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Lady Godiva - Looking for Reality Among Legends


Lady Godiva - Looking for Reality Among Legends

If you find this article interesting then do check out all the other Articles and Blog posts available to the ANW community. There are also plenty of opportunities for members to get involved themselves - writing Blogs, running Groups, debating in the Forum, creating Albums and more - including making friends with other genuine and respectful naturists from all around the world. ANW believes naturism represents a basic and instinctive state all humans should enjoy and our aim is to encourage society to appreciate how important it is to spend time innocently and appropriately naked. 


In The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, in my opinion one of the best Westerns ever made, is a quote “When Legend Becomes Fact, Print the Legend.” This can mean various things but to me it suggests that stories evolve to suit our own time. That like language itself these tales become a living thing, changing to remain relevant.


Story telling was an important part of our social development as humans. We learnt about our own past, our families and important survival techniques. Like bees dancing in a hive these tails or tales will guide us to the pollen ensuring our survival and making life sweeter.


When Homer wrote The Odyssey, the Iliad and his third lost epic he didn't invent the stories, they had been evolving as entertainment for many years. He was just the first to write them down. Some of the characters in his stories did exist, but we only really know the fantastic stories built around them, entwined with gods, nymphs and monsters. From then on, the stories evolution would cease as he recorded them for future generations to use in that format. Centuries later Shakespeare did the same. Do we know Julius Caesar or Richard III through factual history or through the plays? Probably a bit of both. How much do we know about Boadicea/Boudicca a real British folk hero, a queen leading an uprising against the Roman Empire. It's easy to imagine her riding bare breasted on a chariot, sword in hand, into the history books. A woman of legend. In truth the uprising almost worked and the Roman's were considering withdrawing from Britain. We rely on the writing of people like Tacitus to patch together a story, but what is real, what is made up by the writers and what is here-say that they write as fact.


British history is full of legendary characters. Heroes or villains? Robin Hood, Little John, Dick Turpin. In my twenties I worked in a school set up by someone who worked for the real Dick Whittington. Cornwall is rich with Arthurian Legend, real people like Old Uncle Tom Cobley and all, tales of Mermaids, and Jack the Giant Killer. Stories told over and over again. Jack the Giant killer also becomes Jack and the Beanstalk. How many children's tales, collected Homer style, in Europe by Grimm, Anderson and others are possibly based on fact? Events that happened and became fantasy to act as warnings to children. Was there a real Boy that Cried Wolf? Did two children real get lost in the woods like Hansel and Gretel. Stories that used descriptions of people rather than names to allow for travel in time and space. Snow White skin, Red Riding Hood clothing, Goldilocks hair, Sleeping Beauty, Beauty and the Beast, Cinderella.


We revisit and retell these stories again and again. From nursery rooms, books, theatre and more recently film. Beowolf, Norse legends, folklore scholars like Tolkien ensuring we never forget how magical our world can be. Urban legends dating back to stagecoach days transferred to modern motor cars. I have met vicars who have told me they see the Bible as a collection of learning morality fables and cautionary tales. A mix of fantasy and reality built in part around real people and historic events. I have chatted with others who see the Bible as unquestionably factual. We will take what we can from what we are given and translate them for our own needs. Narnia, His Dark Materials, The Life of Pi.


One would think that the closer we get to modern times the easier it would be to separate fact from fiction. Legend from reality. How many of us want Sherlock Holmes to be real? How many trek to 221b Baker Street and find a sign next to the front of a bank? If the likes of Star wars and Star Trek had been created and loved several centuries ago we would now wonder whether or not the stories and characters were actually real. Consider how easy it has been for society to believe Father Christmas/Santa Claus has traditionally been dressed in red and white, forgetting that this idea was invented by Coca Cola in the 1930's. How many of us know the truth about Wild Bill Hiccock, Buffalo Bill, Calamity Jane, Annie Oakley, Wyatt Earp or Doc Holiday. How many of us want to? John Ford knew that legends were more impressive and memorable. Clint Eastwood moved legend into a mythic status, were his heroes alive or dead, fantasy and reality blurs. How do we ever know the full story? We will always have those that consider Roscoe Arbuckle to be a monster, even the the newspapers of the twenties said otherwise. Even in today's internet driven society facts are no clearer. Misinformation is stronger than ever. Public paranoia, harnessing trending social issues, those that shout loudest. History used to be told by the victors. Today it is told by those that have the most followers. Mia Farrow may simply be a disturbed, nasty, vindictive woman destroying the career and reputation of one of America's most original movie makers yet when it comes to unproven claims of abuse we would rather assume the worst, than consider the vast amount of facts that support Woody Allen's innocence, let alone remember the legal idea of innocent until proven guilty.


