A History of the County of Warwick: Volume 8, the City of Coventry and Borough of Warwick. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1969.
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THE LEGEND OF LADY GODIVA
The earliest known version of the story occurs in the Chronicle of Roger of Wendover (fn. 1) (d. 1237), and may be rendered as follows:
However, the countess Godiva, a devotee of the mother of God, desiring to free the town of Coventry from the heavy servitude of toll, often besought the earl, her husband, with earnest prayers to free the town from the said servitude and other troublesome exactions, by the guidance of Jesus Christ and his mother. The earl upbraided her for vainly seeking something so injurious to him and repeatedly forbade her to approach him again on the subject. Nevertheless, in her feminine pertinacity she exasperated her husband with her unceasing request and extorted from him the following reply: 'Mount your horse naked', he said, 'and ride through the market place of the town, from one side right to the other, while the people are congregated, and when you return you shall claim what you desire'. And the countess answered, 'And if I will do this, will you give me your permission?' And he said, 'I will.' Then the countess, beloved of God, accompanied by two soldiers, as it is said, mounting her horse naked, loosed her hair from its bands, so veiling the whole of her body, and thus passing through the market place she was seen by nobody (a nemine visa) except for her very white legs. Her journey completed, she returned rejoicing to her husband, and, as he wondered at the deed, she demanded of him what she had asked. Then Earl Leofric freed the town of Coventry and its inhabitants from the said servitude, confirming what he had done with a charter.
Except for the detail of the two accompanying soldiers, Wendover's Chronicle was copied almost verbatim by Matthew Paris (d. 1259) in his Chronica (fn. 2) and in the Flores Historiarum, (fn. 3) and by John of Tinmouth (c. 1336) and John of Brompton (fn. 4) (c. 1436). Another group of chroniclers, Ranulf Higden (d. 1364), Knighton (fl. 1363), and John Trevisa (fn. 5) (1387), while giving basically the same account, add a few details: that the ride took place in the morning 'through the midst of the city', and that its purpose was the freeing of the city from all tolls except that on horses.
A slightly different account is given in Grafton's Chronicle (fn. 6) (1569). Citing 'Gaufride' as his authority, Grafton says that before she set out on her ride Godiva explained her purpose to the city officials, who thereupon ordered all inhabitants to stay in their houses, shut their windows, and not look into the streets. Then with 'her gentlewoman to wait upon her', she galloped through the town unseen. 'Gaufride', who cannot be identified with any of the known Geoffries of that period - Geoffrey of Monmouth, Geoffrey Gaimar, Geoffrey of Swynbroke, or Geoffrey Malaterra (fn. 7) - may have been Geoffrey, prior of Coventry (1216-35) and author of a chronicle and register which are no longer extant. (fn. 8) This version of the story, therefore, which provides a framework for the Peeping Tom episode, may have received written form as early as the first half of the 13th century.
Camden (fn. 9) and Dugdale (fn. 10) simply repeated the version of Wendover and Knighton, but during the 17th century, the alternative account began to gain ground. Häfele (fn. 11) quotes a 17th-century ballad which is virtually Grafton in verse. A manuscript written temp. Charles II (fn. 12) repeats the countess's (fn. 13) injunction to the inhabitants to stay indoors and adds that someone 'let down a window' whereupon the horse neighed, and that this was the reason for the exception of horses from the general exemption from toll. This manuscript was copied from an earlier, probably 16th-century one, and E. S. Hartland (fn. 14) suggests that the expression 'let down a window' suggests an even earlier period, before glass for windows had come generally into use. The Revd. Rowland Davies, visiting Coventry in 1690, noted an 'image of an old man looking out of the window' at the end of Broadgate, that had been erected 'in memory of a fellow who peeped out there when the queen rode naked through the town'. (fn. 15) De Rapin Thoyras, writing in 1724, also noted the statue, and added that the man who was 'trop curieux', was put to death. (fn. 16) The earliest evidence for the name 'Peeping Tom' occurs in the city annals under the year 1773 (fn. 17) and Thomas Pennant, writing in 1782, calls him a tailor. (fn. 18) Thomas Seward, Canon of Lichfield (d. 1790), describes the peeper as 'one Actaeon, a groom of the countess', whose horse, recognising the groom, neighed. (fn. 19)
