Godiva (c. 1040–1080)

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Godiva (c. 1040–1080)

Anglo-Saxon hero. Name variations: Godgifu; Lady Godiva. Born around 1040; died in 1080; flourished during the reign of Edward the Confessor (1050); sister of Thorold of Bucknall, sheriff of Lincolnshire; married Leofric, earl of Mercia and lord of Coventry, in Warwickshire (died 1057).

According to popular legend, Godiva was a Saxon woman, in the 11th century, who was married to Leofric, the earl of Mercia and lord of Coventry. When the inhabitants of Coventry found themselves so burdened by Leofric's oppressive taxes that they feared starvation, they appealed to Lady Godiva to intercede for them. In sympathy, Godiva petitioned her husband, requesting that—for her sake—the taxes be lowered. Initially, Leofric was unresponsive, but when Godiva persisted in her entreaties, he replied with contempt that he would only agree to reduce the taxes if she rode naked through the town.

Godiva sent word to the people of Coventry of the terms of the agreement and then issued a proclamation that on the designated day no one was to leave their house before noon, that all windows and apertures in houses should be closed, and that no one should look out until past noon. On the day appointed, mounted on a white horse and covered only by her long hair, Godiva rode through the town. Only one person disobeyed her order to remain indoors behind closed shutters, a tailor afterward known as Peeping Tom, who bored a hole in his shutters to look out and was, as the story goes, immediately struck blind. Leofric, in admiration of his wife's heroism, fulfilled his promise and freed the inhabitants from the burdens he had imposed.

The oldest form of the legend is quoted from earlier writers by Roger of Wendover (d. 1236) in Flores Historiarum. Roger records that Godiva, attended only by two soldiers, passed through Coventry market while the people were assembled, her long hair preventing her from being seen. It is undecided whether the Godiva of this legend is the historical Godiva (or Godgifu) who lived in the early part of the 11th century. The existence of this name at the time is confirmed by several ancient documents, including the Stow charter, the Spalding charter and the Domesday survey, though there are considerable discrepancies in the spelling of the name. From the Liber Eliensis (end of 12th century), it appears that she was a widow when she married Leofric in 1040. Godiva aided in the founding of a monastery at Stow, Lincolnshire, in or about the year of her marriage. She also persuaded Leofric to build and endow a Benedictine monastery at Coventry (1043). A charter given by her brother, Thorold of Bucknall, sheriff of Lincolnshire, to the Benedictine monastery of Spalding (1051) bore her mark: + Ego Godiva Comitissa diu istud desideravi. In addition, Godiva is commemorated as benefactor of other monasteries at Leominster, Chester, Wenlock, Worcester and Evesham.

A festival in honor of Godiva was later instituted as a part of the Coventry Fair in 1678 and was celebrated at intervals until 1826; the festival was again revived in 1848 and 1929. A window, with representations of Leofric and Godiva, was said by Sir William Dugdale (1656) to have been placed in Trinity Church, Coventry, around the time of Richard II. Tennyson's short poem "Godiva" deals with her story. A wooden effigy of Peeping Tom, which represents a man in armor, looks out on the world from a house at the northwest corner of Hertford Street, Coventry, and is said to likely be an image of St. George.

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Godiva (c. 1040–1080)

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