The Historical Godiva
by Octavia Randolph

This essay serves as an afterword to my short fiction Ride published in Narrative Magazine

Godiva is the latinised form of the Old English name Godgyfu or Godgifu (literally, "God's gift" or "good gift"). Godgyfu was an 11th century Anglo-Saxon aristocrat whose life spanned one of the most tumultuous periods in early English history. Despite her illustrious husband, renowned piety, and religious benefactions, without the tantalising legend of her ride she would likely be completely forgotten.

What is known of Godgyfu is found in the chronicles of various religious foundations, mentions of her or her husband in charters, and the post-Conquest compilation known as the Domesday Book. The first positive record of her is in 1035, when she was already married to Leofric, Earl of Mercia. In this novel I place her from Newark in Nottinghamshire, as her estate of single greatest value was there, but this is conjecture on my part. Likewise, I have made her thirty-eight years old in 1042; her actual birth date is unknown. Similarly, the date of her ride through Coventry cannot be known; I have placed it the year before the dedication of the Priory she and Leofric built there. Here I must also acknowledge that despite records dating to the late 12th century concerning her ride, there are some modern scholars who doubt that it ever took place. I am persuaded that it did.

To return to fact: Like other Anglo-Saxon women of her class, Godgyfu owned property in her own right, both given to her by her parents and acquired through other means - gifts from her husband, inheritance from relatives, and purchases and exchanges from individuals and religious foundations. The modest farming village of Coventry was one of them. Domesday lists it, twenty years after her death, as having sixty-nine families.

Prior Æfic of Evesham was a vitally important figure in Godgyfu's life, and after she and her husband came under his influence Leofric restored to the Evesham foundation lands which he had previously alienated from it. We are further told by the Evesham chronicler that Godgyfu attended the burial of Æfic in 1038 and kept his memory ever in her heart. 

It is not known why Godgyfu and Leofric turned their attention to Coventry. As early as 1024 Bishop Æthelnoth (later to be Archbishop of Canterbury) gave to Leofric a priceless relic, the arm of St.Augustine of Hippo, which had been purchased by the bishop in Rome and which he apparently indicated was intended for Coventry. The Benedictine Priory of St.Mary, St.Osburgh, and All Saints was dedicated by Archbishop of Canterbury Eadsige in 1043, on property owned by Godgyfu. Within was a shrine to St. Osburgh which held her head encased in copper and gold. St.Augustine's arm took its place in a special shrine, and they gave also to the new Priory many ornaments of gold, silver and precious stones, so that it was famed for its richness. Leofric further endowed the Priory with estates in Warwickshire, Gloucestershire, Leicestershire, Northamptonshire, and Worcestershire.

Their religious endowments were many, restoring, enriching, or founding houses in Much Wenlock, Worcester, Evesham, Chester, Leominster, and Stow in Lincolnshire. This last, the Priory Church of St. Mary's Stow-in-Lindsay, is of particular interest as a significant portion of the beautiful and impressive extant church there issued from their hands. The earliest stonework in the church dates from 955; Godgyfu and Leofric greatly endowed and enriched it from 1053-55. The lofty crossing features four soaring rounded Saxon arches (which now enclose later pointed Norman arches built within the original Saxon arches). A 10th or 11th century graffito of an oared ship is scratched into the base of one of the Saxon arches, possibly a momento from a Danish raider who sailed up the nearby Trent. The north transept houses a narrow, deep Saxon doorway of honey-coloured stone, which would originally have been lime-washed and over-painted with decorative designs. It likely led to a chapel in Godgyfu's day, and surely she passed through this very arch. To experience St. Mary's Stow, built just ten years after the dedication of the Coventry church, is to begin to imagine what the Priory Church of St. Mary, St Osburgh, and All Saints may have been like.

