You just never know who you’re going to find hanging around in your family tree.
In the upper left hand corner of the wonderful royal lineage chart created by Ky White for me, you can see Lady Godiva on her trusty steed.
Lady Godiva, of all people, is my 32 times great-grandmother. Yes, that means that the word great appears 32 times before the word grandmother. Amazing isn’t it. And you know, the very first thing I wonder is if I carry any of her autosomal DNA at all. As remote as it seems, at the 34 generation level, I obviously carry the DNA of some of my ancestors from 34 generations ago, or I would have no DNA at all.
The problem with finding DNA at this genealogical distance is first, that the DNA would likely be chopped into such small pieces that it would be extremely difficult to differentiate from other DNA – like IBP (identical by population) or even DNA inherited from other common ancestors. I have just one line back this far, so in the past 32 generations, were I to match someone else who also descended from Lady Godiva, it’s very possible, if not probable, that we both descend from other common ancestors as well. So DNA, at least today, isn’t an option for proving descent.
Discovering Lady Godiva as an ancestor was fun. Researching her was fun too. Of course, as luck would have it, I discovered that I descended from Lady Godiva about a year AFTER I stood in the square in Coventry (England), by her statue, entirely oblivious. Couldn’t she have whispered in my ear????
Wanna hear something really bad?? I left because I spotted a Starbucks down the street as the tour guide was talking about Lady Godiva. No kidding. I’m kicking myself now, let me assure you! My husband even said I was probably related to her, and I assured him that I was not. Duh. DUH!!!!! Kicking self.
I had not found my gateway ancestor yet at that time, who connected me back many generations through lots of royalty. A gateway ancestor is kind of a jackpot – because once you find them, a whole new world of royalty opens up to you. The difference between royalty and peasantry is that someone has done the genealogy of royalty already! Woohoooo.
So, let’s take a look at Coventry and the life of Lady Godiva.
Coventry, Warwickshire, England
The first chronicled event in the history of Coventry took place in 1016 when King Canute and his army of Danes were laying waste to many towns and villages in Warwickshire in a bid to take control of England, and on reaching the settlement of Coventry they destroyed the Saxon nunnery. Leofric, Earl of Mercia and his wife Lady Godiva (a corruption of her given name, “Godgifu”) rebuilt on the remains of the nunnery to found a Benedictine monastery in 1043 for an abbot and 24 monks, dedicated to St. Mary. Leofric had been appointed Earl by Canute and was one of the three most powerful men in the country, while Godiva was already a woman of high status before marriage and owned much land.
“He [Leofric] and his wife, the noble Countess Godgifu, a worshipper of God and devout lover of St Mary ever-virgin, built the monastery there from the foundations out of their own patrimony, and endowed it adequately with lands and made it so rich in various ornaments that in no monastery in England might be found the abundance of gold, silver, gems and precious stones that was at that time in its possession. ”
— John of Worcester
Edward the Confessor, who had been crowned King by this time, favored pious acts of this nature and granted a charter confirming Leofric and Godiva’s gift.
So, Lady Godiva was a powerful woman in her own right.
Godiva, or Godgifu in old English, known as Lady Godiva, lived from about 1040 to about 1067. She was an Anglo-Saxon noblewoman who, according to a legend dating back at least to the 13th century, rode naked – only covered in her long hair – through the streets of Coventry in order to gain a remission of the oppressive taxation imposed by her husband on his tenants.
This sounds like the ultimate marital disagreement and subsequent dare. Never challenge a strong woman!
The name “Peeping Tom” for a voyeur originates from later versions of this legend in which a man named Tom had watched her ride and was struck either blind or dead.
Godiva was the wife of Leofric, Earl of Mercia. They had one proven son Aelfgar, Earl of Mercia. So much for my hopes of mitochondrial DNA!
Godiva’s name occurs in charters and the Domesday survey, though the spelling varies. The Old English name Godgifu or Godgyfu meant “gift of God”; Godiva was the Latinized version. Since the name was a popular one, there are contemporaries of the same name.
If she is the same Godiva who appears in the history of Ely Abbey, now the Ely Cathedral in Ely, Cambridgeshire, the Liber Eliensis, written at the end of the 12th century, then she was a widow when Leofric married her. Both Leofric and Godiva were generous benefactors to religious houses. In 1043 Leofric founded and endowed a Benedictine monastery at Coventry on the site of a nunnery destroyed by the Danes in 1016. Writing in the 12th century, Roger of Wendover credits Godiva as the persuasive force behind this act. In the 1050s, her name is coupled with that of her husband on a grant of land to the monastery of St Mary, Worcester and the endowment of the minster at Stow, St. Mary, Lincolnshire.
Lady Godiva and her husband are commemorated as benefactors of other monasteries at Leominster, Chester, Much Wenlock and Evesham. She gave Coventry a number of works in precious metal made for the purpose by the famous goldsmith Mannig, and bequeathed a necklace valued at 100 marks of silver. Another necklace went to Evesham, to be hung around the figure of the Virgin accompanying the life-size gold and silver rood, a type of medieval cross, she and her husband gave, and St. Paul’s Cathedral in the City of London received a gold-fringed chasuble. She and her husband were among the most munificent of the several large Anglo-Saxon donors of the last decades before the Conquest. The early Norman bishops made short work of their gifts, carrying them off to Normandy or melting them down for bullion.
So, all things considered, she is the last person I’d expect to find riding naked through town.
The manor of Woolhope in Herefordshire, along with four others, was given to the cathedral at Hereford before the Norman Conquest by the benefactresses Wulviva and Godiva – usually held to be this Godiva and her sister. The church there has a 20th-century stained glass window representing them.
