Lady Godiva (c1040-1066/1086), Gift of God, 52 Ancestors #93

You just never know who you’re going to find hanging around in your family tree.

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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.

Chart Godiva crop

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.

Lady Godiva by John Collier

“Lady Godiva by John Collier” by John Collier in about 1897 – Unknown. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Lady_Godiva_by_John_Collier.jpg#/media/File:Lady_Godiva_by_John_Collier.jpg

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.

Ely Cathedral

“Ely Cathedral by John Buckler” by John Buckler (1770-1851) – http://oxfordprints.com/Cambridge%20Prints.htm (cropped and straightened by uploader). Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Ely_Cathedral_by_John_Buckler.JPG#/media/File:Ely_Cathedral_by_John_Buckler.JPG

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.

Maidstone

“Maidstone 018” by Linda Spashett Storye_book – Own work. Licensed under CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Maidstone_018.jpg#/media/File:Maidstone_018.jpg

Maidstone side

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.

Peeping Tom

“Peeping Tom effigy Coventry-Gentlemans Magazine-vol96(1826)-p20” by W. Reader – Reader, W. “Peeping Tom of Coventry and Lady Godiva”, p.20-, “Show Fair at Coventry described,” p.22- Gentleman’s Magazine: and Historical Chronicle. Vol. XCVI (Jul-Dec 1826) (books.google). Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Peeping_Tom_effigy_Coventry-Gentlemans_Magazine-vol96(1826)-p20.png#/media/File:Peeping_Tom_effigy_Coventry-Gentlemans_Magazine-vol96(1826)-p20.png

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.

Godiva's ride

Marshall Claxton: Lady Godiva (1850), the Herbert, Coventry

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.

Evesham Belltower

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)

Trinity Church, Coventry

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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32 thoughts on “Lady Godiva (c1040-1066/1086), Gift of God, 52 Ancestors #93

  1. Imagine finding her remains and getting a dna sample. I wonder what clues we would find and if that elusive confirming minute dna to tie you together could ever be discovered.

  2. Thank you Roberta for sharing this with us all.One of the charts has just confirmed my Pedigree,with the aid of my DNA match with Catherine Carey/Cary.

  3. Roberta I have the Courtenays as well. I visited Tiverton Castle in April—the earlier home before Powderham. Interesting that the Arms are the same as that of Eustace I etc the Counts of Boulogne….
    Kelly Wheaton

  4. As usual, great story. Thanks to your “Royal” chart, I now realize Lady Godiva was my great-grandmother too!

    I also want to thank you for your great explanations of all things DNA. Donna

  5. I loved reading this because my gateway ancestor also led to Lady Godiva (among others). Ever since I subscribed to your blog I have wished that we were related! And we are! Also through several of the Plantagenet kings including “bad” King John. I love the way you treat each ancestor seriously, and really look at the evidence (both in written histories and original document, and of course DNA). I’ve been trying to learn about genetic genealogy recently and your blog has really helped me to understand better how to make use of DNA along with traditional genealogy research. I LOVE the wonderful chart you had made and will have to follow up to find out how to get one for my family.

  6. Lady Godiva was my 30th great grandmother. According to my family tree she was born 975 to1067. Died at Coventry Warweckshire England

  7. You deserve to have such a fun ancestor, Roberta! I once walked by that fetching statue of Lady Godiva in Coventry. Funny, I shared your experience of walking by a landmark to find out a year later it was my ancestor – and it was the same day I saw your Lady Godiva statue! My British husband has cousins in nearby Lichfield, so I happened to stroll by a plague in the town square: “Edward Wightman of Burton-on-Trent was Burnt at the Stake in this Market Place for Heresy 11th April 1612 Being the Last Person in England so to Die.” I was rather upset by that, but even more so when I discovered later Edward was my 10th great granddad.

  8. There must be hundreds of thousands (millions?) of Godiva descendants around, and I might be one, too. A cousin of mine, who has done some ancestral tracing, says we are, but
    I can;t verify it. Anyway she is a wonderful historical figure and it is wonderful to be descended from her! Georgeann Johnson

  9. Hi there,

    This is a really cool find!

    I am a beginning genealogist, and I was just wondering, how you’ve been able to find and ascertain your ancient ancestries?

