Most of us have heard the legend of Lady Godiva’s ride, naked, through the streets of Coventry. According to the earliest surviving source for the legend, the Chronica of Roger of Wendover (d. 1237), Godiva pleaded with her husband Leofric, the “grim” Earl of Mercer and Lord of Coventry, to relieve the heavy tax burden he had imposed on the citizens of Coventry. Leofric, weary of her persistent pleading, said he would grant her request if she rode naked through Coventry.
The rest of the story is not documented but it is said that Countess Godiva’s compassion for the people of Coventry was so great that she overcame her horror of exposing herself to the public and agreed to her husband’s challenge. She ordered the citizenry to remain indoors and keep their windows and doors barred during her ride. She loosened her hair just before the ride so her tresses could act as a cloak, then she rode through the silent streets unseen by the people, who had obeyed her command out of respect for the Countess.
One man (there’s always one) called Tom was unable to resist the temptation to peep at the Lady (hence the term “Peeping Tom”). He opened his window, but before he could sneak a peek he was struck blind.
After Godiva’s ride her husband fulfilled his promise; according to Ranulf Higden’s Polychronicon, Leofric freed the town from all tolls save those on horses. An inquiry made during the reign of Edward I shows that indeed, at that time, no tolls were paid in Coventry except on horses.
The real Lady Godiva was married to Leofric, a man of great power and importance. The chronicler Florence of Worcester mentions Leofric and Godiva, but does not mention her famous ride, and there is no firm evidence connecting the rider with the historical Godiva.
In 1043 the Earl and Countess of Mercer founded a Benedictine house for an abbot and 24 monks on the site of St Osburg’s Nunnery, which had been destroyed by the Danes in 1016. The new house was dedicated by Edsi, the Archbishop of Canterbury, to God, the Virgin Mary, St Peter, St Osburg and All Saints.
During the dedication ceremony, Earl Leofric laid his founding charter upon the newly consecrated altar, which not only granted the foundation, but also gave him lordship over 24 villages for the maintenance of the house. Lady Godiva gave the monastery many gifts in honour of the Virgin Mary. She is supposed to have had all her gold and silver melted down and made into crosses, images of saints and other decorations to grace her favoured house of God.
Leofric died in 1057 and was buried with great ceremony in one of the porches of the Abbey church. Lady Godiva survived her husband by ten years and is also said to have been buried in the church, although this has not yet been proven. On her deathbed, she gave a heavy gem-encrusted gold chain to the monastery, directing that it should be placed around the neck of the image of the Virgin. Those who came to pray, she said, should say a prayer for each stone in the chain. The remains of the subsequent 13th-century church monastery, Coventry’s first cathedral, can now be seen in Priory Row.
The City Coventry currently hosts the Godiva Festival, billed as the UK’s biggest and best free family festival, so if you go don’t expect to see naked women riding by on horseback…pity.
The Kittyhawk Connection
When aviation enthusiasts think of nose art the United States Army Air Force (USAAF) in WWII immediately comes to mind. American pilots and aircrews regularly used their aircraft as canvases for paintings of pinups, cartoon characters, logos and other forms of personal embellishment, but they were not alone. Royal Air Force and British Commonwealth aircrews also personalized their aircraft, but not to the same extent as their Yankee allies.
The profile depicts Lady Godiva, a Curtiss Kittyhawk flown by the South African Air Force in Italy in 1944. She wears a common form of understated nose art, typical for many Commonwealth aircraft. It seems the RAF and her Commonwealth allies just weren’t as flamboyant as the Americans. That too is a pity.
Research: Angelina Pieros
Sources: BBC, British History Online, Curtiss P-40 (Wydawnictwo Militaria), Wikipedia