COVENTRY’S LADY GODIVA The City of Coventry is famous for many things, Ann Evans tell the story of its most famous woman – Lady Godiva.
A visit to Coventry would not be complete without discovering the city’s most famous woman from history, Lady Godiva. A bronze statue in her honour stands at Broadgate, the heart of the city. Remains of the priory she founded back in 1043 are still visible for visitors to see and explore.
She has been the inspiration for poets, painters, sculptors and historians for a thousand years. Mentioned in the Domesday Book, she was one of the greatest women of her time – the fourth richest woman in England and grandmother to a future Queen of England. She was a pious and generous benefactor to the church and built what was to become the only cathedral that Henry VIII destroyed in the Dissolution of the Monasteries – Lady Godiva. And of course, her famous ride naked through the streets of Coventry is what people recall most about her.
Lady Godiva, or Godigfu – Gift of God, was very much a real person. One thousand years ago, at the time of King Cnut, Godiva married Leofric, Earl of Mercia, a powerful nobleman who owned a third of England, they had a son – Aelfgas. Some historians believe it was her second marriage, and that Hereward the Wake was also her son. A rich and powerful woman, Godiva was renowned for her beauty and her piety. She was a generous benefactor to many religious establishments, but she built her most beautiful church in Coventry.
Built on consecrated ground, on the site of a former religious house for nuns, St Mary’s Priory Church with its one prior and 24 monks was consecrated in 1043 and later, in 1102 became Coventry’s first cathedral. Godiva gave all her gold, silver and jewels to be made into ornamentation for her church which held the relics of two saints – the head of Saint Osburg and the arm of Saint Augustine. Such relics attracted pilgrims to Coventry bringing education and trade.
Lord Leofric died on October 30 1057 and was buried in one of the church porches. Godiva outlived him a further ten years, she also outlived their son Aelfgas who died in 1062. Aelfgas’ daughter however grew up to marry Harold King of England, so for a while Godiva was grandmother to the future Queen of England.
Godiva herself died in 1067 and on her deathbed bequeathed her prayer beads which were made of jewels, to her church, and had them placed around the image of Mary holding the child Jesus, so that every pilgrim who passed would stop and say a prayer for each bead. She left behind a legacy of spirit and a legacy of faith – which has lived on into the 21st century.
As for that famous ride, there is no mentioned of it until 100 years after her death in the “Flowers of History” by Roger of Wendover, a monk at St Albans Abbey. These monks were renowned for collecting news and stories from passing travellers.
The legend tells of how Godiva persuaded her reluctant husband, Earl Leofric, to reduce the tax burden on the townspeople of Coventry. In particular, the heregeld tax. He agreed to do so – but at a price. If she would ride naked through Coventry’s marketplace at midday as a celebration of the perfection of God’s work. He would in return, abolish all local taxes save those on horses. To his surprise she agreed.
On the appointed day, flanked by two fully clothed horsewomen, she rode naked through the market, straight in her saddle, with a composed expression, unashamed of her nudity. The taxes were duly removed.
Historians argue that this would never have happened. Lady Godiva was herself a powerful woman. If she’d wanted to reduce taxes she would have simply done so – in Saxon law she had as much power as her husband. Additionally, the legend makes Leofric sound a grim, hard man, when in fact he was considered a saint in his time.
Some suggest that naked could have meant stripped of her finery. Others say the legend was nothing but a monkish tale.
As for the story of Peeping Tom – a local man who couldn’t resist taking a peek at Godiva as she rode by and was subsequently struck blind, there is actually no mention of him in ancient manuscripts or records until the 17th century.
Monkish tale or truth, Godiva’s story has lived on, and from the 17th century there have been Godiva processions and pageants. The first was in 1678 when Godiva was played by a boy as women and girls were not allowed to take part.
In 1862 Godiva was played by Madame Letitia, described as “fair, fat and at least forty”, who almost fainted half-way around the procession due to the heat and the fact that she was overweight. She was revived in a public house with gin.
In the 20th century the city council paid for an actress to play Godiva – La Milo, an ‘Artist of the Veils’, who, it was said, would ride without her veils. News of this outrageous spectacle caused furious arguments and tremendous media coverage. An incredible 30,000 people turned out to watch the procession. Many, no doubt, went home disappointed, as La Milo kept on all of her veils.
In 1949 a bronze statue of Lady Godiva was created by Sir William Reid Dick. This stands in Broadgate at the heart of the city centre as a reminder of this great lady.
Today, Coventry has its very own Lady Godiva. Pru Poretta, a mother of three and now a grandmother, took on the role in 1982 and has since become a true champion of the city.
Pru recalled that event, and how she actually made her horse blush. “I had made a burgundy-coloured velvet cape for the beautiful white horse I was to ride on but a thunderstorm drenched the three-hour procession. When we removed the cape, the colour had ran and the horse had turned pink – he was blushing!”
In 2009 Pru was made an MBE in the New Year’s Honours List. She is quoted at the time as saying, “Godiva fought injustices and helped people work together. A lot of what I do today is helping to bring the community together.”
Although she has made seven rides in Godiva pageants over the years, Pru’s real work, like Godiva’s is for the benefit of others. She regularly gives talks and tours, visits schools, hospitals and hospices. She tirelessly involves herself with community group projects and multi-cultural events. Making sure the story, the memory, the reality and the spirit of Lady Godiva lives on.