    Apologies if you’ve already written a post to this extent, I’ve just recently subscribed to your blog. This field is extremely fascinating to me, it’s an incredible way to connect genetics and history! 🙂

    Best regards,
    Mary

  10. Hereward the Wake was her son by many accounts. The Howards (Dukes of Norfolk) are some ofher descendents. This all may not be true but so many of us like the idea. I think she is my 32nd great grandmother……

    Steve in Oro Valley

    • I am a descendant of many royals, including the Howard’s. My connection to the Howard’s is from Duke Thomas Howard, 2nd Duke of Suffolk and his second wife Agnes Tilney. Catherine Howard, Duchess of Bridgewater is the mother of Agnes Ferch Rhys who was
      the mistress of Sir William Stourton, 7th Baron Stourton. They are my 12th great grandparents.
      I am almost 84 years old and I am still searching my Sanford line.
      I wanted to know who my ancestors were before I departed my current life.
      I have many lines to Lady Godiva.
      Glenda Spanfelner. London, Ontario, Canada

  11. As a lifetime resident of Coventry, may I append the latest understanding of the Godiva legend? Leofric and Godiva had been supported and their positions ratified by the Danish King Knut – and this did not sit very well with the townspeople who saw the Danes as occupiers. Godiva however was popular because of her piety and support for the poor. During a heated discussion with Leofric she protested that there was no real enmity from the townsfolk; to prove this she was willing to ride through the town ‘unprotected’ i.e. without the usual escort afforded to a lady of her position. This feat was recorded as having been ridden with her safety being assured and protected only by her saintliness and trust in god. Throughout history this became perhaps inevitably recorded in what we could term ‘tabloid’ fashion.

    • I loved that article! That’s really very interesting.

      I often wonder how on earth anyone can actually “prove” a genealogical connection for a thousand years ago? With all the Tom names and James names and all the others, there is simply no way to know for sure that far back. The only one I might believe is one family holding the original estate. Few (if any) are original pre-1066.

      I even read about DNA testing and comparison to other “descendants” but how does one know if the children were adopted? Perhaps abandoned originally but a parent took them in? DNA isn’t definitive.

      Yeah, I cannot take those claims very seriously. I apologize in advance to those who really believe they are descendants (and you very well may be) because I do not mean to sound insulting. It’s just one of those things that you either believe in or don’t, like Christianity or ghosts, or whatever.

  12. I was wondering if you found a connection of Lady Godiva and the painter John Collier? John is my 4th great grandpa & he painted Charles Darwin, my 5th cousin. Darwin’s mom Mary Collier & John Collier are brother & sister but I’ve found that he only painted family but I haven’t connected Lady Godiva yet.

  13. It didn’t take very long, once I really started searching, to find a bunch of great-grandparents who were descended from Charlamagne. That lead to an overload of information and (to me anyway) gave credence to the idea of “universal royalty” among most European immigrants to America.

    MY most interesting discoveries are more recent in genealogical terms. For example, my grandmother was a “Brainerd”. The Brainerd family produced a famous missionary to the Indians in the early 1700’s in N.J. by the name of David Brainerd. His biography was written by theologian Jonathan Edwards after David’s death. My daughter’s husband is a minister who was so impressed by the significance of this work that they named my grandson “Jonathan Edwards …”. At the time my grandson was named, there was no one alive in my family who knew of the relationship between my grandmother, David Brainerd, and Jonathan Edwards !! There is a preponderance of “educated” people in my lineage but no ministers within close descent. My daughter married a minister, my son is a missionary. Coincidence, DNA, Karma?

    The search can be fun, and is often hard work, but to me the best results are the stories of the people in “my family” and the surprises I often find!!

  14. DNA doesn’t keep getting cut up into smaller and smaller pieces, so it would be doubtful you would have DNA from her (not to mention a paper trail going back 34 generations most likely would be wrong anyways). You obviously haven’t done any multi generational DNA studies as you don’t seem to grasp how DNA is passed from generation to generation, small segments are simply passed in tact or lost they don’t get cut up into smaller and smaller segments like you seem to believe.

    • Actually, I’ve done and published several multi-generational studies if you check my blog articles. Small segments don’t always disappear. They may continue for generations. All segments are subject to being divided, and not exactly in half. That’s just how DNA works and small segments are no exception.

  15. My DNA links on GEDcom link me to lady Godiva. I am yet to build a family tree that far back in time. I am 48yo and STILL searching for my parents (and any other close family).

    • Lady Godiva’s DNA is not on GedMatch if that is what you meant, and she lived far too long ago for her DNA segments to be identifiable today. Many people think that because they match someone who descends from a particular ancestor that they do too, but that’s not always the case and certainly not with someone who lived so long ago.

  16. Nice to read
    I’m
    Also related to lady go diva 29th grandmother
    Mainly from the ripleys of Yorkshire you can look at my tree in ancestry if you wish also had dna done 25%scandanavia 24% western European so this would explain don’t no how deep you have gone with you tree but might find a lot of royal connections ie prince William
    18th cousin 1 removed happy hunting
    Kind regards
    Ian Wentworth wallis

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