Leofric was a man of considerable talent and statesmanship; no man could survive forty years as Earl without these qualities. Elevated to Earl (a title and position new to the English, replacing and expanding the Anglo-Saxon ealdorman) in 1017 by the Dane Cnut, he survived and thrived through Cnut's reign. Then followed that of Harold Harefoot (1035-1040), in whose selection as successor to Cnut Leofric was instrumental. Hardacnut, Cnut's other son, reigned next (1040-1042), and then began Edward the Confessor's rule (1042-1066).

Unsurprisingly for his age, Leofric could alternate between great rapacity and great piety, his depredations and subsequent generous benefactions upon Worcester being a case in point. Near the end of his life he experienced four religious visions which were carefully recorded by the monks at Worcester and published after his death in 1057. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle entry for 1057 noted "...In this same year, on 30 October, Earl Leofric passed away. He was very wise in all matters, both religious and secular, that benefited all this nation. He was buried at Coventry, and his son Ælfgar succeeded to his authority..." (G.N. Garmonsway translation).

Following his death, Godgyfu made additional gifts to the religious foundation at Worcester to aid in the repose of Leofric's soul, and for the benefit of her own. These gifts included altar frontals, wall hangings, bench covers, candlesticks, and a Bible, and joined a long list of items and estates the two had granted to Worcester in the years prior to Leofric's death.

Leofric and Godgyfu had one known child, the above-mentioned Ælfgar, who died in 1062. His daughter Ealdgyth was wed briefly first to a Welsh king and following his death, to Harold Godwineson, killed by William of Normandy's men on the field at Hastings. Thus for nine months Godgyfu was grandmother to the queen of England.

Godgyfu died in 1067, the year following Hastings. At her death she was one of the four or five richest women in England, with estates valued at £160. Her lands were then forfeit to new king William.

Godgyfu was buried next to her husband in the Priory church in Coventry they had created. According to chronicler William of Malmesbury, her dying act was characteristically pious: as a final gift to the Priory, she ordered hung about the neck of a statue of the Virgin Mary her personal rosary of precious stones.

The Legend

Over the centuries the story of Godgyfu's ride has enjoyed a life of its own. The oldest surviving account of it, dating from perhaps 1175, is reprinted in the front of this book. Later chroniclers embellished and expanded upon the legend:

But Gaufride sayth that this gentle and good Lady did not onely for the freeing of the said Citie and satisfying of her husbands pleasure, graunt vnto her sayde Husband to ryde as aforesayde: But also called in secret manner (by such as she put speciall trust in) all those that then were Magistrates and rulers of the said Citie of Couentrie, and vttered vnto them what good will she bare vnto the sayde Citie, and how shee had moued the Erle her husband to make the same free, the which vpon such condition as is afore mencioned, the sayde Erle graunted vnto her, which the sayde Lady was well contented to doe, requiring of them for the reuerence of womanhed, that at that day and tyme that she should ride (which was made certaine vnto them) that streight commaundement should be geuen throughout all the City, that euerie person should shut in their houses and Wyndowes, and none so hardy to looke out into the streetes, nor remayne in the stretes, vpon a very great paine, so that when the tyme came of her out ryding none sawe her, but her husbande and such as were present with him, and she and her Gentlewoman to wayte vpon her galoped through the Towne, where the people might here the treading of their Horsse, but they saw her not, and so she returned to her Husbande from the place from whence she came, her honestie saued, her purpose obteyned, her wisdome much commended, and her husbands imagination vtterly disappointed. And shortly after her returne, when shee had arayed and apparelled her selfe in most comely and seemly manner, then shee shewed her selfe openly to the peuple of the Citie of Couentrie, to the great joy and maruellous reioysing of all the Citizens and inhabitants of the same, who by her had receyued so great a benefite.
-from the account of Richard Grafton (d.1572) M.P. for Coventry

The introduction of the voyeur famously to be known as Peeping Tom is even more recent, a 17th century embroidery:

...In the Forenoone all householders were Commanded to keep in their Families shutting their doores & Windows close whilest the Duchess performed this good deed, which done she rode naked through the midst of the Towne, without any other Coverture save only her hair. But about the midst of the Citty her horse neighed, whereat one desirous to see the strange Case lett downe a Window, & looked out, for which fact, or for that the horse did neigh, as the cause thereof. Though all the Towne were Franchised, yet horses were not toll-free to this day.
- from the account of Humphrey Wanley (1672-1726)

It was left to Alfred Lord Tennyson, in 1842, to codify the tale into the form in which it became known around the world. 

