Posted by: Philip Carr-Gomm | August 8, 2009

Lady Godiva is Alive & Well and Living in…

Regular visitors may have noticed that the most popular post of all time on this blog is mysteriously (to me) entitled Saluting Pru Porretta aka Lady Godiva

In order to research whether this is due to Pru Poretta’s immense popularity, or to a fascination with Lady Godiva that outstrips interest in, say, Climate Change, Druids or Alanis Morisette, or whether it is perhaps a WordPress malfunction, I’ve decided to try checking the Lady Godiva angle first…. Forgive me for involving you in this research project. So that you get something interesting about Lady Godiva if you have surfed here, here is an extract from my forthcoming book (Reaktion, Spring 2010) ‘A Brief History of Nakedness: Nudity in Religion, Politics & Popular Culture’ :

The Legend of Lady Godiva

The first instance in British history of naked protest is probably apocryphal. In the Flowers of History by Roger of Wendover, written in St.Albans and Westminster Abbey in the thirteenth-century, the story is told of an eleventh century couple, Lady Godiva and her husband Leofric of Mercia. Taking pity on the local townsfolk of Coventry, Godiva asked her husband again and again to lower the crippling taxes he was imposing on them. He refused to listen, until one day, growing tired of her constant entreaties, he said that he would, provided she agreed to ride naked through the town. She accepted his challenge but issued a proclamation that all citizens should remain behind closed doors and not look out of their windows when she rode her horse with nothing but her long tresses of hair to hide her nakedness. In a later version of this story, written in the seventeenth century, an extra character was introduced: Peeping Tom, who disobeyed the order not to watch. It was this incident that provided the comedian Tony Hancock with perfect material for a joke:  ‘Take the case of Doubting Thomas who was sent to Coventry for staring through a keyhole at Lady Godiva. Can anybody prove he was looking at her? Can anybody prove it was he who shouted ‘Get your hair cut!’
Historians now believe the story is legendary. It is such a striking tale, they believe that if it really happened it would have been recorded in contemporary histories. In addition, there is only evidence of a tax on horses rather than people or property in that region, and since Coventry was only established as a town in the eleventh century it would hardly have been big enough for such a gesture. The evidence is stacked against it having taken place. But like all good stories, if it isn’t true it ought to be, and people have found the incident inspiring from the moment it was recounted.


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