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Saturday, November 26, 2011

In Defense of Lady Godiva

By Jeron J. La Fargue, February 27, 2008

Lady Godiva was born in the year 1040. She was married to Leofric, earl of Mercia. They lived in Coventry, Warwickshire, England having moved there from Shrewsbury, Shropshire, where Leofric had earned his fortune and title from successes in the mutton trade. Since they were thoroughly Christian, they were immediately impressed by the lack of proper facilities for training and housing men of the cloth in Coventry. Coventry was a little district of that area with a population of 6,215. Being “nouveau riche” and wanting to be recognized in social circles there, they decided to put some of their money into a worthy cause there.

Near the center of Coventry, where the bombed-out ruins of the mighty Coventry Cathedral stands today, Leofric and Godiva founded and funded an abbey or monastery named in honor of Ste. Eunice of Saxmundham who was an early English martyr slain by flaying at the hands of the Romans.

The monastery, in addition to being a place to house and educate religious, became the gathering point where popular events and festivities could be celebrated. The local people respected Leofric and Godiva for establishing this center of social events of the community. Leofric gained public appreciation and recognized him as a generous philanthropist and he assumed a growing role in the governance of public affairs and public works. There was then a need to obtain the money to build these community projects so it was natural that he turned to taxation as a means to raise this money.

Lady Godiva took an interest in equestrian activities and became a polished horsewoman and enjoyed the hunt. In pursuing this interest, she became associated with a class of people who were cultured and had varying interest in the field of arts. I guess you would say that Leofric and Godiva were social climbers of their day.

Godiva apparently thought that her association with artists, etc., would inspire the masses by way of example. She wanted to have the populace develop an interest in the arts and humanities.

However she realized that she was not having too much success in this endeavor. She determined that nearly all of the people spent almost their entire waking hours in an effort to feed and clothe themselves and the provide themselves with shelter for the elements and most were having a hard time doing just that. Leofric had taxed the people so much for his grand public works projects. He even placed a tax on manure.

Lady Godiva was a determined woman and she would not let her desire to lift the population to a higher degree of appreciation for the arts especially at the expense of a new municipal water supply. She knew that the taxes imposed by Leofric would have to be reduced if the community was going to pull itself up to the 11th century and its more cultured concerns.

When she approached him about reducing the taxes he absolutely refused and could not understand why art appreciation should be rated over a new water supply. Not only did he refuse to reduce taxes, he added a tax on paintings. This required Lady Godiva to pay the tax since she was the only one who owned paintings except for the Church and it was exempt from taxation. However she did not give up and continued to nag him at every opportunity. Finally, after a long time, he agreed to remove some of the taxes but under a condition. He pointed out to her that the ancient Greeks and even the Romans viewed the nude human body as one of the highest expressions of the perfection of nature. Nudity was not seen as erotic in any sense, but as purity, and a celebration of the wonderful form of a sensuous being.

Therefore he proclaimed that, if Lady Godiva would ride her horse through the crowded market of Coventry, in the full light of mid-day, clothed in only that which God had given her, as an example of the perfection of God’s work and as an expression of the highest possible aesthetic, then he would reduce the taxes on the populace. Godiva agreed once she had ensured that she actually had his permission to do so.

Leofric could not believe that Godiva would have agreed to the condition and was now convinced that she totally believed in the merits of her cause. He committed himself that, upon completion of her ride, he would remove all of the taxes on the people and not just reduce them. The only taxes that would remain would be the taxes on horses which were already imposed at the time he took office.

On the appointed day in 1057, Lady Godiva accompanied by two female aides on horseback, one on each side and slightly to the rear, proudly rode  through the market place. She was not an exhibitionist. She rode with a look of complete composure upon her face. She was relaxed, confident and unashamed. She received the respect of the citizens who witnessed her ride as being one accomplished in dignity for a worthy purpose and the taxes were removed as promised by Leofric.

And that is the true story of Lady Godiva. I know because I have researched the story in detail because she was my 37th Great Grandmother.

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