Today Author Emma Haddon-Wright talks with me about her collaboration on Sexuality and its Impact on British History, about her about her medieval studies and her research into the world of Lady Godiva. -Stephanie M. Hopkins
When I was first approached by Hunter and asked if I would be happy to write an essay about Lady Godiva for Sexuality and its Impact on History, I had very mixed emotions! On one hand I was extremely excited to be asked to contribute. On the other I thought, “how on earth can I write a whole chapter about a naked ride through Coventry?”. How wrong could I be?!
Firstly, the Anglo-Saxon period is not an era of history that I have ever studied in depth before. That’s not to say that I don’t find it interesting – in fact I find it very difficult to hone my studies to one particular period! I was a late bloomer to history, I didn’t realise how much it excited me as a subject until my early thirties, which is when I decided it was time to get my degree. I studied with The Open University in Medieval to Modern European History, with a specialism in material culture and global heritage. My subject of study spanned nearly 700 years from the Plague and The Peasants Revolt to Perestroika and Glasnost! Sadly, none of that was going to help me with Godiva…
I don’t think I’m alone in knowing the basics of the legend, but very little else. Godiva was one of those myths/ legends from childhood. She was a throw away line in a song belted out by Freddie Mercury…. “I’m a racing car passing by, like Lady Godiva”…. Her persona reduced to a really long wig in a fancy dress shop. I had never really stopped to think about Godiva at all. Being asked to research her life completely changed that for me and I hope it will for you too!
My research led me into the world in which she lived, the men that surrounded her, and the power plays which would eventually lead to that fateful year for the Anglo-Saxons, 1066.
However, Godiva is a somewhat invisible woman. It is very difficult to find any contemporary evidence of her life, much is subject to conjecture – but there are a few concrete facts which I explore in the chapter Godiva: Lady, Legend, Legacy.
Her legendary ride was not documented for more than a century after her death and first appeared in the Flores Historiarum. Two fundamental questions for me was why was a monk singing the praises of Godiva? What evidence is there regarding her naked ride through Coventry? Unfortunately, neither of these questions have straightforward answers.
If we take the second question first, we are instantly questioning the legend itself and also the integrity of the monk who first penned the story. Was the legend part of local oral tradition, a story passed down through the ages until Roger of Wendover decided it was time for it to appear in a chronicle? If it was such a scandal at the time, why wasn’t it included in the much earlier Anglo-Saxon Chronicle? Surely if one of the lords of the realm was being challenged so brazenly by his wife, there would have been some mention of it somewhere within the pages of a contemporary manuscript? This was not the case. In fact, Godiva is mentioned only once in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and it certainly had nothing to do with taxes, nakedness, or horses!
We then come back to the question of why would a monk decide to invent it? Although the earlier Anglo-Saxon Chronicle barely mentions her, it does describe Godiva as a patron of religious houses and founder monasteries. Perhaps he wanted her legacy to live on, perhaps he thought this would help, who knows? I allude to the almost saintly reverence in which she is described and the almost miraculous way in which her long hair covered her so that nothing could be seen ‘except her fair legs’. A miracle indeed! She was a great and pious woman and yet, I suspect without Roger’s account of her life, her name would have been forgotten entirely.The legend eventually became so infamous, Edward I even commissioned his administrators to investigate the alleged heavy taxes!
Skipping forward to where I end the chapter, we see a resurgence of the Godiva legend in the middle of the 19th century, with particular thanks to the train station in Coventry inspiring a certain Tennyson. His poem sparked interest and influenced a whole host of artists to paint various scenes of the legend, one of which graces the cover of the book. Even Queen Victoria got in on the Godiva fever, commissioning a silver statue of her as a gift to Prince Albert – one cannot help but to raise an eyebrow at the meaning of this trinket!
The research was equally entertaining, eye-opening, and educational and I hope you’ll agree with me. Find out more in Sexuality and Its impact on History: The British Stripped Bare.
About the Author:
Emma Haddon-Wright is from Plymouth UK and a lover of all things macabre & mysterious. She has a BA (Hons) Medieval to Modern European History. She is devoted to her family, history and is thrilled to be included in Sexuality & Its Impact on History: The British Stripped Bare! You can find her on Twitter @RedLunaPixie
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