a fertility rite the name of a pious woman and local benefactor, the community could ensure that the local church could sanction a pagan fertility goddess procession.

An interesting point to note is that before the Norman conquest it is highly likely that Godiva would have been sanctified in some way possibly even sainted for her pious life by the Anglo Saxon church, the political changes and Norman clergy would have prevented this. This represented a financial loss to Coventry and St Mary’s Cathedral, deprived of a sainted attraction to pilgrims. This loss of revenue could in some way be made good by the creation of a legend of a pious lady and her noble ride a story that would draw in visitors to Coventry much as a saint’s shrine would have done. The ingredients were all present, the existence of a pious lady who benefited local religious houses, elements of local folklore about naked rides, plus the added attraction of a protest against unfair taxation. All that was required was a church historian with an active imagination to put the story together and something as lucrative as a local saint was created. Throughout history taxation has never been a popular method of authority raising money from the populace so it follows that protest against taxation is a powerful ingredient to have in a legend. After all without his protests against unfair taxation, and his robbing of the rich to give back to the poor, Robin Hood would have been merely the story of an outlaw criminal rather than an outlaw hero.

In conclusion it seems clear that the historical Godiva whilst pious and generous did not make any sort of tax protesting ride through the streets of Coventry; romantic and heroic though the story is. It was her name and reputation as a virtuous and pious woman that were appropriated to create an enduring myth of innocence and virtue triumphing over cruel tyranny. The myth as part of our cultural heritage is a colourful and interesting way of looking events from the past, there is a danger, however, if we confuse or mix up myth with reality that we fail to find out about and to acknowledge the truth about our historical past. John Tosh in the ‘The Pursuit of History’ 1991 goes further when he states “Myth making about the past, however desirable the end it may serve, is incompatible with learning from the past.” A myth is an entertaining story; its purpose is not to record the true past but to weave together elements of romance, heroic deeds around a person or event to promote ideals of justice and freedom from perceived tyranny and to nurture hope in those most likely to feel powerless.



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Burbidge, F. Bliss - Old Coventry and Lady Godiva.

John Tosh – The Pursuit of History published by Longman 2nd Edition 1991

Lancaster, Joan C. - Godiva of Coventry with a chapter on the folk tradition of story by H. R. Ellis Davidson  Coventry Corporation 1967 (Coventry City Council Coventry Papers Vol. 1).

Roger of Wendover - (Flores historarium – English) Vol 1, London: H. G. Bohn, 1894 (Bohn’s antiquarian library) (Translated from latin by G. A. Giles DCL and Henry G. Bohn York Street, Covent Garden M DCCC XLIX).

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Written by Cecilia Parsons 1999, 2000 revised 2004©