Walks Thro Coventry – Part 6

Posted on: January 22nd, 2012 by pj

LADY GODIVA

At this time, if we are to credit the legendists, Leofric for some reason or other oppressed the people of the town with grievous taxes, on account of which they made many complaints to the Earl and his Countess. The latter was deeply moved by the sufferings of the people, and their relief was due to an act of great self-sacrificeon the part of the Countess Godiva herself, who was constrained to plead their cause with the stern old Earl.    As Tennyson says :—

“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 prayed him, ‘if they pay this tax they starve.

Startled, and half-amazed, the Earl cried in scorn—

“You would not let your little finger ache For such as these?”

The Countess replied,  “But I would die.”

According to tradition he laughed, and by St. Peter and St. Paul took an oath, exclaiming “O, ay, ay, ay, you talk!” The Countess, however, still persisting,  said—

“But prove me what it is I would not do.”

Then, in keeping with the rough nature of his heart and the times in which he lived, he gave her this reply

“Ride you naked through the town,  and I repeal it “

The conditions were doubtless thought by Leofric to be impossible. Nevertheless, the Countess accepted them, and to set the people free, on a certain day she rode forth till she beheld

“The white-flower’d elder-thicket from the field Gleam through the Gothic archways in the wall, Then she rode back, clothed on with chastity.”

And a charter of freedom from servitude, evil customs, and exactions was granted to the city by the Earl, and presented to the Countess, who thus

“took the tax away, And built herself an everlasting name.”

It is in commemoration of this romantic episode that the far famed Godiva Pageant is occasionally held in the streets of the city.  The Mayor and Corporation used to join in the celebration, and it is also composed of representatives of royal and other historic personages, friendly societies, local industries, with trade devices, and so forth, the central figure of course being an impersonation of the noble Countess, whose clothing of chastity only is suggested as far as conforms with modern notions of propriety.

PEEPING TOM

Whatever truth there may be in the legend of Lady Godiva — and she certainly is historic — the story of Peeping Tom may be safely called more picturesque — even grotesque — than veracious. The old tale runs that disobeying the request of the Countess to the people that, as she rode forth, “no foot should pace the street, no eye look down” one tailor did basely and artfully bore a hole through his shutters in order that he might take a peep at the charitable lady; but, in the words of Tennyson again,—

“His eyes, before they had their will, Were shrivell’d into darkness in his head, And dropped before him.”

This tradition of Peeping Tom, we may note, is not mentioned by the early historians, it is an excrescence, and most likely was added as a kind of attraction in the reign of Charles II at the time of the “celebration of the freedom of City” by a Lady Godiva procession.

Leofric died in 1057, and was buried with the Countess in the porch of the Church of the monastery they had founded. The lordship of Coventry then became vested in the Earls of Chester, afterwards passing into the hands of Henry III. and William d’Albany. In 1338 the manor of Cheylesmore, near Christ Church, was settled upon Edward the Black Prince, after the death of Queen Isabel, his mother. Under the Act redeeming the Land Tax, the Prince of Wales, afterwards George IV sold the manor to the Marquis of Hertford, who again sold it to Mr. H. W. Eaton, and he, on being raised to the peerage, took his title from the estate as Baron Cheylesmore.    The family still own the estate.