How can we fully understand the past when we lose so much, hear one sided stories and visit it through the eyes of people who distort it through their own agendas. When I was 13 I part watched three Laurel and Hardy shorts playing silent in a middle room of a bar in the USA. One of them was Hat's Off. I was spellbound and couldn't pull myself away from it. I always enjoying listening to adult chatter, so it was something to not keep returning to the table to check on developments. This short was just too wonderful. Years later I found out that this is the only Laurel and Hardy short to not be in existence. I remember the story very well and some of the gags, but would the Laurel and Hardy appreciation society wish to know. Would they believe me? Is my version of something lost in history relevant or confusing, and what if some of my memories are playing tricks with me, or I have some other agenda? The film is probably long gone, the bar may be closed and I have no idea where the bar was or what it was called. Would my admission that it was possibly their greatest silent comedy make the loss even more frustrating? Would the fact that I didn't come forward four decades ago make me an anti-hero. I have lived with the quandary for several years.


How will the world look back at the past couple of years. Covid has not just been reported by journalists and medical experts, but anyone with an axe to grind and access to the internet. We cannot even rely on photographs to record the facts. Computers allow any image to be created that the imagination allows. Any celebrity can be placed naked on a beach by anyone who fancies doing so, and depending on the skill involved the results can be very believable.


In years to come how will people interpret our naturism? We see bad press from the misbehaviour of a small (non-naturist) minority, protests outside family events, these events being rebranded as adult only, vast amount of sexual sharing on the internet often using the words “nudist” and “naturist” and too many clubs and federations seemingly happy to appear disconnect and private. Historians looking back at naturism could be forgiven for believing it was an unhealthy, sexual lifestyle, a complete misunderstanding of reality. We have to ensure that this is not the case. We have to work together as a united community and ensure that naturism is properly recognised. We have to create a positive legend and insist on a clear understanding of the facts today.

The Lady Godiva statue and clock in Coventry town centre

Lady Godiva - A Naturist Legend


A little over thirty years ago I travelled around the world. Heading west across the Atlantic and returning from the East over the English channel about a year and a half later. One of the things that always amazed me when I met people in different countries was that they new the legend of Lady Godiva. When they asked where I was from and I told them Coventry some new about the car manufacturing, some asked about what being “sent to Coventry” meant, none seemed to be aware of Frank Whittle or James Starley, but everyone knew about Lady Godiva. A real person who has crossed into legend and whose tale is known all over the world. She is on chocolate boxes, in books (including Doctor Seuss!), in films dating back to 1911 (one has a very young Clint Eastwood in it), on stained glass windows of churches, pop music, poems and much more. She is regularly mentioned on many TV shows, not just in Britain but I also remember her reference to her in two of my favourite shows from the US: Frasier (twice once when Maris is referred to as doing a Lady Godiva ride and once at a costume party when a woman dressed as Eve is thought to be dressed as Lady Godiva) and Klinger dressed as her in MASH. The funniest may have been in Hancock's Half Hour when it was suggested that Peeping Tom shouted “Get Your Hair Cut.” It has always been the long hair that has been used to make re-enactments safer. The same ploy is used when daytime TV invites naturist women for interviews. So many non-naturists must wonder if all naturists have breast length hair. She is even known as the patron of engineering. Lady Godiva's nude ride became part of the Coventry fair parades in 1678.

The Coventry Building Society and an old Godiva coin. The elephant with the castle has long been another symbol of Coventry, thankfully now it is a little more realistic looking.


The most famous poem was written by Tennyson in 1840. On his return from Coventry to London. Part of it is on the Lady Godiva statue plinth.