The written accounts of the Godiva story form only part of the tradition. Most of the oral tradition has been lost but some of it, in the form of ballads, was preserved. (fn. 20) The earliest non-literary evidence is a late-14th-century window in Holy Trinity Church representing Leofric and Godiva and originally bearing the inscription:
I Luriche for the love of thee Doe make Coventre tol-free (fn. 21)
The glass, which was in a south window, was removed in 1775, but parts of it were put in another window in 1779. (fn. 22) Fragments of the glass are still (1964) to be found in the church. (fn. 23) The original window portrayed Leofric as a middle-aged man with short hair and bushy beard, and Godiva opposite, a coronet on her golden hair, holding out her hands in entreaty. Above Leofric and Godiva was a small figure of a woman in a yellow dress, seated on a white horse and carrying a branch in her left hand. (fn. 24) After the Reformation Godiva came to replace to some extent the religious images of Catholicism and it was probably no coincidence that a picture of Godiva was painted in 1586 and hung in St. Mary's Hall about the same time as the plays were being suppressed. (fn. 25)
Godiva also became a symbol of civic freedom. As early as 1495 verses found on St. Michael's door denounced the recent tolls on wool and cloth and the exaction of fees from apprentices:
This cite should be free & nowe is bonde. Dame good Eve made it free (fn. 26)
The resurgence of interest in the legend in the late 17th century may have been connected with the struggle for the charters. The 1586 portrait was copied in 1681 by 'Mr. Ellis the limner' (fn. 27) and the first recorded Godiva procession took place in 1678, when 'James Swinnerton's son represented Lady Godiva' and a medal was struck in commemoration. (fn. 28) It is highly probable that the Peeping Tom statue mentioned by 18th-century writers can be identified with the figure put up in Greyfriars Lane by Alderman Owen in 1678. (fn. 29) The figure, carved from a single block of wood, represents a man in the armour 'of the time of Henry VII', and was probably a St. George. But it was painted and dressed in the clothes and wig of the time of Charles II, a fact which suggests that it was identified with Peeping Tom and carried in the Godiva procession since c. 1678. (fn. 30) The Godiva procession was an important part of the Great Show Fair throughout the 18th and first half of the 19th centuries. The details of the procession varied, but it usually included the mayor and corporation, the city companies, and a girl clad in a close-fitting, flesh-coloured costume to represent Lady Godiva. The character of the procession and accompanying festivities changed during the 19th century: the mayor and corporation ceased to take part after the Municipal Corporations Act of 1835 and the day of the procession was changed from Friday to Monday, while other historical personages connected with Coventry were introduced. During the 19th century, too, there were growing suspicions of the original purpose of the procession, which began to affront the prudery of upright citizens and the pious Christianity of Coventry Roman Catholics who wanted to replace it with a Marian procession, especially after a fiasco in 1842 when the actress impersonating Lady Godiva had celebrated too exuberantly and had to be held on to her horse. By 1900 the procession had ceased to be part of a genuine tradition and during the present century it has been held principally to mark special occasions, like the coronation of Edward VII in 1902, of George V in 1911, the peace celebrations in 1919, the Festival of Britain in 1951, and the Cathedral Festival in 1962. (fn. 31) Nevertheless Lady Godiva continues to provide a subject for literature and art, (fn. 32) one of the latest examples being the bronze equestrian statue by Sir William Reid Dick which was officially unveiled in the centre of Broadgate in 1949. (fn. 33)
It has long been accepted that the legend is very unlikely to be literally true. Godiva (fn. 34) was a historic person, the wife of Leofric, Earl of Mercia, mother of Ælfgar, Earl of East Anglia, and grandmother of Edwin and Morcar and of Aldgyth, wife of Gruffyd, Prince of Wales, and, after his death, of King Harold. She was a considerable landowner, probably in her own right, and a patron of several religious houses, including the Benedictine abbey at Coventry. She seems to have been a woman of conventional piety, which mainly took the form of benefactions to monasteries and a typically Anglo-Saxon devotion to the Virgin. This is attested by contemporary deeds and 12th-century chroniclers: Florence of Worcester (d. 1118), Symeon of Durham (fl. 1130), William of Malmesbury (d. 1143), Henry of Huntingdon (fl. 1154), Roger of Hoveden (fl. 1204), and Walter of Coventry (fl. 1217). (fn. 35) But there is no written evidence of the ride until Roger of Wendover (d. 1237) or possibly Geoffrey, Prior of Coventry from 1216 to 1235.
