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. Continue reading “Leofric and Lady Godiva”