National Geographic : 1949 Apr
Lady Godiva (1040-80) THE SEAL of approval has been set on the story of Lady Godiva by the poet Tennyson, by the great English artist Sir Edwin Landseer, whose painting is repro duced in our plate, and by many learned scribes. Why question such authority? The boundary line between history and legend is sometimes hazy. If rationalists were permitted to work their iconoclastic will, much of the romance of the past would be lost. Critics say that there never was a King Arthur who established a Round Table and that the legend of Lady Godiva is pure moonshine. Nevertheless, modern readers who care more for imagination than cold facts are inclined to agree with the Victorian poet R. B. Brough: Godiva! Not for countless tomes Of war's and kingcraft's leaden hist'ry Would I thy charming legend lose Or view it in the bloodless hues Of fabled myth or myst'ry. Godiva is said to have married Leofric a quarter of a century before the arrival of William the Conqueror in England; she died some years before the Domesday survey (1085-86). Her husband was ruler of Mercia and one of the three great earls of the realm. Both husband and wife were liberal bene factors of the Church. The earliest narrative of the famous ride through the streets of Coventry (the skeptics say there was no city of Coventry in the 11th century), which has eclipsed her fame as a benefactress, is given in the Flores His toriarum of Roger of Wendover (died 1237), but he relied for his information on a mid 12th-century writer. Roger represents Godiva "as begging the release of the villa of Coventry from a heavy bondage of toll." Leofric replied, in the oft-quoted words: "Mount your horse naked, and pass through the market of the villa, from one end to the other, when the people are assembled, and on your return you shall obtain what you ask." Attended by two soldiers, Godiva, as Tenny son says, "rode forth, clothed on with chastity," her flowing tresses serving as scant covering. Leofric was overcome with admiration of her selfless act and granted the release by charter -s o runs the tale. The writer of the article on Leofric in the Dictionaryof NationalBiography comes to the defense of the supposedly cruel husband of the heroic lady. Citing evidence of Leofric's seemly behavior on other occasions, he declares that the man's character alone proves that the tale of his boorish conduct is an absurdity. In a travel report written in 1634, the "white steed" is introduced. "She purchased and redeemed their lost infringed liberties and freedoms, and obtained remission of heavy tributes imposed upon them, by undertaking a hard and unseemly task, which was to ride naked openly at high noon day through the city on a milk-white steed, which she willingly performed, according to her lord's strict in junction. It may be very well discussed here whether his hatred or his love exceeded. Her fair long hair did much offend the wanton's glancing eye." Another 17th-century story says: "But about the midst of the Citty her horse neighed, whereat one desirous to see the strange Case lett downe a Window, and looked out, for which fact or for that the horse did neigh, as the cause thereof, Though all the Towne were Franchised, yet horses were not toll free to this day." Concerning "peeping Tom," a Latin epistle published in the Gentleman's Magazine a a century or so later reports: "A groom of the countess dared to violate her commands. The countess's horse, on discovering its trainer through the windows, set up neighing, and so betrayed the scoundrel." An obliging traveler in 1782 supplies yet further information: "Legend says that, previ ous to her ride, all the inhabitants were or dered, on pain of death, to shut themselves up during the time; but that the curiosity of a certain taylor, overcoming fear, took a single peep; which is commemorated even at pres ent, by a figure looking out of a wall in the great street. To this day, the love of Godiva to the city is annually remembered by a pro cession; and a valiant fair still rides in silk, closely fitted to her limbs, and of colour emulating their complexion." In the 19th century skepticism about Lady Godiva was rife; perhaps neighboring cities were jealous of Coventry's proud heritage as the place where "the perfect model of an Anglo-Saxon lady" acquired immortal fame. Moncure D. Conway, the American preacher and author who saw the Landseer painting at the Royal Academy in 1866, wrote of his impressions: "The Lady's elderly duenna is represented turning her head aside from the nude lady and shutting her eyes tightly. There is a look on this domestic's face which says plainly, 'I wash my eyes clean of all such improper conduct; and before I would do such a thing, every man, woman, and child in Coventry should broken be on the wheel!' Everyone who looks at the picture smiles; but all see in her, rather than the mounted lady, the repre sentative of the womanhood of England."