Searching for Godgyfu – Coventry Today

Research is the prerequisite – and indulgence – of writing historic fiction. As preparation for writing my novella about her, I had immersed myself in myriad factual (and speculative) sources about Godgyfu of Mercia (Lady Godiva). All that remained was a visit to the English landscape she knew, and which became indelibly associated with her. This is the area known today as the Midlands, but in her lifetime as the rich and huge Earldom of Mercia. Although the sole place where one can now see actual physical evidence of Godgyfu’s benefactions is at the beautiful church St Mary’s Stow-in-Lindsey, it is Coventry that lays at the heart of Mercia and will always bear especial attraction to those interested in Godgyfu.

The countryside around Coventry, and its sister manufacturing city, Birmingham, is green, rolling, and dotted with sheep. Coventry began over one thousand years ago as a small farming village in a clearing on the very edge of the ancient Forest of Arden. Arden, immortalised later by Shakespeare, is but a ghost of itself, but enough remains of a bucolic nature to suggest the views and experiences of a thousand years ago. Coventry itself is wholly changed, due first to its own commercial success as a market town, then to ill-considered urban clearance in the 19th century and the early part of the 20th, and finally to devastation by German bombs in WWII.

From 69 farming families in 1085 (the time of the Domesday survey) Coventry has grown to 318,000 inhabitants. The town has long been industrialised. The wool trade and then cloth production made Coventry prosperous in the 14th century, and subsequent important industries included silk ribbons, time-pieces, and in the 19th century, sewing machines. The manufacture of first bicycles and then motor cars made Coventry the centre of the motor industry in England. (Jaguar enthusiasts will immediately connect their favourite car with Coventry.)

It is thus of no wonder that of medieval Coventry little remains today. Of Anglo-Saxon Coventry, there is nearly nothing. Still, a bit of the historic heart of the city remains, most especially that lane known as Priory Row. (The Priory which gave it its name was originally the Priory Church of St Mary, St Osburgh, and All Saints, dedicated in 1043 on land owned by Godgyfu.) To reach there one passes the poignant ruins of the Cathedral of St Michael, a victim of the bombing of November 1940. The walls remain, a purposeful reminder of the waste of war, and the roofless interior become a sort of peace park for contemplation. The new Cathedral, completed in 1962, adjoins it.

One must continue along Priory Row to reach the suspected site of the small stone church built by Leofric and Godgyfu in 1043. For that is all that Coventry can offer the pilgrim, a chance to walk upon the place where her church likely stood. This first Priory Church was replaced with a far larger church in the 13th century. It was dissolved as a religious foundation by Henry VIII in 1539, and fell into ruin. Only some fragments of foundation stones of this second church remain, discovered in 1955; they are now over eight feet below modern ground level. Portions of the foundations of the east end of this later church are clearly visible, and one can walk down to them. Since Godgyfu and Leofric were interred in the church they built, he in 1057, she in 1067 – probably near the high altar as befits a donor’s status – it is certainly possible that when the larger edifice was created their bones were re-interred by the new high altar. If this is so, one can still stand very close to the site of her final resting place. The city art museum, the Herbert Gallery, is nearby, and houses several paintings depicting the Godiva story. Mr Ronald Clarke, Senior Visual Arts Keeper of that institution and author of a booklet on the visual interpretation of her ride through the ages, kindly gave up his afternoon and gave me a guided tour of the Priory remains. Archaeological examinations continue, and we may someday have a clearer idea of what Godgyfu’s and Leofric’s church was like.

Spon Street in Coventry marked one end of the village’s boundaries in the 11th century, and thus must have been the turn-around point for her ride. A walk down it today, albeit clothed and on foot, still repays the slight effort with the pleasures of 14th century half-timbered houses (many of them moved from other places in Coventry) lining both sides. Nothing of course is left from her era; one must simply take pleasure in the probability that she indeed trod near to the same places where the modern foot falls.

In the past few years the city has made an attempt to revive the custom of the recreation of Godiva’s ride by a selected imitator. This has its roots in Godiva pageants, some of which attracted many thousands of spectators to the city to watch a be-wigged woman process through crammed streets as part of a display of civic pride. The first of these pageants dates to 1678, and continued annually with little interruption until the mid ninetieth century. Generally these parades were part of Coventry’s Great Whitesun Fair (Whitsunday being the second most important religious holiday in the Church of England’s calendar, after Easter itself). The impersonator, clothed in voluminous skirt and pink bodysuit called “fleshings”, would be accompanied by costumed “Saxon” ladies-in-waiting, city officials, trade guild floats, fire brigade apparatus, and so on. In 1854, however, the unexpected but long-desired occurred: a truly unclothed woman on a horse crashed the pageant, creating pandemonium, and suspending the pageant for a full eight years. From then on the pageant was held only sporadically, and moneys raised through the sale of seats (the procession sometimes took as long as four hours) were scrupulously donated to worthwhile charities, such as the local hospital. Even after the advent of motion pictures and radio the pageant continued. The last pre-war procession, in 1936, attracted over 200,000 people to witness the day’s festivities.

Godgyfu and Leofric are everywhere recalled through Coventry, immortalised in statues adorning civic buildings of various eras. Godgyfu mounted on her horse forms the city’s official seal, and representations of Peeping Tom (a 17th century addition to the story of her ride, a tailor who wrongfully “peeped” and for his trouble was struck blind by divine justice) threatens to outnumber those of his voyeuristic intent, so numerous are the carvings of his leering image throughout town. A large bronze and quite modern (1949) statue of Godiva mounted on her horse graces the shopping district Broadgate. At the base is inscribed the words “Self-Sacrifice”. Like many of the depictions of her ride, it portrays a virtuous woman coping with a humiliating task in a spirit of modest acquiescence. Not so the earliest painting in the Herbert Art Gallery’s collection of Godiva art – a work from 1586, probably by an itinerant Flemish artist, portrays a woman openly and unselfconsciously naked, sitting serenely (if rather unsecurely) upon her horse, with no pretense of shame.

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