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Godiva: the first superheroine

By Elizabeth Reid Boyd - posted Friday, 8 September 2017


Batman. Superman. Wonder Woman.

We might think superheroes are a recent invention. Long before Batman donned his mask, Superman took to the skies, or Wonder Woman put us all in a spin there was: Godiva.

The legend of Lady Godiva, who famously rode naked through the streets of Coventry covered only by her long, flowing hair, has lasted for centuries. Today there is a new look at Lady Godiva. We're in the midst of what The Times UK dubbed 'Godiva fever'. In 2012, a 10 metre high model of Godiva 'awoke' in Coventry before being transported to London in time for the opening of the 2012 Olympic Games. She's also experiencing a current revival of interest in academic and fictional circles. Does she make superheroine status?

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Hold on to your cape. All (and I mean all) shall be revealed.

Daring Do-Gooder

Not only we that prate
Of rights and wrongs, have loved the people well… but she
Did more, and underwent, and overcame,
The woman of a thousand summers back,
Godiva…

~ Tennyson: Godiva (1842)

Lady Godiva was an eleventh century do-gooder of the most daring kind. So the story goes, she begged her husband, Lord Leofric of Mercia, to lift a high tax on her people, who would starve if they were forced to pay. Lord Leofric demanded a forfeit: that Godiva ride naked on horseback through the town. There are various happy endings to Godiva's ride; that all the people of Coventry closed their doors and refused to look upon on their liege lady, and that her husband, in remorse, lifted the tax. Other additions to the tale include the famous peeping Tom, the only one of the townsfolk who couldn't resist a glance, and was struck blind.

Though the legend has lasted for centuries, historical fact and a good story don't always go hand in hand. Some historians certainly call the ride a myth. Yet there's no doubt that Lady Godiva was a real person who lived in eleventh-century England.

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Lady Godiva or Countess Godgyfu in the Anglo-Saxon version of her name spent some of her life in what is now called the British Midlands. The area surrounding Coventry is now heavily industrialized but in the city center is Godiva's Trail. Rides as penitents like the one Godiva undertook were practiced in that period-though her nakedness was certainly unique.

Anglo-Saxon England was a challenging time and place for a woman. Constant Danish invasion by those later called Vikings (then called Danes) occurred many times in the tenth and eleventh century. Records suggest that Godiva was more than equal to the challenges of her day. Her name appears as the only female landowner who retained her lands not only against the Danes but also later against the Norman invasion of 1066.

Ancient records also suggest Godiva was a genuine philanthropist. She supported monasteries, built abbeys and churches, and aided the poor. The original cathedral in Coventry was founded by Godiva. Her granddaughter Eadlgyth married King Harold II of England. Godiva's family were not merely Saxon nobility, but Saxon royalty. Yet it's the legend of Lady Godiva herself that has been remembered.

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Dr Elizabeth Reid Boyd is an academic in the School of Arts and Humanities at Edith Cowan University. In her academic work she has researched Lady Godiva in popular culture. She writes historical fiction and romances as Eliza Redgold, based upon the Gaelic meaning of her name. Eliza Redgold's NAKED: A Novel of Lady Godiva was published in 2015 by St Martin's Press, New York.



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About the Author

Dr Elizabeth Reid Boyd is a writer and academic based in the School of Psychology and Social Science at Edith Cowan University. She teaches in Western Australia and Singapore. She is co-author of Body Talk: A Power Guide for Girls and writes for a range of newspapers, magazines and journals.

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