I waited for the train at Coventry;

I hung with grooms and porters on the bridge, 

To watch the three tall spires; and there I shaped

The city's ancient legend into this:-

Not only we, the latest seed of Time,

New men, that in the flying of a wheel

Cry down the past, not only we, that prate

Of rights and wrongs, have loved the people well,

And loathed to see them overtax'd; but she

Did more, and underwent, and overcame, 

The woman of a thousand summers back, 

Godiva, wife to that grim Earl, who ruled

In Coventry: for when he laid a tax 

Upon his town, and all the mothers brought

Their children, clamouring, 'If we pay, we starve!'

She sought her lord, and found him, where he strode

About the hall, among his dogs, alone,

His beard a foot before him and his hair 

A yard behind. She told him of their tears,

And pray'd him, 'If they pay this tax, they starve.'

Whereat he stared, replying, half-amazed,

'You would not let your little finger ache

For such as these?' - 'But I would die', said she.

He laugh'd, and swore by Peter and by Paul;

Then fillip'd at the diamond in her ear;

'Oh ay, ay, ay, you talk!' -'Alas!' she said,

'But prove me what I would not do.'

And from a heart as rough as Esau's hand,

He answer'd, 'Ride you naked thro' the town,

And I repeal it;' and nodding, as in scorn, 

He parted, with great strides among his dogs.

So left alone, the passions of her mind,

As winds from all the compass shift and blow,

Made war upon each other for an hour,

Till pity won. She sent a herald forth,

And bade him cry, with sound of trumpet, all 

The hard condition; but that she would loose

The people: therefore, as they loved her well,

From then till noon no foot should pace the street,

No eye look down, she passing; but that all

Should keep within, door shut, and window barr'd.

Then fled she to her inmost bower, and there

Unclasp'd the wedded eagles of her belt,

The grim Earl's gift; but ever at a breath

She linger'd, looking like a summer moon

Half-dipt in cloud: anon she shook her head,

And shower'd the rippled ringlets to her knee;

Unclad herself in haste; adown the stair

Stole on; and, like a creeping sunbeam, slid

From piller unto pillar, until she reach'd

The Gateway, there she found her palfrey trapt 

In purple blazon'd with armorial gold.

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 little wide-mouth'd heads upon the spout

Had cunning eyes to see: the barking cur

Made her cheek flame; her palfrey's foot-fall shot

Light horrors thro' her pulses; the blind walls

Were full of chinks and holes; and overhead

Fantastic gables, crowding, stared: but she

Not less thro' all bore up, till, last, she saw

The white-flower'd elder-thicket from the field,

Gleam thro' the Gothic archway in the wall.

Then she rode back, clothed on with chasity;

And one low churl, compact of thankless earth,

The fatal byword of all years to come,

Boring a little auger-hole in fear,

Peep'd - but his eyes, before they had their will,

Were shrivell'd into darkness in his head,

And dropt before him. So the Powers, who wait

On noble deeds, cancell'd a sense misused;

And she, that knew not, pass'd: and all at once,

With twelve great shocks of sound, the shameless noon

Was clash'd and hammer'd from a hundred towers, 

One after one: but even then she gain'd

Her bower; whence reissuing, robed and crown'd,

To meet her lord, she took the tax away

And built herself an everlasting name.