Her signature, “di Ego Godiva Comitissa diu istud desideravi”, [I, The Countess Godiva, have desired this for a long time], appears on a charter purportedly given by Thorold of Bucknall to the Benedictine monastery of Spalding. However, this charter is considered spurious by many historians. Even so it is possible that Thorold, who appears in the Domesday Book as sheriff of Lincolnshire, was her brother.
The Nude Ride
The legend of the nude ride is first recorded in the 13th century, in the Flores Historiarum and the adaptation of it by Roger of Wendover. Despite its considerable age, it is not regarded as plausible by modern historians, nor is it mentioned in the two centuries intervening between Godiva’s death and its first appearance, while her generous donations to the church receive various mentions.
According to the typical version of the story, Lady Godiva took pity on the people of Coventry, who were suffering grievously under her husband’s oppressive taxation. Lady Godiva appealed again and again to her husband, who obstinately refused to remit the tolls. At last, weary of her entreaties, he said he would grant her request if she would strip naked and ride on a horse through the streets of the town. The painting below, from 1892, depicts her moment of decision.
Lady Godiva took him at his word, and after issuing a proclamation that all persons should stay indoors and shut their windows, she rode through the town, clothed only in her long hair. Just one person in the town, a tailor ever afterwards known as Peeping Tom, disobeyed her proclamation in one of the most famous instances of voyeurism. In the story, Tom bores a hole in his shutters so that he might see Godiva pass, and is struck blind. A wooden statue of “Peeping Tom” shown in an 1826 article is shown below.
In the end, Lady Godiva’s husband keeps his word and abolishes the onerous taxes.
So, if this is true, then indeed, Lady Godiva is a heroine, a martyr of sorts and probably venerated by the townspeople. Too bad all she is remembered for is the naked part.
Some historians have discerned elements of pagan fertility rituals in the Godiva story, whereby a young “May Queen” was led to the sacred Cofa’s tree, perhaps to celebrate the renewal of spring. Cofa’s Tree was likely the source of the name Coventry and may have been a central or boundary tree around which Coventry sprung up.
The oldest form of the legend has Godiva passing through Coventry market from one end to the other while the people were assembled, attended only by two knights. This version is given in Flores Historiarum by Roger of Wendover (died 1236), a somewhat gullible collector of anecdotes, who quoted from unnamed earlier writers.
The truth of the matter is likely much more mundane.
Coventry was still a small settlement, with only 69 families (and the monastery) recorded in the Domesday Book some decades later. At that time, the only recorded tolls were on horses. Thus, it’s questionable whether there is any historical basis for the famous ride. The story is particularly doubtful since Countess Godiva would herself have been responsible for setting taxation in Coventry; Salic law, which excluded females from the inheritance of a throne or fief, did not apply in Anglo-Saxon society, and Coventry was unquestionably Anglo-Saxon. If only because of the nudity in the story, its popularity has been maintained, and spread internationally, with many references in modern popular culture – including a brand of chocolate named after her.
Other attempts to find a more plausible rationale for the legend include one based on the custom at the time for penitents to make a public procession in their shift, a sleeveless white garment similar to a slip today and one which was certainly considered “underwear” at that time.
Thus Godiva might have actually travelled through town as a penitent, in her shift. Godiva’s story could have passed into folk history to be recorded in a romanticized version. Another theory suggests that Lady Godiva’s “nakedness” might refer to her riding through the streets stripped of her jewelry, the trademark of her upper class rank. However, these attempts to reconcile known facts with legend are both weak; in the era of the earliest accounts, the word “naked” is only known to mean “without any clothing whatsoever.”
A modified version of the story was given by printer Richard Grafton, later elected MP for Coventry. According to his Chronicle of England (1569), “Leofricus” had already exempted the people of Coventry from “any maner of Tolle, Except onely of Horsse (sic.)”, so that Godiva (“Godina” in text) had agreed to the naked ride just to win relief for this horse tax. And as a pre-condition, she required the officials of Coventry to forbid the populace “upon a great pain” from watching her, and to shut themselves in and shutter all windows on the day of her ride. Grafton was an ardent Protestant and sanitized the earlier story.
The ballad “Leoffricus” in the Percy Folio (ca. 1650) conforms to Grafton’s version, saying that Lady Godiva performed her ride to remove the customs paid on horses, and that the town’s officers ordered the townsfolk to “shutt their dore, & clap their windowes downe,” and remain indoors on the day of her ride.
Lady Godiva’s Death
After Leofric’s death in 1057, his widow lived on until sometime between the Norman Conquest of 1066 and 1086. She is mentioned in the Domesday survey as one of the few Anglo-Saxons and the only woman to remain a major landholder shortly after the conquest. By the time of this great survey in 1086, Godiva had died, but her former lands are listed, although now held by others. Thus, Lady Godiva apparently died between 1066 and 1086.
The place where Godiva was buried has been a matter of debate. According to the Chronicon Abbatiae de Evesham, or Evesham Chronicle, she was buried at the Church of the Blessed Trinity at Evesham, which is no longer standing, although the bell tower (below) remains today.
According to the account in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, “There is no reason to doubt that she was buried with her husband at Coventry, despite the assertion of the Evesham chronicle that she lay in Holy Trinity, Evesham.”
Dugdale (1656) says that a window with representations of Leofric and Godiva was placed in Trinity Church, Coventry (below), about the time of Richard II (1367-1400)
No matter when she lived or died, or whether she rode naked or not, Lady Godiva is certainly a venerated figure of both mythology and history in Coventry today. And regardless, she is my ancestor. I’m so grateful that information about her does exist, and that it’s so very interesting.
A beautiful statue celebrates Lady Godiva’s ride forever in the old marketplace at Coventry.
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