“There’s nothing unclassy about being naked, if it’s appropriate”

It’s that most magical time of the year when those that work in offices for people much richer than themselves often cash in on holiday gifts such as boxes of holiday candy. Professors especially just seem to know how much a small gift of food means to the starving undergraduates working as lab techs in their research labs, and my previous lab boss would always hang microbiology-themed Christmas stockings in the hallways of our building. They usually had things like candy canes and the most recent copy of journal articles we were supposed to read, and always a mini box of Godiva. It was a good job, the Godiva made up for spending the rest of the year in a gross-smelling laboratory growing plague with hazardous chemicals (which don’t get me wrong, is pretty freaking cool).

Godiva Chocolates

Not to be a typical chocolate-obsessed girl, but I really love Godiva. Although, I think I love their logo as much as I love their chocolate. Companies sometimes pick interesting images for their logos (I could talk forever about Starbuck’s logo), but I really love Godiva’s and here’s why:

Godiva

Lady Godiva was an Anglo-Saxon noblewoman who lived in the middle of the 11th century. Godiva is an latinization of her real name, which was either Godgifu or Godyfu, meaning “gift of God”. She was married to Lord Leofric, and together they were one of the most powerful noble families in the area, controlling all the land in Coventry, England.

Her and her husband were well-known for giving large sums of land, money, and jewels to religious causes as far away as London. She was perhaps the driving force in these donations, as her name is specifically credited with the founding a monastery near Coventry.

However, the thing that she is most famous for and what most people would know her for are not these acts of goodwill, but rather riding a horse naked through the streets of Coventry. Admittedly this is much more interesting, however it also probably didn’t even happen.

The myth goes like this:

Her husband was mercilessly taxing the peasants of their lands, and she repeatedly begged him to reduce taxes. He repeatedly refused, until he became so fed up with her pleas that he rashly proposed that if she would ride naked through the streets at midday, he would reduce the taxes. He thought this would stop her demands once and for all, but much to his surprise she agreed to his terms. She stripped naked, having nothing but her long hair to cover her body, and rode through the streets escorted only by two of her attendants (or two knights, depending on the version of the myth). Everyone in Coventry stayed inside and closed their shutters, lest they accidentally see her, out of respect for her sacrifices made for the peasants (or they were asked to remain inside out of a royal decree, once again, depending on the version of the myth). In the end she won the feud with her husband and he was forced to lower taxes.

Painting of Lady Godiva by John Collier, 1898.  Now in the Herbert Art Gallery and Museum, Coventry, England.

Painting of Lady Godiva by John Collier, 1898. Now in the Herbert Art Gallery and Museum, Coventry, England.

However, as cool as this myth is, there are several reasons it probably didn’t really happen:

  • Lady Godiva died in the 11th century but this story doesn’t appear before the 13th century, though there are numerous  other mentions of her generosity toward the church. If the story really did happen, it probably would have been mentioned more in the 200 years directly after her death.
  • Looking back at the records of the time, there were no taxes directly enforced on the people of Coventry during the 11th century, only a tax on horses, so Lady Godiva couldn’t have been riding to repeal a tax that didn’t exist.
  • Anglo-Saxon laws regarding royalty also worked a little differently – Lady Godiva was not excluded from the power over her kingdom like females were of the later ages, so she could have repealed the law herself if she so chose (especially because the power over Coventry was inherited from her family). However, if the myth were written later in a time when females had no governing power, it might be automatically assumed that Lady Godiva had no political power during her time either.

Another part of this story didn’t appear until the 17th century. Remember how everyone shut their blinds out of respect for Lady Godiva?  Well there was one guy who didn’t. A tailor named Tom decided to sneak a peek at the passing Lady and upon seeing her was immediately struck blind (or dead, either by divine retribution or a loyal peasant community punishing his disloyalty towards their lady. Once again, the myths are all different). His voyeurism was forever immortalized in the nickname “peeping Tom”.
This leads us to the fourth fault in the myth:

  • Tom. This is definitely not an Anglo-Saxon name and it is highly unlikely that Leofric and Godiva ever had a subject named Tom, which means this part of the myth was definitely made up, especially since it appeared so late in the history of the story.

Yet, despite all the flaws with this myth, it remains the most commonly thing known about Lady Godiva and her flawless image has been immortalized in paintings, sculptures, and yes, even the logo for a famous chocolate company. How does a myth with so little evidence remain so well-known? I’m just guessing the nakedness and the voyeurism has something to do with it.

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