We all know the legend of the eleventh-century Lady Godiva, who famously rode naked through the streets of Coventry, covered only by her long, flowing hair. As the story goes, she begged her husband Lord Leofric of Mercia to lift a high tax on her people, who would starve if forced to pay. Lord Leofric demanded a forfeit: that Godiva ride naked on horseback through the town. There are various endings to Godiva's ride, that all the people of Coventry closed their doors and refused to look upon their liege lady (except for 'peeping Tom') and that her husband, in remorse, lifted the tax. Naked is an original version of Godiva's tale with a twist that may be closer to the truth: by the end of his life Leofric had fallen deeply in love with Lady Godiva.
It's an intriguing premise for a novel but the history is equally fascinating. So over to Eliza...
Lady Godiva or Countess Godgyfu (meaning God's Gift) in the Anglo-Saxon version of her name spent some of her life in what is now called the British Midlands. The area now surrounding Coventry is heavily industrialized and bears little resemblance to the largely rural land of her time when it would have been interspersed with villages huddled around common pasture land. Close by, the Forest of Arden would have stretched for many more wooded miles than it does today. As it was to Shakespeare, Arden would have been well known to Godiva.
Anglo-Saxon England was a challenging time and place for a woman. Constant Danish invasion by those later called Vikings, though the Saxons called them Danes, occurred many times in the tenth and eleventh century. Records suggest that Godiva was more than equal to the challenges of her day. Her name appears in records as the only female landowner who retained her lands not only against the Danes but also later against the Norman invasion of 1066. Her status as a landowner indicates that she inherited her own estate.
In Naked, I placed Godiva firmly as the heiress and defender of “the Middle Lands.” Saxon noblewomen could inherit and govern property and some were certainly warriors. Some were also peace weavers or in old Anglo-Saxon fripwebba (commonly spelled 'friþuwebbe') . These women were known to marry a man from an opposing tribe to establish peace or end war. Queen Wealtheow in Beowulf, was such a woman. To be a peace weaver was a mantle of honour. This became part of the plot in Naked.
Ancient records suggest Godiva was a genuine philanthropist. She supported monasteries, built abbeys and churches, and aided the poor. The original cathedral in Coventry was founded by Godiva and she donated rich garments and jewelry to the city. She had one son, Elfgar, and his daughter Eadlgyth – Godiva’s granddaughter - had two marriages, the second to Harold II; the King of England who was killed in the Norman invasion of 1066 led by William the Conqueror. Godiva’s family became not merely Saxon nobility, but Saxon royalty. Yet it’s the legend of Lady Godiva herself that has stood the test of time.
I loved the idea of Godiva being the owner of her lands and this too became a crucial part of the plot in Naked. As an Anglo-Saxon leader in her day Godiva would have been in charge of caring for her people and for meting out justice. Her responsibilities would have included governing her shire and holding a town meeting called an althing. At an althing, it was the lord (or lady’s) practice to hear any concerns and collect the taxes, so this would have been Godiva’s duty. Any appeals would have to be heard fairly and justice against wrongdoing would be swift. It could also be cruel – some crimes had the penalty of the cost of a limb, but there was also famous Anglo-Saxon fairness, including compensation for the loss of a loved one.
Godiva doubtless would have faced prejudice because of her gender, but I believe she was more than up to it. After all, it was to save her people that Lady Godiva made her famous ride. What a woman!
What a woman, indeed! Many thanks, Eliza for sharing Godiva's history with me. You can find out more about all of Eliza's novels (plus a little bit more about Eliza) below.
Naked: A Novel of Lady Godiva was released internationally by St Martin’s Press New York in 2015. Her ‘Romance your Senses’ series of contemporary romances are published by Harlequin. They include Black Diamonds, Hide and Seek and Wild Flower.
Eliza is also contracted to Harlequin Historical for two upcoming Victorian historical romances. Look out for Enticing Benedict Cole in November 2015.
Eliza Redgold is based upon the old, Gaelic meaning of her name, Dr Elizabeth Reid Boyd. English folklore has it that if you help a fairy, you will be rewarded with red gold. She has presented academic papers on women and romance and is a contributor to the forthcoming Encyclopaedia of Romance Fiction. She was born in Irvine, Scotland on Marymass Day and currently lives in Australia.
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