Even if Roger of Wendover and Geoffrey (fn. 36) used earlier writers, the story as they tell it presupposes a town, a developed community with a market-place and a charter of liberties. This, while true of 13th-or even 12th-century Coventry, was not an accurate description of Coventry in the mid 11th century. It has been calculated (fn. 37) that in 1086 Coventry was mainly an agricultural community of about 350 serfs living in single-story hovels, tolls being the least of their burdens. Furthermore, similar traditions at St. Briavels (Glos.), Dunster (Som.), Otmoor (Oxon.), and the Tichborne Crawls (Hants.), (fn. 38) and the close analogy with folklore and rites in Britain, Germany, Scandinavia, and even India, (fn. 39) suggests that the origin of the Godiva story and procession lies in pagan myth and ritual rather than in an act by the historic Countess Godiva.
Elements in the Godiva legend and other traditions relating to Coventry provide clues as to the nature of the original cult although any reconstruction must, in the absence of positive proof, remain conjectural. The naked woman with long hair, riding in a springtime procession, is the one constant factor in all variations of the legend and represents a goddess of fertility. (fn. 40) The tabu element of the Peeping Tom story may be a genuine part of the original myth, recalling similar penalties for those who intruded on the forbidden rites of other fertility goddesses - Artemis in Greece, the Bona Dea in Rome, Nerthus or Hertha in Germany and rainmaking ceremonies in India. (fn. 41) Like the intruder in other tabu stories, (fn. 42) however, Peeping Tom may have played a more positive part in the ritual, as the priest-king, the consort of the goddess who was sacrificed to ensure the fertility of the crops and herds, and well-being of the community. (fn. 43) Other men, often strangers or criminals, and finally animals, came to be substituted for the sacrificial priest-king, and this stage may be represented in the Coventry Hock Play. In many places at Hocktide - the Monday and Tuesday following the second Sunday after Easter - women caught and bound or 'hocked' any man they encountered and exacted a forfeit from him. At Coventry this simple custom seems to have developed in the 15th century into a play, said to commemorate the defeat of the Danes by Ethelred in 1002 or the death of Hardicanute and the end of the Danish regime. The play comprised a battle between two parties on hobby-horses, ending with the defeat of the Danes and the English women leading them captive. It is generally accepted (fn. 44) that this was an aetiological explanation for what was a seasonal rite involving the capture and death of the sacrificial victim. The 'hocking' with ropes may represent, not only the capture, but the actual death by hanging which was a common feature in northern religion, (fn. 45) while the 'battle' between the two sides probably derives from the struggle between rival communities for the body of the fertilizing victim. (fn. 46)
The final stage was the substitution of an animal for the human male victim, and this is probably represented in Coventry by the horse, an important part of the Godiva legend, which in some accounts is specifically related to Peeping Tom. The horse, particularly the white horse, was the main sacrificial animal in northern mythology, used in divination and especially associated with the fertility god, Freyr. (fn. 47) In Coventry, from the 13th century, and probably earlier, horses were in a special category in relation to tolls. In 1280 the whole town was said to be free from toll with the exception of horse toll, from which the burgesses were exempt but which they exacted from their under-tenants. (fn. 48) In 1355, when the prior gave up control of his Friday market, he specifically reserved the right to take toll for horses. (fn. 49) There is no mention of horse toll in the grants of fairs to the prior and earl, and it may have originated in the Friday (fn. 50) market, for which no charter exists, but which was certainly in existence by 1161-75. (fn. 51) There is evidence, however, in the form of an early, but undated, conveyance, (fn. 52) to suggest that horse toll may have been connected with the conditions of burgage tenure rather than with the grant of markets or fairs, and therefore to have originated in the 12th-century charters of the earls of Chester. (fn. 53) The explanation given by some of the chroniclers that the exception of horse toll was connected with the neighing of Godiva's horse when it noticed Peeping Tom, was probably a later aetiological rationalization, but it may well be correct in connecting it with the legend. As in the similar tradition at St. Briavels, (fn. 54) the toll may originally have represented payment made on the occasion of an annual festival, in the case of Coventry, to provide the sacrificial horse.
