The legend of Lady Godiva is perhaps one of England’s most well known tradition, thus it is a shame how poorly it has been celebrated by its city, Coventry, fortunately things have changed.
Bare back rider
I am sure we are all familiar with the legend, although perhaps many may not know that it dates from Saxon times. Basically the story relayed that Godiva, upset by her husband, Leofric, Earl of Mercia’s oppressive taxes, she decided to protest riding a horse naked, although the town folk supposedly agreed not to watch her to spare her dignity! The story of Peeping Tom who was the only one who looked and went blind came later. Both of whom are immortalised in the town’s clock of course.
Surprisingly it is not until the late 1600s that she was celebrated in a local procession. This is doubly surprising, firstly considering the fame of the event and it obvious association with processing and secondly that it arose, albeit post Commonwealth, in a period when such customs fell into abeyance.
Despite first being mentioned as a ride 150 years after the alleged event, the Godiva procession would become associated with a Trinity fair established by charter by Henry III in 1217, but although naturally a civic procession would have been associated with this, only four hundred years later in 1678 that we get the following first mention:
“In the Mayoralty of Mr Michael Earle, there was a new show on the summer, or Great Fair, of followers- that is boys sent out by the several companies, and each Company having new Streamers, and Lady Godiva rode before the Mayor to proclaim the Fair.”
From this smallish start the procession became a staple of the Coventry fair with Godiva leading the mayor, magistrates, Charter Officers, St George and the Dragon, bands, buglers, city guards and local societies, benefit societies and companies joined in a procession. A flavour of the grandeur can be seen in the order from 1809:
“Grand Procession of the Show Fair Through Hay-Lane, Little Park street, St John’s Street, Much Park street, where the fair was proclaimed; Jordan-well, Gosford street, where the fair was proclaimed, Far Gosford-street, High Street, where the Bablake boys sang, Spon-street, west Orchard, where the Bablake boys sang; Well street, Bishop Street, Cross cheaping, where the Bablake boys sang, High Street, and returned through Hay Lane to Trinity Church yard.
Twelve Guards – two and two SAINT GEORGE in armour two bugle horns City Streamers, Two city followers, City Streamer, Grand band of music, belonging to the 14th Lt Dragoons, High Constable LADY GODIVA, City Cryer and Beadle on each side, Mayor’s Cryer, City Baliffs, City Maces, Sword and Mace, Mayor’s followers, The Right Worshipful THE MAYOR, Alderman, sheriff followers, sheriffs, Common council, Chamberlains and followers, Wardens and followers, Grand band of music, Belonging to the 1st Regiment of Warwickshire Local Militia”
The companies showed the diversity of trades in the city:
“Companies Mercers – Streamer, Master and Follower
Draper – Streamer, Master and Follower
Clothiers – Streamer, Master and Follower
Four drums and Fifes
Blacksmiths – Streamer, Master and Follower
Taylors – Streamer, Master and Follower
Cappers – Streamer, Master and Follower
Butchers – Streamer, Master and Follower
Grand Band of Music 0 belonging to the Stonely Volunteers
Fell mongers – Streamer, Master and Follower
Carpenters – Streamer, Master and Follower
Cordwainers – Streamer, Master and Follower
Four drums and fifes
Bakers – Streamer, Master and Follower
Weavers – Streamer, Master and Follower
Silk Weavers – Streamer, Master and Follower
Grand band of music
Woolcombers – Streamer, Master and Follower. Shepherd and shepherdess with dog, lamb etc Jason with the Golden Fleece and drawn sword Five wool sorters BISHOP BLAZE and woolcombers in their respective uniforms
Four drums and fifes.”
The naked truth
You may think did a woman ride naked? Well yes, no, no in both cases. Remember this was not long after Shakespeare when the roles of women were done by men, so unsurprisingly the son of a James Swinnerton was the eponymous character in the first one. Of course it did not take long for a woman to take the role and from 1765 she was paid 15 shillings Naked? It appears that the first ‘naked Godiva’ was in 1842 wearing a tight fitting, flesh coloured dress. Actresses and dancers were usually employed and there were constant rumours that ‘this year she she’d be naked!’ certainly brought in the crowds leeringly hoping to see her naked. Unfortunately for the local opticians this never happened but this decision was ultimately perhaps to precipitate the end of the procession. Fights ensued as people tried to see the nakedness and this:
“essentially popular, down to earth occasions, rich in local tradition, humour and ribaldry, often rowdyism”.
Resulted in probably the abandonment of the procession by the dignitaries, 1829 being the last one and considerable complaints, such as Mayor William Clark describing the event as one which:
“too long disgraced our city.”
In 1845 the Bishop of Worcester protested against:
“A Birmingham whore being paraded through the streets.”
This culminated in the production of a signed statement in the Coventry Herald in April 25th 1845 by all the main church leaders condemning the plan to:
“to get up a procession similar in character to those by which the streets of this City were disgraced in 1842 and 1844”.
This didn’t stop the procession but Godiva did wear:
“a tunic of white satin….girdle of the same kind over her flesh coloured dress, with scarves thrown across her shoulders, a mantle, sleeves and a headdress with ostrich feathers.”
The notoriety of the events resulted in a slow decline in the custom, in 1854 there were rival Godivas and four years later even the fair was moved out of town. Then after 1862 they were held less frequently, by the 20th century every three or seven years usually to celebrate special occasions such as the coronation of Edward VII, George V and the Festival of Britain and as thus moved away from its traditional Trinity date. This appears to be the last and by the later part of the century a carnival replaced it, but what with changes in the economic environment this too died out.
Godiva rides again
Then in 1996 I happened to be reading a newspaper and discovered that the Godiva procession was being enacted. I travelled to Coventry to find out and there indeed there was, with many of the traditional elements described in early accounts. They clearly followed the 1809 order: we had St. George and his dragon, the Mayor and his fellow dignitaries had returned in his finery, local clergy and judiciary, roundheads, local organisations, including the car manufacturers and the town crier. At the head as in those old accounts was Godiva on her white horse held by a monk and woman clothed in Saxon costume.
Was she naked? My eyes were safe…and the lens of the camera because it was clearly no, However, in the spirit of these things she wore a sheer body suit and a cloak. All of Coventry came out to cheer her on, the sun shone and a good time was had by all. Since then with the revival of carnival in 2000, the two have become entwined the carnival bringing some excellent tableaux and float. The Fair has largely disappeared it has been replaced by a rock Festival, which is either in late June or early July with the procession on the Saturday before. Today all eyes are safe for Godiva is a figure upon a horse or a fully dressed women riding a car or both…although in 2012 became a giant puppet for the Olympics. Godiva is joined by acrobats, pyrotechnics, aerialists, musical bands to illustrate the diversity of the city and its great legend.
Find out when it is on…..
It’s not on Calendar customs yet