Monday, 14 February 2011
John Maler Collier (1850–1934)
Lady Godiva did exist, but her naked ride through the town of Coventry is of slightly more doubtful provenance.
(Godiva, or "Godgifu", in saxon, her name means "gift of god")
Godiva lived in the eleventh century, she was married to Leofric, Lord of Coventry, Earl of Mercia.
Leofric was busy raising money for himself, and for his king, for an army to fight the danes, and as a result, he taxed all his vassals heavily. Coventry was the home of Godiva, of her people, and when she saw them, struggling and in poverty, due to Leofric's tolls ,she begged him to lift the taxes upon the town, have mercy upon her people. Leofric refused. Godiva begged and pleade, and cajoled. Her husband would not relent. the town, the villages, the county, the people, all were his, and he was determined to tax them, as was his right by birth, and by his position, set to rule over Mercia by his king.
"Besides," I hear him say, "All the finery that you are accustomed to wear as Countess of Mercia, and Lady Godiva of Coventry, all that costs a pretty penny, and you'd not go abroad dressed as a lesser person might, now, would you?"
Well, can you not hear the silence, the proverbial pin-drop, that pervades the room, as Godiva eyes her husband, this portly, important lord, all dressed in finery and glittering gold and jewels. She curls her lip a moment, then stands and faces him, with an angry glare "I'd ride naked through the town, rather than see my people go hungry!!
A moment's silence as Leofric frowns, his face dark with displeasure at her defiance. Then he throws back his head and laughs, after a while, his courtiers laugh a little too, unsure of their lord's mood. "You'd never dare!" he barks, roaring with mirth, as she stands defiant before him, "My wife of finest silks and precious jewels, ha! -My wife who takes half the morning to dress, my unruly wife, ha! the day I see her ride naked through the town, that's the day I lift the taxes! HA!"
She eyes him a little longer, meeting his gaze, challenging. "My Lord. We all heard you say that. The day I ride nude through the town, is the day you will free my people from taxes. It is your word. And you are a man of honour."
She prepared herself. Her promise had called for nakedness, so naked she would be, save for her long red hair, which she allowed to cascade over her body, using it as her only cloak.
The word passed through the town, that Godiva was prepared to humiliate herself, in order to lift the burden from the townsfolk. All agreed, that in respect for her, they would remain in their houses, with windows shuttered, and none would gaze upon her nakedness.
And so they did. It's said, one man, hearing her horse's hooves, was overcome by a need to see her..... but, as he unshuttered his window, he was struck blind. We still use his name today, he was known as "Peeping Tom".
When she returned to Leofric, having ridden through the town, she called upon him to honour his words, and so he did. He declared the citizens of the town free of all his tolls and taxes.
To this day, Coventry remembers Godiva, with gratitude.