The Lady of Chastity and Piety

“Then she rode forth, clothed on with chastity:

The deep air listen’d round her as she rode,

And all the low wind hardly breathed for fear.”

The statue of Lady Godiva, which graces the city centre

Those are the words of the poem by Alfred, Lord Tennyson that made Lady Godiva the legend she is today. If it’s one thing Coventry is known for, it is the legend of Godiva, but the legend faces many controversies today, from where she was actually buried to questioning if she was really naked.

Two monks at St.Alban’s Abbey in Hertfordshire first recorded the story of Lady Godiva riding through Coventry, naked on a horse. Yet, it is believed that it is Tennyson’s poem that made the story of Lady Godiva this famous.

The very first version of the story recorded that Godiva rode through Coventry on Market Day with everyone watching. Yet the version by Tennyson related that before riding out she ordered everyone to stay indoors. This proud and pious lady rode on her horse completely naked covered only by her long blonde hair. She did this all for the love of her people in Coventry who had to face a very harsh tax implemented by her husband, the Earl of Mercia. He promised her to take off the tax if she would ride naked through the town. Writes Natasha De Silva…

Andrew Mealey, Senior Librarian of the Coventry History Centre expressed his theory on the “nakedness” of the legend. He believes that when they say she rode naked through the town, what they actually meant was that she rode on a naked horse; i.e. an unsaddled horse. Nevertheless, the story could have changed over time.

Another legend that was born along side the story of Godiva was ‘Peeping Tom’. Did he really exist? No one knows, but he was an important part of the story. “Peeping Tom has nothing to do with the original story,” said Mr. Mealey. However, it was recorded that he was blinded because he didn’t obey the order: “Peep’d–but his eyes, before they had their will, Were shrivell’d into darkness in his head”. A statue of Peeping Tom can be seen in Coventry’s Cathedral Lanes shopping centre.

This legend is still kept alive in the hearts of the people with the ‘Godiva Festival’, that takes place every year in July. Every year the procession takes place depicting the tale that took place 900 years ago. During the Reformation in the 16th century the procession was banned and was revived again in 1678.  That was not all, again in the 19th century the procession faced a lot of opposition. People were more sensitive about nudity and “they thought it was immoral” explained Mr.Mealey.

Mr. Mealey continued that in recent times, “the feminist movement have been very critical of the Godiva story but she is represented as chastity and piety.”

The clock tower depicting the tale of Lady Godiva

Moreover, the clock tower in the city centre which portrayed the naked Lady riding on a horse when the clock strikes the hour, faced a lot of controversy. People of Coventry disapproved of it because they thought it was not dignified enough to be in the city centre. Nevertheless, it can be seen as a monument to remember the most loved heroine of Coventry.

It is believed that Lady Godiva and Leofric were buried at the Benedictine Monastery Godiva built in Coventry. In spite of this, there have been rival claims that Lady Godiva was not buried in Coventry but in a church in Evesham. Local historians claim that it has been recorded in the Evesham Chronicle, a medieval text written hundreds of years ago. The town has taken it so seriously thay they have built a historical trail to bring tourism to Evesham. However, Mr.Mealey argues: “Nobody really knows exactly where she is buried… nobody will ever know now.” Despite these claims, Lady Godiva will be the heroine that the people of Coventry love, and the legend that Coventry is known for.

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