All of these accounts ignore important facts, and are fraught with inconsistency and illogic. Coventry at the time of the ride is depicted not as a small village but as teeming metropolis (recall that twenty years after Godgyfu's death it had less than seventy families). There is no corroborating evidence to suggest that Leofric warranted the reputation of a husband who would order his virtuous wife to parade naked through town in an attempt to humiliate her at worst, or at best to prove the sincerity of her compassionate leanings. On the contrary, the long record of the joint benefactions of Godgyfu and Leofric indicate that theirs was a marriage of more or less equal tastes and aims. Divorce was far from uncommon amongst Anglo-Saxon aristocracy; if Godgyfu had found herself in an untenable marital situation the union could have been speedily dissolved, with her retaining all the property she had brought into the marriage, and custody of any minor children. Since only women mention household property in their wills, it is very likely that they alone were considered to own, and have the right to dispose of, furnishings acquired during the marriage. Thus separation from a husband who exhibited sadistic behaviour could be accomplished without undue economic hardship upon the departing wife.

But by far the most vital fact ignored in these retellings is that Godgyfu possessed the village of Coventry outright. She need not ask Leofric or anyone else to suspend or repeal any tax or toll upon it, as she controlled the collection of these herself. The sole exception was the heregeld, an onerous levy instituted by Cnut to pay for the king's personal body-guard. Until revoked by Edward the Confessor in 1051, it was a national tax, required of all. Godgyfu would not have been able to suspend it - but she certainly could have paid it from her own purse.

The reason for this persistent misrepresentation is simple, but profound in its implications to the unfolding of the tale. Because Anglo-Saxon woman - indeed all women in England - had by the time of even the earliest extant retelling lost the extensive property (and other personal and legal) rights they had enjoyed prior to the disaster of 1066, chroniclers wrote from the perspective of Norman law and mores. As the tale became sentimentalized and ever-more erotically charged, the victimization of Godgyfu became paramount - she must become a virtuous victim, compelled by an unfeeling husband to perform (in the chronicler's eyes) a humiliating act, in a Coventry subjected, as was she, to his utter domination. There is no room in these later recountings for a woman of independence and intelligence, acting out of deep-seated devotion, and inspired by well-remembered (and in some instances, still enacted) pre-Christian agricultural rituals and Biblical acts of religious dedication and contrition.

Despite - or because of - the perverting of the tale, it grew. But however obscured, its underpinnings remain sound. As Joan C. Lancaster, former City Historian of the City of Coventry, states in her definitive study, Godiva of Coventry, the legend was predicated on a

"genuine local tradition known to the Coventry people in the 12th century...It was based on memory of her piety and her share in atoning for her husband's sins, and also the removal of the heregeld when she was ruling over them."

It is this Godgyfu I choose to celebrate and honour.

Selected Bibilography

Godiva of Coventry, Joan C. Lancaster, Coventry Corporation, 1967

Lady Godiva: Images of a Legend in Art & Society, Ronald Aquilla Clarke and Patrick A.E. Day, City of Coventry, 1982 (pamphlet)

Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, G. N. Garmonsway, trans., J.M. Dent & Sons, 1975

Domesday Book, Thomas Hinde, editor, Coombe Books, 1996

The Beginnings of English Society, Dorothy Whitelock, Penguin, 1974

In addition Prof. Daniel Donoghue of Harvard University graciously allowed me to review several chapters of his manuscript, which has since been published as Lady Godiva: A Literary History of the Legend, Blackwell, 2002.

Useful website

Peter Barton's Coventry Pages offers a wealth of information on the city and its history.

Go Back to the previous page Godgfyu: Godiva of Coventry

The Great Hall Vikings Books 9th Century Life Travel Kit Bread Wort Anglo-Saxons


Site Map
Octavia, her Domain
Circle of Ceridwen
Ceridwen of Kilton
The Claiming
The Hall of Tyr
Young women with courage. Swords with names. Vikings with tattoos.
Warfare. Passion. Survival. Sheep. And Other Good Things...
Copyright 1996, 1998-2015 Octavia Randolph