Why did Lady Godiva take a naked horse ride?

By: HowStuffWorks.com Contributors  | 
Audrey Hepburn as Holly Golightly peers into a Tiffany storefront window. Her iconic style is still associated with Tiffany's decades later.
Paramount Pictures/Getty Images

Key Takeaways

  • Lady Godiva took a naked horse ride through Coventry as part of a legend that originated in the 13th century.
  • The story of Lady Godiva and her ride has evolved over centuries, with additions like Peeping Tom and themes of modesty.
  • Historically, there was no need for Lady Godiva to ride naked as there were no taxes in 11th-century Coventry.

Diamonds may be a girl's best friend, but most ladies won't turn up their noses at a gift of exquisite chocolates. If you're on the receiving end of a diamond or a chocolate-raspberry truffle, a mere glimpse of a certain blue box or gold foil parcel is enough to pique excitement. Of course, we're referring to the mother lodes of jewels and confections: Tiffany and Godiva.

Since the film "Breakfast at Tiffany's" was released in 1961, Audrey Hepburn, who played the role of Manhattanite Holly Golightly, has been synonymous with the jeweler. (Never mind the fact that marketing dynamo Letitia Baldrige, Tiffany's first female executive, was really responsible for ushering the company into the spotlight.) In the movie's opening scene, Holly muses in front of a Tiffany storefront window. She's eating breakfast from a bag and wearing a floor-length Givenchy gown. Later on in the movie, Holly explains that Tiffany's is more than a purveyor of fine things -- it's a haven.


Had Tiffany & Co. purposefully selected a face for its brand, perhaps no better than Ms. Hepburn could've been found. Decades after the movie was made, images of the actress draped in jewels endure. The company has no need to stamp her image on its packaging to remind customers that Tiffany's is a classic brand that withstands the tests of time and fleeting trends. The publicity is incidental but priceless.

In the case of Godiva, it's a decidedly uncostumed and unaccessorized woman with whom we associate the brand. It's no accident that she comes to mind when we think of the multimillion-grossing Belgian chocolatier. Lady Godiva is both the namesake and face (body, really) of that company. Joseph Draps chose her to symbolize his business; according to the Godiva Web site, he "sought a name that embodied the timeless qualities of passion, style, sensuality and modern boldness" [source: Godiva].

Most of us know that Lady Godiva was a beautiful woman who rode naked on her horse through a city. But not all of us know why she did it. And given the fact that women didn't begin riding sidesaddle on horses for nearly four centuries after Lady Godiva's death, Draps' assessment of her character may raise a few eyebrows.

It seems rather unfashionable to straddle a horse and parade through the center of town. The act is no more sensual than a celebrity's careless (or calculated) flash of underpinnings as she climbs out of a car. So why would Lady Godiva have exhibited herself like this?


Stripping Away the Layers of Lady Godiva Lore

A modern Lady Godiva makes her way down a London sidewalk. This Godiva is clearly a redhead, but historians don't know if Godgifu had red, blond or brown hair.
Dave M. Benett/Getty Images

Many conflicting legends have masked the real Godiva for centuries. To begin with, "lady" wasn't even her title. In 11th-century Anglo-Saxon England, that title was used exclusively to refer to the queen. The best comparison we can make to her noble status is countess, but that term didn't exist during Godiva's lifetime. Instead, she would've been addressed as "the earl's wife," or "the earl's bed-partner." Given that her husband's name was Earl Leofric, this title translates to Leofric eorl and his gebedda [source: Donoghue].

As if mistaking her title weren't a bad enough historical transgression, we've actually been calling her the wrong name. Born sometime between 979 and 1016, the noblewoman's name was Godgifu, which means "good gift." Some sources refer to her as Godgiva, and she eventually became known as Godiva. Around 1035, Godgifu married Leofric, Earl of Mercia. He was a pretty powerful man. The region of Mercia was at the very center of the island we know as modern-day England, and it was just across the way from Wales. Leofric's authority radiated from nearly every cardinal direction to influence people all across Anglo-Saxon England.


But Godgifu was no slouch herself. She came into the marriage with a considerable amount of wealth -- and eight countries that she called her very own. One of these was Coventry, the site of her legendary horse ride. (We'll return to that momentarily.) Under Anglo-Saxon laws, women were entrusted with keeping their household valuables and finances secure. Godgifu took very seriously the matter of managing her wealth. She and Leofric were also philanthropic and the primary benefactors of monasteries in their domain. Godgifu gave generously to the Benedictine abbey in Coventry in 1043, offering gold, silver and gems that were fashioned into crosses and bookplates. Given the nature of historical records from the Middle Ages, we don't have many details about Godgifu's personality but can infer that she was very pious [source: Stephens].

Leofric was an enthusiastic supporter of his wife's philanthropy. But according to some accounts, his staunch refusal to lower taxes for the citizens of Coventry was the basis for Godgifu's famous ride. The first version of the Lady Godiva legend appeared in the 13th century, nearly 200 years after her death. Roger of Wendover, a Benedictine monk and historian from St. Albans, wrote in the 1057 entry of his Chronica that the "Countess Godiva" asked Leofric to abolish the rather sizable tax demanded of Coventry's citizens. Leofric said no, but Godiva persisted until he gave in -- nearly. He promised to repeal the tax if Godiva would ride naked on her horse through the market and back. Godiva didn't flinch at the suggestion; she just ensured that she had Leofric's permission to complete the challenge. Then she undressed, let loose her long hair and arranged it over her body to cover herself. With her hair as a veil, she rode through the town and back without being seen. When she returned home, Leofric kept his promise and signed a charter, thereby freeing Coventry's citizens of the tax [source: Roger of Wendover].