by Alfred, Lord Tennyson

I waited for the train at Coventry;
I hung with grooms and porters on the bridge,
To watch the three tall spires; and there I shaped
The city's ancient legend into this:
Not only we, the latest seed of Time,
New men, that in the flying of a wheel
Cry down the past, not only we, that prate
Of rights and wrongs, have loved the people well,
And loathed to see them overtax'd; but she
Did more, and underwent, and overcame,
The woman of a thousand summers back,
Godiva, wife to that grim Earl, who ruled
In Coventry: for when he laid a tax
Upon his town, and all the mothers brought
Their children, clamoring, "If we pay, we starve!"
She sought her lord, and found him, where he strode
About the hall, among his dogs, alone,
His beard a foot before him and his hair
A yard behind. She told him of their tears,
And pray'd him, "If they pay this tax, they starve."
Whereat he stared, replying, half-amazed,
"You would not let your little finger ache
For such as these?" -- "But I would die," said she.
He laugh'd, and swore by Peter and by Paul;
Then fillip'd at the diamond in her ear;
"Oh ay, ay, ay, you talk!" -- "Alas!" she said,
"But prove me what I would not do."
And from a heart as rough as Esau's hand,
He answer'd, "Ride you naked thro' the town,
And I repeal it;" and nodding, as in scorn,
He parted, with great strides among his dogs.
So left alone, the passions of her mind,
As winds from all the compass shift and blow,
Made war upon each other for an hour,
Till pity won. She sent a herald forth,
And bade him cry, with sound of trumpet, all
The hard condition; but that she would loose
The people: therefore, as they loved her well,
From then till noon no foot should pace the street,
No eye look down, she passing; but that all
Should keep within, door shut, and window barr'd.
Then fled she to her inmost bower, and there
Unclasp'd the wedded eagles of her belt,
The grim Earl's gift; but ever at a breath
She linger'd, looking like a summer moon
Half-dipt in cloud: anon she shook her head,
And shower'd the rippled ringlets to her knee;
Unclad herself in haste; adown the stair
Stole on; and, like a creeping sunbeam, slid
From pillar unto pillar, until she reach'd
The Gateway, there she found her palfrey trapt
In purple blazon'd with armorial gold.
Then she rode forth, clothed on with chastity:
The deep air listen'd round her as she rode,
And all the low wind hardly breathed for fear.
The little wide-mouth'd heads upon the spout
Had cunning eyes to see: the barking cur
Made her cheek flame; her palfrey's foot-fall shot
Light horrors thro' her pulses; the blind walls
Were full of chinks and holes; and overhead
Fantastic gables, crowding, stared: but she
Not less thro' all bore up, till, last, she saw
The white-flower'd elder-thicket from the field,
Gleam thro' the Gothic archway in the wall.
Then she rode back, clothed on with chastity;
And one low churl, compact of thankless earth,
The fatal byword of all years to come,
Boring a little auger-hole in fear,
Peep'd -- but his eyes, before they had their will,
Were shrivel'd into darkness in his head,
And dropt before him. So the Powers, who wait
On noble deeds, cancell'd a sense misused;
And she, that knew not, pass'd: and all at once,
With twelve great shocks of sound, the shameless noon
Was clash'd and hammer'd from a hundred towers,
One after one: but even then she gain'd
Her bower; whence reissuing, robed and crown'd,
To meet her lord, she took the tax away
And built herself an everlasting name.


As a child the idea that one of Coventry's most famous citizen was known for riding on a horse naked did not seem at all strange. It was a fun story and one that was culturally something to be proud of. The Godiva statue has prime position in the town centre, the symbol of a naked woman on a horse is to be seen everywhere, and the Coventry Building Society uses it as their logo and as such presents it through their branches on the high streets of many other towns. Parades in the town would involve a naked woman (sometimes in a body stocking) with long blond hair riding a white horse. People would arrange to meet under the Godiva Clock. Which on the hour involves a plastic Godiva and horse riding out of one door along a rail and in through another while a boggle eyed man peered through a wooden shut and looked down on the fair maid as she attempted to make her journey without falling over. It reminded me of the Trumpet clock. There was always something a little scary about Peeping Tom.

Godiva on the council logo and Godiva and Leofric on the front of Coventry council house


The name Peeping Tom appears to have been added to the tale around 500 years later. His name is maybe even more famous than Godiva's as it has become linked to anyone who watches others in an act of voyeurism. There is a grotesque oak statue of Peeping Tom in Coventry which used to make me feel odd just looking at it. It didn't help that somewhere along the years he has lost his hands, and he looks in agony. Stories about someone looking on has been told on and off before the name Peeping Tom was added. The story has it that he would have been put to death for his crime, though some stories tell of him instantly being struck blind. As a child the idea that someone would ride through a town naked seemed perfectly fine, but the idea of Peeping Tom was horrible. It was creepy. Years on I can still empathise with this childhood feeling. As a naturist none of us want people looking at us for voyeuristic reasons. Many websites, social media sites and blogs are full of stolen images and images that people have sneakily taken from the dunes of unaware beach users. Modern day Peeping Toms who damage naturism and disrespect this heathy and innocent lifestyle. I cannot help but see the open mouthed carved statue that I stared down at me so menacingly as a child. It remains a crime that naturists shouldn't have to be concerned about. It is the reason that so many clubs and resorts ban photography. But it shouldn't be the case, we shouldn't make rules based on the bad behaviour of the few. They should be punished, just maybe not as severely as the original Peeping Tom.

