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Lady Godiva: Is the story of the naked-horseriding noblewoman real?

Updated on November 4, 2011

Lady Godiva

Lady Godiva has become immortalised in folk legend the world over. She is widely believed to be the woman who rode a horse naked through the streets of medieval Coventry in England.

But did she actually exist? The British writer Harry Mount claims that Lady Godiva may well have existed in the period around the mid-11th century. But he claims that there is no evidence to suggest that she actually performed the now famous act of disrobing and cantering naked through the streets of the small city in Warwickshire area of England.

Legend has long held that the very beautiful and caring Lady Godiva was upset by the harsh taxes being imposed on the poor town's folk by her husband, the Earl of Mercia. She had the 'common touch' and was moved by the daily plights of ordinary folk.

The statue in the centre of Coventry that shows Lady Godiva naked on her horse
The statue in the centre of Coventry that shows Lady Godiva naked on her horse | Source

Mount admits that Lady Godiva was indeed an Anglo-Saon noblewoman who was married to the Earl of Mercia but there is nothing recorded at the time about her character to suggest that she identified with the poor people.

The legend has it that she was desperate to stop the poor people being pushed further into poverty by her husband claiming more taxes. In protest at this, Lady Godiva tried to push her husband into a corner. Knowing how angered he would be to have his beautiful wife naked in public, she threatened to ride her horse without any clothes on through the town.

The Earl of Mercia still refused to back down, and Lady Godiva performed the iconic naked horse riding through the streets. Although the famous tale has it that all residents were ordered to stay inside their homes and not to look out.

Mount aregues that there are no historial accounts of Lady Godiva doing such a thing. He says that the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle - usually a reliable source of information from the time - has no mention of the event. Such a scandlous event would surely have been recorded, he says.

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Instead, the first mention of Lady Godiva having ridden in the nude through Coventry appeared in 1236, in the records of Richard of Wendover. From here the event is then said to have become a local folk-tale and had romantic twists added in.

It was not until 1842 that the supposed explouts of Lady Godiva became widely known to the generl public. The folk tale was turned into a poem by the leading writer of the day Alfred Lord Tennyson. From here, Lady Godiva gained popular appeal and the story was romanticised further.

The story remains fixed in the public's imagination and the image of Lady Godiva on horseback is used as an emblem for the city of Coventry. A film and several books have also been made about her and a number of the legend has been used as inspiration to raise money for charity.

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