Besides its obviously phallic qualities, (fn. 55) the horse was also a symbol of death, (fn. 56) and the cult at Coventry was probably a typical one of fertility and death, winter and spring. In the two earliest accounts of the Godiva ride, Godiva did not make her journey alone. According to Geoffrey, she was accompanied by a lady-in-waiting, while Roger of Wendover records the presence of two soldiers. In the earliest detailed accounts of the Godiva procession - those of the 18th and early 19th centuries - she was accompanied, apart from the civic dignitaries, by St. George, men in black armour, or by a 'black Godiva'. E. S. Hartland (fn. 57) was the first to draw attention to an 18th-century procession featuring a white Godiva on a white horse and a black Godiva on a black horse at Southam, which had belonged to Earl Leofric and then to Coventry Priory. F. Bliss Burbidge, (fn. 58) who made further researches into the Southam procession, concluded that it was only a late-18th-century imitation of the nationally famous Coventry procession. This may well have been true, but his second conclusion, that 'a white lady on a white horse would naturally suggest the obverse' is much less plausible. Burbidge himself concluded that an illumination in the Coventry smiths' company book, showing a white lady on a white horse and a black lady on a black elephant, dated from 1707, nearly a century before the recorded Southam procession.
In the 1826 Coventry procession, (fn. 59) the black figure was a man in black armour, said to represent St. George. There may be a relatively late historical reason to account for the black figures - the 'St. George' representing the Black Prince, and the elephant, the arms of the city. But the presence of other black figures in the 1826 procession (fn. 60) and of black 'Godivas' in earlier processions recalls the almost universal 'black' figures in mummers' plays, sword-dances and legend generally. These have been explained as relics of a heat-charm in which faces were blackened by the smoke of a fire lit in semblance of the sun. (fn. 61) Faces may well have been blackened by smoke or charcoal from a fire, but the fire is more likely to have been that of a funeral pyre (fn. 62) and the symbol, that of death. The black Godiva was thus the death aspect of the life and death earth goddess. The Erinnys, Demeter, and Diana all had black cult statues devoted to the death aspect of their personality, (fn. 63) while numerous black Madonnas witness to the survival of worship long after the original object of the cult was forgotten. In the north death and fertility, winter and summer, were sometimes united in one goddess such as Freyja or appeared as the multiple disir or as Holda and Hel, twin aspects of the same deity. (fn. 64) The latter may well have featured in the Coventry cult, being reflected, not only in the black Godiva, but in the medieval Coventry plays, which featured a doomsday involving white, saved souls, and black, damned ones, presided over by the 'Mother of Death'. (fn. 65) The latter, which has no ancestry in Christian mythology, may well be identified with Hel, queen of the northern world of death. (fn. 66)
The presence of St. George in the Godiva procession may have survived from the memory of a god or hero, representative of life and enemy of evil and death. The figure of St. George, patron saint of horses, cattle, and vegetation, who appears as the main figure in mummers' plays, and in whose name 'ridings' similar to the Godiva procession were held, is generally agreed to be a thinly disguised survival of the priest-king of the spring festival. In the mummers' plays St. George is the victim, slain and resurrected. In more sophisticated romance he is the positive champion of good, slaying the dragon, symbol of darkness and death. (fn. 67) While the cult of St. George was widespread in the Middle Ages, there was a special connexion with Coventry, the scene, according to the 16th-century author of the Seven Champions of Christendom, (fn. 68) of George's birth and burial. Another figure of the same type, Guy of Warwick, slayer of dragons and giants, (fn. 69) was also associated with Coventry (fn. 70) where a large bone, said to have come from a gigantic boar killed by him at Swanswell (Swineswell), (fn. 71) was long preserved in St. George's Chapel at Gosford Gate. (fn. 72)
Professor Robert Graves (fn. 73) suggests that some of the features in the Godiva cult may be medieval, representing an Arabic cult that reached England via France and Spain at the time of the crusades or a little later. Black figures, especially linked with the dragon-slaying hero, belonged to an Arabic wisdom cult. He also suggests that the 'Dianic' cult, prevalent in the 12th and 13th centuries, was taken up about the same time. There is not necessarily a discrepancy here. The cult of the medieval 'Diana' was so similar to that of northern goddesses like Holda that it was frequently confused with them. The black figures may have been a later addition to the tradition, perhaps brought in by some of the Black Prince's retainers who had campaigned with him in Gascony and Spain. The Arabic cult may well have influenced the 13th-century romances of St. George and Guy of Warwick, in which Saracens and Moors as well as giants and dragons figure prominently. The local tradition of a death and fertility cult would have attracted stories and embellishments from later, more remote sources.
