The legend of Lady Godiva is based on real events, according to a startling new discovery — but the facts were distorted right from the start, during the heroine’s lifetime. Several months ago, a student found a medieval manuscript in a cellar beneath Queens’ College, Cambridge. It included a 14th Century copy of the 11th Century text below. Queens’ is my alma mater, so I was one of the first non-academics to receive this translation from the Latin. It will blow your mind. (And after all these years, it’s about time we heard the other side of the story: the legend of Lady Godiva from her husband’s point of view.)
I, Dunstan, priest, wrote this from the mouth of Leofric, Earl of Mercia, on the seventeenth day of July in the fifteenth year of the reign of our most gracious King Edward [1057 AD].
My wife’s Latin inscriptions call her Godiva, but in English her name is Godgifu, God’s gift. I will not offer the obvious play on words about whether the Lord actually meant her as a gift, and if so to whom. But I have my doubts. Certainly she was beautiful in her youth, but that fair quality brought me little joy. More often than not, when I knocked on her chamber door in the wee hours, she said her blood had come or she was fatigued. Yet those ailments interfered not at all when a handsomer, younger man knocked on Godgifu’s door. Of course, they all kept that from me, my loyal people. But I had my informants, for not all in an earl’s household fear his wrath. My truest spy was my housekeeper, Tydfil, who fears little and has more wisdom than any woman I know, or any man. Tydfil told me of all Godgifu’s lovers. Did you never wonder why so many handsome young men of Mercia found themselves fighting in distant Ireland or Scotia, rented as mercenaries to warring lords? But Godgifu had her revenge. Now I am old, and I can hear the rustling wings of the Angel of the Lord. So I need a son to follow me. Yet doubt plagues me. That warlike young man who waits so eager to take my place: is he my own getting or the son of some handsomer man? They say only a wise man knows his own child, and though sometimes even Tydfil praises my wit, I cannot tell my wife’s truths from her lies.
It is thus all the more galling to know how they sing of Godgifu’s humility and piety in these days, now that age has stilled the passion of her blood, or wrinkles and rotting teeth have driven off the young men who might put the lie to her tales of sanctity. I often wonder if she spreads her story herself, from her manor at Woolhope, where she went to live once I could no longer bear the sight of those blue eyes. It seems all the Midlands know the tale of Lady Godgifu. They say my taxes were high, and she asked me to relieve the burden on the poor people of Coventry. And I refused over and over until, finally, mocking her, I said I would do it if she would ride naked through the streets. And she called my bluff and mounted a horse, clothed only in her golden hair. And thus she rode through the streets of Coventry, after commanding that the townsfolk stay indoors, so that she might keep her modesty. And of course, I had no choice but to lower the tax, since I had given my word.
Did you ever hear such nonsense? Why would any sane man honor such a sham offer, so obviously made in jest? And what lady, or lord for that matter, could expect townsfolk to keep themselves within when such a display was going by with-out? No king commands such obedience. Not even the Pope, may the saints smile on him, nor the Mussulmen’s mighty Caliph, may demons devour his soul. And most of all, what man would ever grant his wife’s wishes after such a humiliating display, when she had just cuckolded him with a hundred men’s eyes? The story of Lady Godgifu is a lie, even if woven from strands of truth.
One truth left out is that Godgifu was then as pious as a Viking and as humble as a Cæsar. No one could bear better witness to that than the goodwives of Coventry itself. God’s beard!—she lorded it over those women. When we stayed in residence at Coventry, she demanded that the goodwives attend her twice each week and wait on her and serve her cakes and listen as she boasted of her many manors and her power over men. “I could have any of your husbands in an instant,” she once chirped at the wife of a burgher. Tydfil told me the surprised goodwife was so old she must have seen the reign of Alfred the Great.
Godgifu’s pride was a viper, and even wise Tydfil once stumbled into its nest. The year after our marriage, King Cnut the Dane visited our burg-hall at Tamworth. As housekeeper, Tydfil planned the feast, and she placed me to the king’s right, as befits my rank. To Cnut’s left she placed not Godgifu but an Irish lady who was traveling in the king’s train. The lady was daughter to one of Ireland’s petty kings, so as a princess, she took precedence over a mere earl’s wife. Or so it seemed. In truth, there was room for debate. The girl’s father could as easily be called “chieftain” as “king.” Needless to say, Godgifu did not accept second place among the women. I saw her turn pale as Tydfil seated the Irish girl. My wife’s pretty face contorted, and then she stood stock-still in the middle of the hall, staring at the fire. I cringed, hoping the king would not notice. Then Godgifu shrieked like a barrow-wight and collapsed. Commotion seized the hall as everyone rushed to her side. “A stabbing pain overtook me,” my weeping wife told the king. “Please, my lord, go on with the feast.” But the feast did not go on. They carried Godgifu from the hall, and she lay near death half the night, according to her maid. The rest of us ate quietly.
