GREAT WOMEN IN THE HISTORY OF EROTICA - LADY GODIVA.
Though the most famous story about her, the naked horseback streak through the streets of Coventry, is largely a myth, Lady Godiva was a very real woman, noted for her striking beauty by several chroniclers. She lived from c.990 - c.1067. She is named in the Domesday Book, and other major sources of the period. . She was an Anglo-Saxon noble-lady, who, after being widowed, married Lord and Earl, Leofric, who was given control of Coventry and established a Benedictine Monastery there. Lady Godiva was also seen to be a major benefactor to the church. They funded ecclesiastical building work in other counties too, including Chester.
Funding the church building programme led Leofric to impose harsh taxes and tithes on the population of Coventry. It was through protests from his wife on behalf of the starving people that he reluctantly curtailed such extreme taxation of the poor. Exactly what Lady Godiva did to convince him of the error of his ways is lost in the midst of time, but it is the legend about her naked ride as the means to that end that has long since captured the public imagination.
The story has it that in protestation against her husband, Lady Godiva requested permission to ride a horse through the streets while naked, with the people of Coventry obliged to stay indoors and not to watch her go by. Only her long flowing hair protected her modesty.
In some versions of the story her husband refused to listen to her concerns about his taxation policies and taunted her with an insistence that she shut up, as he would only do as she wished if she rode naked through the City streets. He naively assumed that a woman who took her religion so seriously would do no such thing. He greatly underestimated her determinism. It was a dare she was all too willing to take. She is believed to have been guarded in her dawn ride by two fully armed baronial knights, who were each forbidden to turn and look back at her.
The Godiva ride story was in circulation from the 13th century. The additional myth of Peeping Tom, the most famous of all voyeurs, was not added in writing until the 17th Century. His story involved his inability to avoid sneaking an unlawful peek at the naked woman riding side-saddle past his house. He watched her go by through a hole drilled specially into his own front door. It is claimed that God immediately struck him blind for his clandestine peep.
THE TRUTH BEHIND THE STORY
What really happened? It seems likely that Lady Godiva, known to be devoutly Catholic, was actually practicing a penitential ceremony. Penitents would often strip themselves down to a shroud like shift, and walk or ride through or to some place in a slow act of prayer, begging God for forgiveness. For a wealthy lady like Godiva, stripping herself of her riches, and fine clothes, to appear more poor than the people she felt sorry for, must have taken a great deal of courage. The naked-ness of Godiva is a spiritual one, rather than a physical one, but the legend has spawned the iconic and erotic image of her in the nude, taking a mysterious horse ride through the city she loved.
The Peeping Tom add-on may also have historic roots. Anyone disrupting a religious service or the practices of a penitent would be cursed in the eyes of the devout. It would not be unusual for such a disruptive person to be lynched, or blinded by an angry mob. While it is unlikely that Peeping Tom tried to secretly watch Godiva, his story may be based on some later incident involving hassle or spying against someone in a penitential act of worship. The name Peeping Tom has however become synonymous with those who secretly watch others, especially as they undress or make love.
Coventry itself was a modest town in the years leading to the Norman Conquest. The Domesday Book lists only 69 families as living there. The ride, if only made once, (if ever) rather than with the horse going back and forth, must have been quite short.
LADY GODIVA'S LATER LIFE
Her protest, whatever form it took, had the right effect on her husband, and the harsh taxation programme was swiftly curtailed. The good lady secured greater affection among the people of the Midlands.
When the Normans, led by William The Conqueror, took control of Britain after the battle of Hastings in 1066, Lady Godiva, (now widowed again), was allowed to keep her properties and estates, one of the few Saxons granted such a privilege by Norman rulers. Sadly she appears to have died some time in 1067. She was most likely to have been buried beside her husband, Leofric, in Coventry.
Lady Godiva’s ride has become more famous than anything she actually did in her truly remarkable life. She probably deserved beatification and sainthood more than her image as a totally liberated sex symbol.. Many a female stripper or streaker has been called Lady Godiva. The name has become a by-word for exhibitionism and lewd conduct, which is far removed from the truth.
In Coventry, which takes great pride in the story, there is a dark stone statue of Lady Godiva in the city centre. Peeping Tom could once have been seen ogling her from a nearby building. His statue was originally created as one of St. George, but relocated and given a less religious or morally sacred function – It seems unlikely that the real and pious Lady Godiva would have approved.
Processions and parades in Coventry often include a woman taking on the role of Lady Godiva, though most of the women taking part use body stockings or bikinis or extreme wigs of long Rapunzel hair. (The mythical elements in the Godiva story seem to be drawn from fairy tales like that of Rapunzel). In some processions of old, a jester playing Peeping Tom followed Godiva in a house built on a cart or float-imploring people not to look at her while making sure that he watched and ogled her as closely as possible himself.
