Lady Godiva Statue: The naked truth

PUBLISHED: 00:16 10 January 2012 | UPDATED: 21:40 20 February 2013

Lady Godiva Statue: The naked truth

Lady Godiva Statue: The naked truth

Fact or fantasy? Chris Mowbray knows which he prefers when it comes to Lady Godiva's famous ride.

Lady Godiva Statue: The naked truth

Fact or fantasy? Chris Mowbray knows which he prefers when it comes to Lady Godivas famous ride.

GADZOOKS! Galloping codpieces! Stinking cesspits! Sorry about that but I suddenly felt the need for an outburst of oldfashioned Anglo Saxon epithets because I have just had an historical shock. The cause of my discomfort is a new book which suggests the story of Lady Godivas naked ride through the streets of medieval Coventry is poppycock.

This outlandish tome, One In The Eye For Harold: Why Everything You Thought You Knew About History Is Wrong by Phil Mason (Robson Press), debunks some of the great events of the past millennium as fiction, and the equine exhibition of Warwickshires favourite heroine is among them. This is sad news indeed for your average red-blooded lad whose imagination has always been fuelled by her unique ride. Although this book may be new, the questioning of Lady Gs main claim to fame is not. Like nearly everything in life, it has been done before. In an attempt to settle the matter once and for all, I have been taking a look at the available evidence.

The good news is that she really did exist and, by all accounts, was a heck of a babe. The remains of a 14th Century stained glass window depicting her, which were found at the old Coventry Cathedral in 2001, show a pretty face surrounded by a splendid mane of blond hair. She was married to Leofric, Earl of Mercia, and is mentioned in the Domesday Book of 1086 as the owner of extensive estates in Warwickshire including that of Coventry.

Unfortunately, the story of how she rode naked through the streets of Coventry in a successful attempt to persuade her husband to stop inflicting the townspeople with draconian taxes, is not nearly so historically certain. The event would have to have taken place around 1045, but the contemporaneous Anglo-Saxon Chronicle makes no mention of it.

The story surfaced for the first time more than 150 years later in the Flores Historiarum (Flowers of History), a Latin chronicle dealing with English history which was compiled by a number of chroniclers across England between about 1188 and 1326 and was therefore the Wikipedia of its day. The account of Lady Godivas ride was contributed by Roger of Wendover, a monk at St. Albans who was said to be quoting an earlier writer.

However, some historians believe that Roger was a nave collector of anecdotes rather than a serious historian. The story acquired more romantic additions as the years went by and Peeping Tom, the worlds first recorded voyeur who was struck blind after looking out at Lady Godivas nakedness during her ride, was added in the 17th Century. The full version we have today is based on the Tennyson poem from 1842.

There have been many attempts to explain what lies behind the story ranging from a veiled reference to ancient fertility rites to a suggestion that her nakedness means just being dressed in a plain shift like a penitent pilgrim, but nothing satisfactorily fits the bill.

Personally, I care not what the explanation is because the fact is that Lady Godiva remains an international star 800 years after her escapade and she has been featured in annual customs, student pranks, films, songs and ballads, poems, plays and even an opera. Will Victoria Beckham, Madonna or Cheryl Cole be able to make the same boast in 2811?

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