Godgifu: The Bare Truth Behind the Lady Godiva Legend

Godgifu: The Bare Truth Behind the Lady Godiva Legend

Ælfgif-who? Newsletter number 3

Ælfgif-who? provides short biographies of early medieval English women every two weeks. Click on the podcast player if you’d like to hear this newsletter read aloud in my appealing Yorkshire accent.

Godiva, illustration for Ælfgif-who? by Pollie Scott

Godgifu: The Bare Truth Behind the Lady Godiva Legend

Many of us are familiar with the legend of Lady Godiva, who rode through the streets of Coventry naked, covered only by her long hair, so her husband would reduce taxes. This legendary story actually originates with a real early medieval English woman. Godgifu (who flourished from c.990-1067) was the wife of Earl Leofric of Mercia, and she was a major landholder in England before the Norman Conquest.

Godgifu married Leofric around 1010, who was a younger son of the ealdorman Leofwine, who had been promoted into his role by Æthelred II in 994. Leofwine retained his rank after the Danish conquest of England in 1016, though his eldest son, Northmann, was killed on King Cnut’s orders. Leofric thus inherited his father’s title when he died in the mid-1020s, and by 1032 he had been promoted to Earl of Mercia. He held this title through the reigns of four kings: Cnut, Harold, Harthacnut and Edward the Confessor. Godgifu’s social position thus rose both unexpectedly and meteorically from the wife of an ealdorman’s younger son to the wife of the Earl of Mercia.

As powerful members of the nobility, Leofric and Godgifu were generous benefactors. As 'the earl's wife', Godgifu is associated with her husband in the endowment and rebuilding of Stow St Mary, Lincolnshire in the 1050s, which was said to have been in ruins since it was burned down by Vikings. Leofric also endowed Coventry Abbey, an act with which Godgifu was associated in later accounts. Orderic Vitalis says that Godgifu gave 'her whole store of gold and silver’, and this is said to include a necklace which was worth 100 silver marks. The Evesham Chronicle also names Leofric and Godgifu as founders both of Coventry, but also of the church of Holy Trinity, Evesham, to which they apparently gave a crucifix with figures of the Virgin Mary and St John the Evangelist.

Godgifu outlived her husband, who died in around 1057, and she is recorded as a landholder in the Domesday Book. Noble wives often had dower lands, allocated for the widow to inherit for her upkeep after her husband’s death. There is evidence that Godgifu also retained lands in Worcester that were seized from the church illegally by her father-in-law Leofwine, which her husband had promised would be returned on his death. Instead of giving up these lands, she endowed the church with expensive vestments and ornaments and promised to pay the annual dues from the estates and to return them on her death. Once again, these plans failed, as the lands were seized from Godgifu by her own grandsons, Earl Edwin of Mercia and Earl Morcar of Northumbria. She probably died after the Norman Conquest in around 1067, outliving both her husband and her son, Ælfgar. Godgifu’s status as an extensive landowner was not typical even for elite women in pre-conquest England, and was a result of a combination of her family’s unexpected rise in status and her widowhood.

In the centuries after her death tales of her beauty, piety and devotion to the Virgin Mary are known, though it is not until the early thirteenth century that we see the story of Godgifu’s naked horse ride through Coventry appear in sources. Roger of Wendover in his Flores Historiarum, writes that:

The countess Godiva, who was a great lover of God's mother, longing to free the town of Coventry from the oppression of a heavy toll, often with urgent prayers besought her husband, that from regard to Jesus Christ and his mother, he would free the town from that service, and from all other heavy burdens; when the earl sharply rebuked her for foolishly asking what was so much to his damage, and always forbade her ever more to speak to him on the subject; and while she on the other hand, with a woman's pertinacity, never ceased to exasperate her husband on that matter, he at last made her this answer, 'Mount your horse, and ride naked, before all the people, through the market of the town, from one end to the other, and on your return you shall have your request.' On which Godiva replied, 'But will you give me permission, if I am willing to do it?' 'I will,' said he. Whereupon the countess, beloved of God, loosed her hair and let down her tresses, which covered the whole of her body like a veil, and then mounting her horse and attended by two knights, she rode through the market-place, without being seen, except her fair legs; and having completed the journey, she returned with gladness to her astonished husband, and obtained of him what she had asked; for earl Leofric freed the town of Coventry and its inhabitants from the aforesaid service, and confirmed what he had done by a charter.1

Roger of Wendover is known for his exaggerations. This story is not corroborated by earlier sources and cannot be verified; thus historians must treat it simply as a colourful anecdote. Over the years, elements have been added to the legend, such as the fourteenth century miraculous version where Godiva is invisible, a sixteenth century modest version in ballad form, in which she requests that all the townsfolk stay indoors so as not to see her nakedness, or the late eighteenth century moralistic addition of Peeping Tom, who is struck blind after trying to glimpse her naked body.

It might seem as if the later legend of Godiva has very little to do with the real evidence we have about the eleventh-century noblewoman and landowner Godgifu. However, some links can be made between the two figures. Godiva’s lack of adornment in her nudity would have seemed shocking to a medieval audience, not necessarily because nudity was an indication of sexual promiscuity, but because nobility was indicated by outer wear, like clothing and jewellery. By removing these, Godiva was not only removing her clothes, but also her status. Her nudity in this story does not function as a moral failure, but the converse, as an act of piety, in which she lowers herself in order to help those less fortunate, and her hair covers her ‘like a veil’ to protect her modesty. This piety is also present in the act of the real Godgifu giving away her precious necklace, an important symbol of status for elite women, to Coventry Abbey, as well as great quantities of gold and silver. Within the legend of Godiva and the real life of Godgifu there is a common thread of unadornment as a way of elite and wealthy women expressing religious piety.

Suggestions for further reading:

A great place to start would be Daniel Donoghue’s Lady Godiva: A Literary History of the Legend (affiliate link). Donoghue is an expert in Old English and Middle English literature.


‘Roger of Wendover's Flowers of History: Comprising the History of England from the Descent of the Saxons to A.D. 1235; Formerly Ascribed to Matthew Paris’, Volume 1, translated by John Allen Giles