A symbol of Coventry, Protest & Female Empowerment.
The story of Lady Godiva’s naked ride through Coventry has inspired painters, sculptors, film makers and song writers.
The story tells how Godiva begged her husband Earl Leofric to stop a heavy tax on the people of Coventry. Leofric said he would do this if Godiva rode naked through Coventry.
She covered herself with her long hair and rode through the streets. The townspeople stayed indoors and did not look at her.
Only one person dared to look at Godiva – Peeping Tom.
He was immediately struck blind as a punishment. When Godiva completed her ride Leofric agreed to make Coventry free from all taxes.
The story was first documented by Roger Wendover, a monk at St Albans Abbey in the late 1100s, more than 100 years after Godiva’s death.
Most of the Herbert’s artworks date from the Victorian period, when Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem about Godiva made the story very popular.
Victorian painters idealised the story and portrayed Godiva as a romantic heroine. Very few attempted to show how the real Godiva might have looked, or a realistic view of Anglo-Saxon Coventry.
This copy of the more than life-size statue of Godiva made by John Thomas, was made for Minton Pottery by P Pargetter. Thomas’s original work was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1861.
The oldest known painting of Godiva was commissioned by Coventry Corporation in 1586. A figure looking out of an upstairs window, is the origin of the Peeping Tom character.
The painting is based on the scene in the poem by Alfred Lord Tennyson, where Godiva approaches her husband Leofric to tell him the people of Coventry have no food.
"...he laid a tax upon the town, and all the mothers brought their children, clamouring, 'If we pay, we starve!'
She sought her lord, and found him, where he strode about the hall, among his dogs, alone, his beard a foot before, and his hair a yard behind..."
Leighton tried to make his painting historically accurate.
He dressed the characters in what he believed to be authentic Anglo-Saxon clothes and placed them in a convincing looking setting.
The Victorians had a mixed attitude towards nudity. It was often frowned upon, but voluptuous portrayals were acceptable in art. Woolmer's treatment of the Godiva story reflects this attitude.
Woolmer based Godiva's pose on classical statues of Venus, and presents Godiva as an object of desire. He dwells on the soft flesh, the animal fur, the silks and the colours of the sunset.
Tennyson's poem revived interest in Godiva and made the legend of the ride widely known. The vivid detail of the poem encouraged artists to paint specific episodes from the story.
Claxton painted this only a few years after Tennyson's poem was published. Godiva stands under an arch about to mount the horse to begin her ride.
She is shown from the back, perhaps because of the Victorian sensitivity to nudity. The dog that is annoying the horse is the 'barking cur' in Tennyson's poem.
Edwin Landseer was one of the most successful painters of the early Victorian period and was Queen Victoria's favourite living artist. Landseer began Godiva's Prayer in the 1840s.
It is a pious scene which shows Godiva praying, probably before starting her ride. The spire of St Michael's church is visible in the background.
Processions to celebrate Godiva have been held in Coventry since the 1670s and are also featured in artworks in the Herbert’s collection.
Godiva was originally played by a boy, though later the part was played by women, often actresses.
The Mayor, city officials and guild members took part, as shown in these two paintings by Coventry artist David Gee. The processions were often rowdy occasions that sometimes ended in riots.
So was the Godiva story medieval propaganda? Was it the memory of a pagan myth? Or was it a real historical event?
Herbert Art Gallery & Museum
Discover Godiva is a permanent exhibition within the Herbert Art Gallery & Museum. It holds an important collection of artworks relating to the story of Lady Godiva, as well as being extremely interactive.