Poetry and Art (4)

More Tennyson … Only one poem this week, as it’s a long one.  I’ve always been intrigued by the story of Godiva, and wondered how much of it was true.  Before the poem, a bit of history.

The earliest surviving source that mentions this story is the 1057 ‘ Flores Historiarum’ (‘Flowers of History’) by Roger of Wendover.  Godiva, or ‘Godfigu’ (meaning, 'God’s Gift’) was the young wife of Leofric, the ‘grim Earl’ of Mercia.  A rich landowner in her own right, one of Godiva’s most valuable properties was Coventry.  Leofric owed his allegiance to the Danish King Cnut; he supported Harold’s claim to the throne on Cnut’s death in 1035, and helped avert civil war by mediating the quarrel between Edward the Confessor and Earl Godwin in 1051.

Unlike his religious wife, Leofric had no fondness for the Midlands and its people, nor for the Church.  A tyrant, he imposed a severe tax, called the  Heregeld, on the people of Coventry; this tax was levied for the maintenance of Cnut’s army.

Roger of Wendover recounts that Leofric, exasperated over his wife’s pleading to reduce the tax, finally agreed to do so, but only if she would ride naked through the marketplace.  She being a modest, highly religious woman, he believed this would be the one thing she would never do.  He was wrong.  So stunned was he by her selfless act, he seemed to have undergone some sort of conversion – he lifted the tax, and stopped persecuting the Church.

… 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; and 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.” ~ Roger of Wendover

The 14th century chronicle by Ranulf Higden, the ‘Polychronicon’, states that Leofric did excuse the town of all taxes save those on horses.  An inquiry made in the reign of Edward I shows that this indeed was the case – no tolls at that time were paid in Coventry, except on horses.


I waited for the train at Coventry;

I hung with grooms and porters on the bridge,

To watch the three tall spires; and there I shaped

The city’s ancient legend into this:

Not only we, the latest seed of Time,

New men, that in the flying of a wheel

Cry down the past, not only we, that prate

Of rights and wrongs, have loved the people well,

And loathed to see them overtax’d; but she

Did more, and underwent, and overcame,

The woman of a thousand summers back,

Godiva, wife to that grim Earl, who ruled

In Coventry: for when he laid a tax

Upon his town, and all the mothers brought

Their children, clamoring, “If we pay, we starve!”

She sought her lord, and found him, where he strode

About the hall, among his dogs, alone,

His beard a foot before him and his hair

A yard behind.  She told him of their tears,

And pray’d him, “If they pay this tax, they starve.”

Whereat he stared, replying, half-amazed,

“You would not let your little finger ache

For such as these?” – “But I would die,” said she.

He laugh’d, and swore by Peter and by Paul;

Then fillip’d at the diamond in her ear;

“Oh ay, ay, ay, you talk!” – “Alas!” she said,

“But prove me what it is I would not do.”

And from a heart as rough as Esau’s hand,

He answer’d, “Ride you naked thro’ the town,

And I repeal it;” and nodding, as in scorn,

He parted, with great strides among his dogs.

So left alone, the passions of her mind,

As winds from all the compass shift and blow,

Made war upon each other for an hour,

Till pity won.  She sent a herald forth,

And bade him cry, with sound of trumpet, all

The hard condition; but that she would loose

The people: therefore, as they loved her well,

From then till noon no foot should pace the street,

No eye look down, she passing; but that all

Should keep within, door shut, and window barr’d.

Then fled she to her inmost bower, and there

Unclasp’d the wedded eagles of her belt,

The grim Earl’s gift; but ever at a breath

She linger’d, looking like a summer moon

Half-dipt in cloud: anon she shook her head,

And shower’d the rippled ringlets to her knee;

Unclad herself in haste; adown the stair

Stole on; and, like a creeping sunbeam, slid

From pillar unto pillar, until she reach’d

The Gateway, there she found her palfrey trapt

In purple blazon’d with armorial gold.

Then she rode forth, clothed on with chastity:

The deep air listen’d round her as she rode,

And all the low wind hardly breathed for fear.

The little wide-mouth’d heads upon the spout

Had cunning eyes to see: the barking cur

Made her cheek flame; her palfrey’s foot-fall shot

Light horrors thro’ her pulses; the blind walls

Were full of chinks and holes; and overhead

Fantastic gables, crowding, stared: but she

Not less thro’ all bore up, till, last, she saw

The white-flower’d elder-thicket from the field,

Gleam thro’ the Gothic archway in the wall.

Then she rode back, clothed on with chastity;

And one low churl, compact of thankless earth,

The fatal byword of all years to come,

Boring a little auger-hole in fear,

Peep’d – but his eyes, before they had their will,

Were shrivell’d into darkness in his head,

And dropt before him.  So the Powers, who wait

On noble deeds, cancell’d a sense misused;

And she, that knew not, pass’d: and all at once,

With twelve great shocks of sound, the shameless noon

Was clash’d and hammer’d from a hundred towers,

One after one: but even then she gain’d

Her bower; whence reissuing, robed and crown’d,

To meet her lord, she took the tax away

And built herself an everlasting name.

Art - 'Head of a Nymph' ~ Sophie Anderson

'Lady Godiva' ~ Edmund Blair Leighton

'Lady Godiva' ~ John Collier