The reverent noblewoman risking her reputation to protect the town's citizens makes for a powerful story. Too bad it's not true. On the next page, we'll take a closer look at the story and see why historians have discounted it.


The Hair, the Horse and the Legend: Godiva's Ride

Lady Godiva, escorted by a nun, is oblivious to Peeping Tom's watchful eyes.
Photo by Mark Kauffman//Time Life Pictures/Getty Images

After the Norman Conquest, writers endeavored to record the lore and history of England. Their goal seemed to be quantity over quality -- the accuracy of many of these accounts is debatable, and the Lady Godiva tale is one sterling example of a pseudo-historical yarn that was woven again and again through the centuries.

As we've learned, Roger of Wendover is credited with the first instance of the Godiva legend. His monastery had been almost solely founded by Godgifu. Roger may have been trying to glorify the generous patron: In his account, the Countess Godiva is infallibly pious (Leofric is begrudgingly righteous in the end). Matthew Paris went on to paint her even more colorfully in Flores Historarium when he succeeded Roger in the late 13th century. Their versions were pretty similar, though Paris took more liberties with fleshing out the characters. In the 14th century, other historians added that the ride occurred in the morning and that the townspeople continued to pay taxes on their horses.


But in the 16th century, Grafton's "Chronicle" added a new twist to the story. He cited Gaufride as his source -- but no one is sure who Gaufride was. Scholastically speaking, this makes Grafton's version more tenuous, but it proved far more entertaining (later, it would inspire countless poems and ballads about Godiva). According to Grafton, the townspeople had been ordered to stay inside while Godiva rode through the town. One man couldn't resist sneaking a peek as she processed down the streets. As he peered through the window to the street below, a divine force intervened to strike him dead, or in some versions blind. He became known as Peeping Tom. This tension between the exhibitionist and the scopophiliac (one who finds pleasure in looking at things) was later a critical point in Sigmund Freud's theories about human psychology. For years, Lady Godiva and Peeping Tom were inextricably connected, though today we use the colloquial expression "Peeping Tom" to refer to someone -- male or female -- who looks at things he or she isn't supposed to.

By the 19th century, the Godiva legend had taken on a new meaning. The lower classes were at last able to afford private homes and came to know the luxury of personal space. People accepted that some things are better shielded from public eyes, and they began to consider Godiva as a representative of modesty. In 20th century and modern popular culture, these symbolic parts of the story started to fade away, but concrete images like the noblewoman's naked body and her long hair still resonate with people -- even if they don't know why Godiva took that naked horse ride.

So is it worse to remember history inaccurately or not remember it at all? We learned earlier that Godgifu entered into her marriage with some property in her name and that Coventry was one of those places. Since she owned Coventry, Godgifu would've made the call to lower or abolish taxes. What's more, 11th-century Coventry was a provincial parcel of farmland [source: Stephens]. There were no taxes. And the land wasn't big enough or prosperous enough to warrant a taxation system until the 12th or perhaps 13th century. Therefore, Godiva's ride never happened because there simply was no need for her to prove anything.

That hasn't stopped people from celebrating it. Beginning in 1678, a Godiva Procession was held in Coventry to commemorate and recreate the event. Maidens tapped to play the part of Godiva wore a flesh-colored body stocking and were offered free liquor by the local pubs -- liquid courage for the ride. Today, Coventry carries on the tradition. Even if it's just lore, the Lady Godiva tale is part of the town's identity.

To read more about Godgifu, alias Lady Godiva, peruse the links that follow.


Frequently Asked Questions

What is the historical basis for Lady Godiva's ride?
The historical basis is dubious, with many believing it to be a myth popularized by medieval writers, rather than a true event.
How has the story of Lady Godiva influenced modern culture?
Lady Godiva's story has inspired various cultural references, including poems, paintings and the name of the luxury chocolate brand, Godiva.

Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

  • Alfred, Lord Tennyson. "Godiva." 1842 (July 28, 2008). http://www.pitt.edu/~dash/godiva.html
  • "An Anglo-Saxon Tale: Lady Godiva." BBC History. Aug. 19, 2002 (July 28, 2008). http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/ancient/anglo_saxons/godiva_01.shtml
  • Coe, Charles. "Lady Godiva: The Naked Truth." Harvard Magazine. July-Aug. 2003 (July 28, 2008). http://harvardmagazine.com/2003/07/lady-godiva-the-naked-tr.html.
  • Donoghue, Daniel. "Lady Godiva: A Literary History of the Legend." Blackwell Publishing Ltd., Malden: 2003.
  • "The History of Godiva Chocolatier." Godiva Chocolatier. (July 28, 2008). http://www.godiva.com/about/faq/aspx.
  • "Infamous Coventry lady exposed." BBC. (July 28, 2008). http://www.bbc.co.uk/coventry/features/stories/2002/04/the-history-of-lady-godiva.shtml
  • Roger of Wendover. "Lady Godiva." (July 28, 2008). http://www.pitt.edu/~dash/godiva.html
  • Stephens, W.B. "The Legend of Lady Godiva." British History Online, the City of Coventry. (July 28, 2008). http://www.british-history.ac.uk/report.aspx?compid=16031