Lady Godiva, West Midlands
The tale of Lady Godiva is an important one in our traditional British view of the world: it is a story of self-sacrifice; of the triumph of right over wrong; and of the punishment awaiting cheats.
There is much that is debated about the story, but it is a fact that there was a Lady Godiva, who was the wife of the powerful Earl of Mercia Leofric, who succeeding to the title about 1023 held that earldom in the reigns of Canute , Harold I , Hardicanute , and Edward the Confessor . He died in 1057, so though Godiva lived into the Norman era the great deed for which she is remembered took place before that.
Godiva was a major benefactress to the church in her own right and as the conscience of her husband: she endowed churches and other religious houses in Coventry, Evesham , Worcester , Chester , Leominster , and Much Wenlock .
The noble lady, so the legend goes, was saddened by her husband’s crippling taxes on the people of Coventry , and many a time tried to persuade him to ease their burden. He was hard of heart, however, and refused. But the pleading continued until the exasperated Earl offered her a way of securing her wishes: if she would ride on horseback through Coventry (or in some versions just the market there) naked, then he would agree to her demands. She took up his challenge, and had a proclamation made to the people of the town, asking them to stay indoors, close their shutters, and not to peek at her. When she made the ride, then, not a soul watched as the saintly Godiva, for safety’s sake covering herself as best she could with her long hair. Leofric was good for his word, and ceased wringing the last drops of income from the people of Coventry.
There are different versions of the legend, the earliest being recorded by monks at St Albans , evolving over the years to suit the storyteller and the times. A later addition to her story has a tailor determined to enjoy the moment, drilling a hole in his closed shutter to see the beautiful Godiva. But when he put his eye to the peep-hole he was blinded, a hard lesson for the first Peeping Tom.
Little evidence of excessive taxation by her husband has ever been found, and Coventry was only founded in1043, so was unlikely to have had much of a population or a great market place at that time. But why spoil a good story with facts?
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