According to a well-known tradition, Lady Godiva was a noblewoman who rode naked through the streets of Coventry, covering her modesty with her long hair. This was in order to free the townspeople from the taxation that her husband had imposed on them. Although postmodernists have doubted this story, we see no reason to doubt the backbone of the tradition, which does date from at least the twelfth century. Of course, modern misunderstandings should be avoided – for example, Coventry was then a settlement of only a few hundred people and not a major city.
Godiva, in Old English Godgifu, was a popular name, meaning ‘gift of God’. Lady Godiva was probably a widow when she married Leofric, Earl of Mercia. They had one known son, Aelfgar. Both were generous benefactors to monasteries. In 1043 Leofric founded and endowed a monastery in Coventry on the site of a convent destroyed by the Danes in 1016, Godiva being the moving force behind this act. In the 1050s her name was coupled with that of her husband on a grant of land to the monastery of St Mary in Worcester and also on the endowment of the minster at Stow Mary in Lincolnshire.
She and her husband are also commemorated as benefactors of other monasteries in Leominster, Chester, Much Wenlock and Evesham. Lady Godiva also gave Coventry a number of works in precious metal by the famous goldsmith Mannig and bequeathed a necklace valued at 100 marks of silver. Another necklace went to Evesham, to be hung around the figure of the Virgin accompanying the life-size gold and silver rood she and her husband gave, and St Paul’s Cathedral received a gold-fringed chasuble. She and her husband were among the most generous Old English donors in the last decades before the Norman Conquest.
The manor of Woolhope in Herefordshire, along with four others, was given to the Cathedral in Hereford before the Norman Conquest by Wulviva and Godiva – usually held to be Godiva and her sister. Her signature appears on a charter purportedly given by Thorold of Bucknall to the monastery of Spalding. It is possible that this Thorold, the sheriff of Lincolnshire, was her brother. Leofric died in 1057, but Lady Godiva lived on, dying some time between 1066 and 1086. She is mentioned in the Domesday survey as the only Englishwoman to remain a major landholder shortly after the Norman Occupation. There seems little reason to doubt that she was buried with her husband in Coventry.