Tell all the Truth but tell it slant
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise
As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind
John Collier, “Lady Godiva”, 1897, Herbert Art Gallery and Museum in Coventry, England
First, history. Lady Godiva (her Saxon name was Godgyfu) was the wife of Leofric, Earl of Mercia, who died in 1057. Earl Leofric was one of the powerful lords who ruled England under the Danish King Canute. Lady Godiva seems to have been a rich landowner in her own right – one of her most valuable properties was Coventry. Both Leofric and Godiva were known for their generous donations to churches and monasteries – the only reliable records of her and her husband are found in the chronicles of various religious foundations and in charters, where their pious donations are named – unfortunately most of the treasures were afterwards stolen by the Norman invaders.
But despite her illustrious husband, renowned piety, and religious benefactions, without the tantalizing legend of her ride told below Lady Godiva would likely be completely forgotten.
Then, the legend, which first appears out of the blue in the 13th century in a not very reliable account. In the story Leofric has been made into a tyrant; but Lady Godiva felt pity for the people of Coventry, who were suffering grievously under her husband’s oppressive taxation. Again and again she appealed to her husband, but he obstinately refused to lower the taxes. When she kept entreating him, he grew so fed up that, either with playful raillery or in a spirit of bitter jesting, he told her that he would do what she wanted “if she would strip naked and ride through the streets of the town.” The real joke is, of course, that Lady Godiva took him at his word. She issued a proclamation that everyone should stay indoors and close the shutters before their windows, and then she rode through the town of Coventry, clothed only in her long hair and lovely tresses, which poured around her body like a veil. And thus the Lady Godiva, “with a downcast but not a shamefaced eye, looking towards the earth through her flowing locks, rode through the silent and deserted streets.” Her surprised husband kept his word and remitted the onerous taxes.
Regrettably, 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, a medieval scribe renowned for exaggeration and embellished stories. Historians have looked for the origin of this legend in both pagan fertility rituals and in medieval penitential processions.
Over the centuries, the tale became sentimentalized and more erotically charged, and the victimization of the Lady Godiva became paramount – she must be a virtuous victim, compelled by an unfeeling husband to perform a humiliating act. She became – literally – “the naked truth.”