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Friday, 24 August, 2001, 15:31 GMT 16:31 UK
Lady Godiva: The naked truth
Lady Godiva
Archaeologists in Coventry have unearthed part of a 14th century stained glass window bearing the face of a beautiful woman. It is thought to be that of Lady Godiva, famous for riding naked through the streets of the city. Bob Chaundy, of the BBC's News Profiles Unit, lays bare the facts behind this "bareback" rider.

Unlike her legendary "cousin" Robin Hood, from up the road in Nottingham, Lady Godiva definitely existed. She lived in the 11th Century and was the wife of Leofric, Earl of Mercia, one of the most powerful noblemen in the land.

She is mentioned in the Domesday Book of 1086 as holding many estates in Warwickshire including Coventry, inherited from Leofric who died in 1057.

The Coventry excavation site where the glass shards were discovered
The Coventry excavation site where the glass shards were discovered
Documents show that she and her husband were generous benefactors to religious establishments at Evesham, Worcester, Chester and elsewhere.

The connection with Coventry began in 1043 when Leofric and Godiva founded an Abbey there after noting the lack of educational facilities for the clergy.

As the town of Coventry grew, so Leofric began assuming a greater role in its public affairs. He began handling the town's financial matters and initiated grand public works.

According to the story, Lady Godiva, who was much younger than Leofric, became a patron of the arts, believing they would raise the consciousness of the populace.

But a love of aesthetics was of little interest to a peasantry striving to keep body and soul together. So when Godiva persuaded her reluctant husband to reduce their tax burden, he agreed to do so at a price.

He pointed out that the ancient Greeks and Romans viewed a nude human body as one of the highest expressions of the perfection of nature. If his dear Lady wife truly believed in her crusade for art, she should lead by example.

John Collier's 19th century depiction of Godiva's ride
John Collier's 19th century depiction of Godiva's ride
If she would ride naked through Coventry market-place 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.

The story is one with which the City of Coventry has been happy to be associated. Indeed, the current city council's logo depicts the famous ride.

As Margaret Rylatt, the archaeologist behind this latest discovery points out, "In the 18th Century, the City held Godiva pageants as a way of enticing tourists."

Regrettably, though, the story of Lady Godiva's ride is almost certainly a myth. The earliest written record of it comes from one Roger of Wendover more than a century after Godiva's death. This medieval scribe is renowned for his exaggeration and politically biased embellishment; more a collector of stories and legends than genuine historian.

Coventry's municipal logo
Coventry's municipal logo depicts Lady Godiva's ride
Matthew of Westminster, writing in the 14th Century, infers that a miracle took place because the pious lady, in her state of undress, was not observed by anyone.

By the 17th Century the story had been elaborated to include a local boy named Tom who took a peek at Lady Godiva in all her natural glory. The expression Peeping Tom comes from this version of the story - but it was probably puritan propaganda desgined to blacken the reputation of the church before the Reformation.

Chroniclers of the 11th and 12th Centuries mention Godiva as a respectable religious woman of some beauty but do not allude to nude excursions in public.

It has been suggested that Godiva may have been naked in the sense that she was unadorned by jewels and the trappings of power. This seems unlikely too, since the ride would still have been noteworthy, and the word naked has no great record of being ambivalent. Look at Chaucer.

The academics' best guess is that some local church historian may have borrowed from various aspects of folklore concerning fertility rites which commonly feature ladies on horseback.

Maureen O'Hara
Glamourous stars like Maureen O'Hara have played Lady Godiva
A tale was made up about the pious Lady Godiva in order to attract pilgrims, and therefore, revenue, to Coventry. Others suggest the myth may have been constructed to disguise pagan activities.

The face on the newly-found glass shards is beautiful and crowned by wavy, golden hair. It was part of the east window of the former cathedral where, traditionally, the images of benefactors are depicted.

As Margaret Rylatt says, "It's the face we would have imagined Lady Godiva to have."

As with most legends, it's what we want to believe that counts.


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