After that, Godgifu would hardly look at Tydfil and gave her dirty tasks, beneath her station. Only my protection saved her place with us. But then one day, Tydfil approached us in the hall and asked in the meekest tone if Godgifu would help her. “It’s my daughter, Lady. She is sixteen now, and she could make an honorable marriage soon. But her skin is so spotty, and she never washes, and her hair is a rat’s nest. I don’t know what to do with her. Would you talk to her, Lady? You’re so beautiful and grand. I know she’d hearken to you.”
My wife’s smile was slow but sweet. “She’ just a girl,” Godgifu purred. “She’ll learn. But I’ll talk to her. Come, let’s go now.” After that, Godgifu and Tydfil were the fastest of friends.
So, no, Lady Godgifu was not humble. Nor was she pious. These days she grants wide acres to the Church, but she did none such in olden times. And I wonder if fear of the Fire drives her charity in these latter years, rather than love for God or the poor. Maybe she can be forgiven that. They say the Devil’s whip drives more Christians to goodness than the Son’s preaching or the Father’s love.
The tale of Lady Godgifu also says my taxes were harsh, and that rests of falsehoods too. Taxes were light in those days, since England lay mostly at peace in the firm grip of Cnut the Dane, and no one then worried about those French Northmen across the Channel. Moreover, at the time of my wife’s famous ride, I was not even resident at Coventry to argue with Godgifu over taxes. I was at Winchester, with the king.
My first hint of trouble took the form of titters as I strode Cnut’s hall, thinking myself a man of powers and honor. Too many smiles met my gaze, only to be hidden behind a cough or a sudden interest in the beams above. My best informant, Tydfil, was at Coventry, but I had a Danish body-servant at Winchester, and I made him scout out the story. The poor boy shook when I demanded the gossip after he returned. I had to cajole him with threats and promises of sweetcakes. “It is your wife, Lord,” he whined in passable English, though with a Danish lilt. “They say she, she, she …” The boy cringed and would not go on until I threatened forfeit of the promised sweets. “They say she rode through the streets of the town … naked! During the middle of the day, for all to see!”
I could only stare … and stare. “Why?” I finally croaked.
“I swear, Lord, I do not know.” He dissolved into tears. “No one knows! I asked all who told the tale, and no one knows why.”
There was nothing for it; I had to retreat to Coventry. There I might behead my wife and some gaggle of likely lads who’d ravished her in the street. Or I might cut the tongues from the mouths of slanderers and thus, in a fountain of blood, clean my wife’s reputation and my own honor. The latter seemed likely, for Coventry’s goodwives had more than once earned punishment through false gossip, though never before had they gone so far. Either way, I expected blood on my sword.
Three days later, I crossed the threshold of our hall in Coventry. Tydfil stood within, awaiting me with wine and towel. But any greeting died on my housekeeper’s lips as her eyes caught the drawn sword in my fist and the grim-faced warriors behind me.
“Where is she?” I snarled, ignoring the wine. Tydfil sighed and merely pointed. My gaze followed her finger through the hall to the Rome where all roads must lead in this sordid tale. That way I went, but not before Tydfil said softly, “We all have our faults, my lord, and we are still God’s children.”
I did not knock at my wife’s door. I burst in; my sword still as naked as Godgifu on the streets of Coventry.
My wife had just bathed; dampness tarnished the gold of her long hair, and I could smell the freshness of it. She wore a wine-red robe, and she sat composed in her chair by the corner, a half-blind old wolfhound whining at her feet. “Good evening, my lord,” she breathed, her smile as sweet as the Virgin’s when first she held her Son. “Welcome home.”
This greeting checked me not at all, for I was used to Godgifu’s wiles. “Why?” I bellowed, slamming the door on my mud-spattered men, who had followed from the hall. “What in the name of St. Hild were you doing?”
Godgifu raised her chin, revealing the ivory of her slender neck. “If you mean to use that sword, please cut my head off. And do it in one stroke, without bungling it. You owe me a quick death.”
Slowly I sheathed my sword, but I did not sit. “Why?” I rasped through bared teeth, taking a step toward her.
Godgifu held my eyes without moving. I had to admire her courage, since I doubt I looked much less menacing with the blade by my side. That courage held through a long silence. But soon tears glimmered in her eyes. “I had to,” she finally said.
One tear slid down her cheek to trace the curve of her neck. “They said I was … ugly,” she finally answered, her voice shaking. “They said I was ugly … within.”
“You know who.” She raised her chin again. “The goodwives: those women of the town. They … they hate me!” Here she sobbed, and the dog whined all the more. But then her voice grew steadier. “They made up a story, and everyone believed it. The whole town.”
“What story?” Her tears had cooled my blood a little, but my voice remained hard as gems.
“Some of the wives told everyone in town that … that I’ve had the carnal pox: the whore’s plague. And they said my skin is pockmarked below the neck, everywhere!” More tears flowed. “They said I’m ill and scabby beneath, with small breasts which I disguise with cloth in my shift. That was their rumor, and my maid told me it spread through the whole town, and they believed it! They believed me a false beauty!” She gulped. “So I told the goodwives it’s not so, and I’ve never had the carnal pox. And they said, ‘Yes, Lady’ and ‘Of course, Lady.’ But their voices told all. They did not believe me, only they dared not say it aloud. They hate me, Leofric, so they all believed it. They will believe anything ill said of me.”