Competition for the role of Lady Godiva is fierce even today, and organizers often import women from out of town to avoid the rivalry becoming too intense. Rumours are invariably circulated about how much flesh the Godiva will display on her ride. She rarely shows too much though.
Peeping Tom seems to have been created as a lampoon on Charles 2cd, which was frequently criticized for his fascination for naked women. Charles had reopened the theatres after the Puritans had banned live drama during Oliver Cromwell’s Protectorate. Charles had also made it possible for women to be actors – before his time, all theatre roles in Britain had been played by men. Anti-Royalists saw him as a vulgar voyeur, and a general purpose dirty old git. Peeping Tom was largely modelled on that perception.
In 1842, Alfred Lord Tennyson wrote a poem called Godiva. He makes no use of the Peeping Tom story, focusing instead on the brave lady’s stance against the arrogance of her husband.
In 1898, artist John Collier depicted Lady Godiva naked, unprotected by long hair; on a horse that is heavily cloaked and dressed in the red finery she has divested herself of, retaining a sense of her wealth and power. Lady Godiva seems to be struggling to control the animal, and interestingly, she does not ride sidesaddle. Depicting her facing the foreground of the canvas might have given the viewers a pep at that which was not to be seen.
In 1960, a film called Peeping Tom,. directed by Michael Power, band featuring Karlheinz Bohm as a very nasty voyeuristic serial killer, got the very label of 'Peeping Tom' regarded as deeply perverted and sordid. The voyeur stopped being either the semi-mythical figure of the Godiva story or a Benny Hill type comedy character who was merely smutty. Tom became a bogeyman figure instead (even though Bohm's character name was Mark Lewis). The horror film itself was banned and heavily censored in many countries, and only recently reissued in the UK uncut. While the naked Lady Godiva remains strong in popular consciences, Peeping Tom has largely been airbrushed out of the story. His title has become too synonymous with ‘pervert’ and ‘degenerate’. He is too much of a dirty old man to be tolerated. Tom was by no means the first Voyeur in cultural legend. Actaeon was ripped apart by wolves after getting caught watching the Greek Goddess Diane bathing in a river. In Britain, however think of a naked woman, and the name Godiva springs quickly to mind for most people.
In 1966, Peter & Gordon released a song called Lady Godiva about a burlesque stripper who uses her long hair to cover her nudity as she dances, but as she finds her audience demanding more, she shortens her hair more and more over the years to leave less to the imagination. It is a song about a woman who must give away more of her modesty and virtue to retain her fame and her audience. It is a very sad, tragic song, but with considerable erotic meaning.
So Lady Godiva, a deeply religious woman, became the least likely but most enduring of all English sex-symbols, a woman who's story goes from history, to myth, to erotica because she dared to stand up for the rights of the poor. In some ways, her action precedes the modern trend for getting people to give to charity by sitting in baths filled with jelly - she was an early practitioner of the publicity stunt. Modern streakers and Big Brother contestants, trying to flash the flesh to achieve mere fame, pale into insignificance beside the woman who did something considered sordid by many, to alleviate human suffering.
After Lady Godiva's ride, streaking was surprisingly not a pastime again until much later in history. A man called George W. Crump was arrested while running naked through the streets of Washington's University Campus in 1804. He admitted that the naked run was something of a student rite of passage; a dare to gain friends on fraternity. It was a craze that had been going on for decades unknown to he authorities, but not any more. Though expelled from the University he became a US Congressman, and ambassador to Chile.
The fad seemed to revive on US college campuses in 1973, reaching its peak in 1974 when 1,549 streakers ran together at the University of Georgia. Last day of term and the day of graduation are the best dates to head to the campuses to witness such a spectacle, though its unlawful nature means exact times and routes to be taken are not openly publicized.
Sporting events also attract streakers on a nearly regular basis. The best-known streaker since Lady Godiva is Erica Roe, a woman who ran across the pitch at Twickenham during a major Rugby match. Even Robert Opel, who distracted presenter David Niven at the 1974 Academy Awards Ceremony by streaking past the stage failed to achieve such enduring fame.
In 1974, Ray Stevens issued a comedy record, The Streak, featuring such lines as "always making the news wearing just his tennis shoes" made number one and made streaking a household word.
Unlike Lady Godiva, the modern streaker wants to be seen, the streaker couldn't care less about the Peeping Tom figure who watches approvingly. Sadly for most, they only get fame for an Andy Warhol 15 minutes. Lady Godiva is still remembered nearly 1,000 years on.
A huge thanks to my friend, Michelle Day for assistance in reformatting the text and pictures for this feature.