Coventry, the home of an isolated community in the wooded and well-watered Forest of Arden, was ideally situated for the survival of a pagan cult centuries after the country had been nominally Christianised. (fn. 74) It is now generally accepted that the name 'Coventry' is derived from Cofa's Tree, and, while this may have been merely a boundary-mark named after the chief of the community, it may have had an earlier significance as a sacred tree, (fn. 75) which, growing close to a well or pool - perhaps Swanswell, St. Osburg's Pool, or Hobb's Hole (fn. 76) - frequently became the site of a cult. (fn. 77) The cult seems to have been the common one of a life and death fertility goddess, perhaps called Cofa, or Freyja or Frija (the Lady) or Goda (the good). (fn. 78) A male consort was probably associated with her in myth and ritual and horses and possibly swine sacrificed to her. The cult, which was probably a northern one, basically AngloSaxon but strengthened by a fresh infusion of late paganism at the Danish invasion, (fn. 79) probably survived the foundation of St. Osburg's nunnery in the 10th century and of the Benedictine abbey in 1043, in the form of a spring procession with accompanying orgiastic and sacrificial rites.
The transference of veneration from a pagan goddess to the pious Countess Godiva, probably took place during the 12th century, at the initiative of the priory. Häfele (fn. 80) quotes suggestions that a description of Godiva's generosity to Coventry Abbey, in which she 'stripped herself' (denudata) of her worldly possessions, may have been misunderstood. A further confusion may have arisen between the abbey (convent') and the town (Covent'), a possibility which is strengthened by the form Conventrensis in which Coventry appears in some of the earliest chronicle accounts of the legend. (fn. 81) A local monk, knowing of the existence of a local festival and procession, perhaps in honour of Goda, reading that Godiva 'stripped herself' in her generosity to Convent, may have completed the story which received written form in the chronicles of Geoffrey and Roger of Wendover. It is even more likely that the legend was a deliberate attempt by the monks to Christianise the cult. At first they may have tried to forbid the Christian population from attending the procession, a prohibition which was reflected in the Peeping Tom tradition. But the most successful policy was that usually adopted by the Church in dealing with pagan customs which were too strong to be eradicated, namely to transfer the veneration to a Christian figure, usually a saint, and leave the custom while omitting its less desirable details. (fn. 82)
The springtime procession may well have had a continuous history throughout the Middle Ages. If the legend was manufactured during the 12th century when the monks were forging their charters, the procession probably became attached to the Great Show Fair during the 13th or 14th centuries. The procession may have first become attached to the prior's fair, which from 1239 was held on St. George's day. (fn. 83) Later, when the Earl's Half became more important than the Prior's Half, the procession could have been transferred to the earl's fair, held in the octave of Trinity. Miss Dormer Harris quotes evidence from the 15th, and 16th centuries to show that some kind of procession called a 'riding' accompanied the opening of the Show Fair, (fn. 84) and the figure in Holy Trinity window of a woman in a yellow dress holding a branch and riding on a horse, (fn. 85) may represent the medieval Godiva procession. In view of the well-attested connexion of this figure with the larger figures of Leofric and Godiva, Miss Dormer Harris's contention that the figure on the horse represents the sign for Taurus (fn. 86) may be rejected, although the mistake itself is significant. The sign for Taurus, April, was itself a representation of the spring procession in honour of the fertility goddess Venus or Eostre. (fn. 87)
The Godiva procession probably suffered the same fate as the Hock play, described in 1575 as 'lately laid down' owing to the 'zeal of certain preachers'. (fn. 88) The festivities were revived after the Restoration. Rawdon refers c. 1665 to an annual 'great feasting' which seems to have been connected with Lady Godiva, (fn. 89) although it may not have been until 1678 that the Godiva procession was revived. Few, if any, would have then been alive who had themselves witnessed the old procession. This may account for the fact that the St. George statue, correctly associated by tradition with the Godiva story, was transformed into the 17th-century figure of Tom the Tailor.