“Then why in the Savior’s name did you not drop your gown then and there,” I roared, “among the women?”
Her mouth opened, as if I’d offered the most foolish thought since Job questioned the goodness of the Lord. “I told you, the whole town heard it.” She rested a pale hand on her chest. “Men, women, children, noble, common, bonded, free, lay, clergy: all of them. They all heard it, and they believed it. The whole town, Leofric!”
I stood a long while, staring at my wife. Finally, I asked, “Did you never once think of my honor?”
“Your honor? Yours? I am the one they insulted. I am the one they called a false beauty. I will not have that.”
I turned on one heel and left.
A circle of pale faces met me in the hall. “Thomas!” I bellowed.
My steward scurried out of the crowd and fell to his knees. “We could not stop her, my lord,” he wailed. “You know how she is. And I swear I did not look. I swear—”
“The taxes on Coventry,” I snapped. “Whatever they are, triple them. Proclaim it in the town. Now. And I want it collected within a fortnight.”
Then I strode from the hall to my own chamber, whence I did not emerge for many days.
♦ ♦ ♦
Thus it was that the Lady of Mercia dropped her gown and rode proud and straight through the streets of Coventry under the noontime sun. Not even her long hair covered her nakedness, as the story-tellers claim. That would have defeated her purpose. Godgifu’s golden hair streamed down her back, covering nothing that beggar, bondsman, or bishop might hope to see.
Several days after I learned the truth, my chamber door creaked open and I turned, thinking I’d find Tydfil, bent on coaxing me to the hall with stew and advice. But it was Godgifu. She wore a plain, woolen shift and carried a thick bundle, and she kept her face down, hidden by a cascade of gold.
Rain drummed on the roof, and the place smelled of wet straw. Godgifu did not speak, so I did. “Well?”
“Some of the goodwives came to me,” she said in a small voice. “They admitted they were wrong about my …,” she rested a hand on her waist, “about me.” She looked up, beaming as her blue eyes met mine. “They told me I am beautiful, like a Spring flower or a white hind. And they said … They said they thought I was brave. And they begged my pardon.”
“Praise God,” I growled, turning to the window, which I un-shuttered, since the air suddenly seemed stale. I gazed at the green fields beyond the wall and the gray rain over Warwickshire. “Did they beg my pardon?”
“They said God truly gave you a gift, Leofric my love, to have such a beautiful wife.” I shook my head and did not turn. “And they also … They begged for relief from this new tax. They said their husbands cannot afford it.”
“They can afford it,” I grunted. “And they will, or they’ll lose more than grain and coin.”
I heard a rustle and scrape and turned. Godgifu had closed the lid of my great iron-bound chest and was pushing it across the floor. I watched as she positioned the heavy box in the center of the chamber and then unfolded the bundle by her side. It was a light saddle, and she set it on the chest’s rounded lid, as if dressing up a wooden horse. “Would you like to see how I looked that day, my dear, when I rode through the streets of Coventry, so lovely that even my foes call me a flower, and everyone says God gave my husband a precious gift?”
My heart quickened as Godgifu slid the shift down her shoulders and let it drop to the floor. She faced me, smiling, then turned and climbed onto the chest: her wooden horse. There she sat, just as all Coventry had seen her—all but me, until now.
My breath grew short as I approached the golden rider, beautiful beyond words. “Leofric,” she whispered as I rested a light hand on her thigh. “Please forgive the goodwives as I have. Please, my love.”
♦ ♦ ♦
Godgifu’s charities are many in these latter days, and it is my lands she gives away, more often than not. And when she does, they write the bequests in my name and hers together: Leofricus Comes et Godiva Comitissa. And that is as it should be.
Some days even now I catch my wife’s scent or see her smile, though she lives miles away and we have not met for years. Maybe I will call for her when my last illness comes, so I can forgive her, and her me. Either way, I mean to lie with her one last time. Whichever of us the Angel takes first, we will rest side-by-side in the end, in the churchyard of Coventry: the town where she rode that sunny day—and again that rainy day soon after.
No wonder they still speak of Godgifu. The pious must tell tales of grace and charity, but those stories lie as often as not. And whether true or false, those stories seldom last — not unless they offer more than holiness. That day in Coventry, my wife’s beauty stole the whole town’s breath. Even those who missed the sight can sense her beauty, woven in among the teller’s pious words. That is why the tale of Lady Godiva tale will never die.
© 2021 by David W. Tollen – All rights reserved
Additional image credits:
- photo: “Lady Godiva Statue, Broadgate Square, Coventry,” December 24, 2020, by Si Chun Lam (林詩雋) – a cropped version of the Si Chun Lam original; licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license
- sketch: “Lady Godiva,” from SVG, 01/10/2020 (public domain)
Special thanks to Ben McGarr for assistance related to etymological nomenclature.