The creepy Peeping Tom


Anyway on to brighter things. I used to travel through Coventry town centre in the early morning on my way to school. Sometimes up past the two the cathedrals. On various occasions I watched photo shoots of young women usually on horses in the nude. Usually in preparation for a new parade and often shown on the local news later. Being linked to history and a family parade seemed to OK the nudity. One of the women I would have watched would have been Pru Poretta who since 1982 has been the official Lady Godiva in Coventry. She is now a grandmother and has an MBE and I reckon is probably more likely to wear a body stocking now than she did when she started in my early teens. But the world is a little more concerned about nudity than it was then, the world and media have become a little more jaded. Even recent giant puppets of Godiva used in Stratford for Shakespeare birthday celebrations and for the 2012 Olympics had Godiva's nudity covered by clothing. Society's growing discomfort with nudity seems at complete odds to the abundance of sexual sharing on the internet. Both poles constantly pushing a way from a sensible middle ground leaving a wider and wider void each year.

Pru Portetta in 1982 and the much safer dressed puppet 30 years later


Incidentally, on the side of the new cathedral is a large statue of St Michael standing over the Devil, who is naked and whose penis is visible in great detail to anyone walking up to the cathedral doors. As a child I always felt that the Devil seemed rather vulnerable and the dressed St Michael appeared the dominant more aggressive figure. Either way it was a fascinating piece of art for a young boy, and I was never able to understand why people heading in to prayer would be shown the Devil's penis.


In fact nudity was everywhere in Coventry. Statues, fountains, paintings in art galleries and stone murals on the side of buildings. But none of it ever appeared shocking. The dressed Peeping Tom was shocking. Lady Godiva was a hero. Pru Poretta considers that Lady Godiva is as important a figure today as she has ever been. Which is probably true as she represents a strong and passionate woman brave enough to make a stand and argue against the men around her for the sake of justice. Driven enough to then put her self out for her cause. Long before fights for women's liberation and equality, before the suffragettes, before International Women's Day, before naturism started using body confidence and awareness, before Anna and other wonderful naturist women took a stand, there was Lady Godiva.


St Micheal and The Devil on the side of the new cathedral. 1958 bronze sculpture by Jacob Epstein (1880-1959). A statue of Lady Godiva created by Thomas Woolner (1825-1892)


What do we know.


Godiva was mentioned in the Doomsday book. One of the few female landowners to be mentioned. So we know she would have died between 1066 and 1086. Her name Godgifu meant “Gift from God.” England at the time was in some ways more civilised than it would later become. Women could own land, inherit, make decisions, get divorced. As Coventry actually belonged to Godiva and not Leofric, she may not have needed to argue with him over the taxes levied on the town.



She married the powerful Leofric, Earl of Mercia which included towns like Coventry, Stratford and Gloucester. Godiva was known for her charitable and church work and donated quite considerably. Helping to fund church and monasteries around Mercia and as far afield as St Paul's in London. It is documented that after the Norman invasion the gold artefacts they had donated to church were melted down and used by the Normans for their own goals. They had 9 children and it is thought she may have been a widow before they married. She had already inherited quite a wealth from her father, including Coventry. She outlived Leofric who died in 1057. Leofric was buried in St Mary Priory and Cathedral now a ruin in Coventry, and she may have been buried with him on her death or possibly buried in Evesham Abbey. Godiva and Leofric are placed as statues on the front of Coventry council house and are also represented in a window created in the late 1300's in Trinity church in Coventry.


There seems no doubt that they were among the most generous of landowners before the Norman conquest. Of interest, in her will she mentioned some beads that she used for prayer, this appears to be the earlier mention of an item similar to today's rosary beads being mentioned in writing. Lady Godiva is shown to want to bring culture and learning to the people of Coventry, her want for lower taxes was partly to allow them to have money to spend on a better and more artistic life.

The Beauty and the Beast - Maureen 'O Hara and Jamie Farr as Lady Godiva


The Legend


The story of the ride first appeared in the early 1200 recounted by Roger or Wendover, over a hundred years after her death. It is mentioned that she rode naked through the market place as a protest against tolls. Another version of the story was written around the same time by two monks in St Albans, and a third also in the early 1200 by the prior of the Coventry monastery that Leofric and Godiva funded. Some tell of the taxes that Leofric had to levy for the current war effort. Taxes on everything, even manure. Though others have established that Leofric had already removed all tolls in Coventry except on horses, so it would appear her protest was on the horses tolls. Possibly the reason for the horse ride, an early version of World Naked Bike Rides.


Early accounts suggested that men and women carried on their day as normal as she rode confidently naked through the town. Part of the tale that developed was that everyone along the ride was ordered to go inside, close the window shutters and not look out. The story that one man did look later developed into Peeping Tom.


Some see the story as part of the Pagan May Queen parade with a young woman travelling to Cofa's tree. Long seen as an origin of Coventry's name. Others suggest it may have been more Christian. Nudity was linked with penance. Godiva's ride may not have been tax based but asking forgiveness to God as part of Leofric and Godiva want to make amends for things they were not proud of, like the destruction of Worcester as demanded by King Harthacnut.

Dressed and naked - Godiva in art - Edmund Leighton 1852-1922 and Emile Jeannest 1813 - 1857


How naked was she?


There is the idea that she may have simply been without her refinery. Outer fancy clothing or even her jewellery. I think this partly depends on how we view nudity now and how they viewed nudity then. Some even believe that the whole naked ride story was invented by protestants trying to sully the memory of this kind and giving benefactor. Asking, if she was that pure would she have rode naked through the streets. Ironically it lifts her charity work and church donations onto a higher level. Handing out money is one thing but taking a stand is something else.


Some accounts state she was confidently naked with her hair tied back. Others that her hair covered everything but her legs.


Whether the ride happened or not, why it happened and how naked she was seems of little importance now. The legend has taken over and has captured our imagines for hundreds of years.

The atmospheric and chilly ride painted by Jules Lefvebre (1836-1911) and a sheet that defies gravity worn by Godiva as painted by Marshall Claxton (1811-1881) in 1850. 

For more examples of Lady Godiva in art you may wish to visit the ongoing Naturism in Art project that celebrates famous art and artists who have created art that celebrates non-sexual nudity. 

Why does the whole world love Lady Godiva?


We love stories that our lost in time. That want to know the reality and never being quite sure where it lies is fascinating.


We love under dog heroes. People who make a difference. People who go up against the odds. The Lady Godiva statue is actually called “Self Sacrifice.”


There is the Romance of the whole story. It is drama.


As mentioned before it is a great example of female power.


There is a nasty villain in Peeping Tom. A revolting creature, but how many children on hearing the tale wouldn't think: “I would have peeked too!”


Mainly though it is the nudity. As humans we are obsessed with nudity. Humanity misses nudity. We look for it in all forms of art, we find excuses for it, we want it, it is a natural state. It can become an unhealthy desire in some. If Godiva rode through the town because she got a kick from being watched then she would have been an exhibitionist. Just as worrying as the voyeur Peeping Tom. Peeping Tom reminds us that there is an unhealthy line that can be crossed. It helps to put the tale into context. Just as internet users need to place nudity into context. Godiva was naked for innocent and healthy reasons and that we all know is something to be admired. In a world where we don't fully understand our desire for nudity, and want a reasonable excuse, Godiva offers us a great and safe reason.


Almost a thousand years on we continue to look for that reasonable and safe excuse. Nudity that isn't sexualised or pornographic. Posing for art, taking part in mass photo shoots, photos for charities, charity runs and raising awareness of issues. Films, theatre and TV that use nudity for sensible artistic reason. Spur of the moment dares, skinny dipping in quiet countryside, record breaking sea swims. “Dressing -up” as Lady Godiva.


As naturists we don't need an excuse. We know that nudity can simply be it's own excuse. We fully appreciate that it is innocent with out having a greater purpose. But we still adore the Lady Godiva legend because it does remind a great portion of the worlds population that nudity, and therefore naturism, should not be seen as shameful and reminds them that it can be celebrated, commonplace and fantastic. Coventry children have been growing up with it for many generations and they seem to accept it, so why shouldn't we all?

Thanks For Reading, Steve

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Anna and Steve have shared over 150 articles and blog posts on and write regularly for naturist publications. If you would like to collaborate with them on any naturist / nudist promotional activity or quote from any of their work please contact them via email at [email protected]