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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.

Secret Super-Powers

So the Powers, who wait
on noble deeds …

~ Tennyson: Godiva (1842)

It was in the Middle Ages, during the time of courtly love, romance and chivalry, that Godiva's story became legend. The romancing of the Godiva story was part of what Robert Graves referred to as the medieval Godiva 'cult'. According to Graves, Godiva reflected more than a woman or a saint – she was a medieval manifestation of the pagan Goddess, re – or rather, unclad.

Here is Godiva's secret super-connection. Do you remember where Wonder Woman came from? In the TV series and comic books, she hails from Paradise Island. Located in an unspecified time and place, the all-woman Paradise Island is inhabited by ageless Amazons, who are as strong and powerful as they are beautiful. The Princess Diana, heiress to the Queen Hippolyta of the Amazons, wins the island 'Olympic Games' to have the chance to visit earth and become Diana Prince. When danger or injustice threatens, Diana releases her super powers. In a swirl she becomes Wonder Woman, with magical skills of strength, protection and insight, provided by her golden belt, bullet-deflecting bracelets and golden lasso. In the original TV transformation sequence, the camera focuses on Diana Prince's hair falling loose as she transitions to Wonder Woman.

Similar mythology swirls around Godiva. Godiva's tale is connected to Greek and Celtic myths and sacred, semi-clad female processions. The Teutonic goddess Hertha made a procession through the woods after her ritual bath, while in Greek legend it was at a man's peril to witness the woodland bathing of the goddess of the hunt, Diana. Godiva's ride may well have descended from one of these parades, and Tom's punishment for peeping at her too.

 

In another old version, Godiva's ride is not a procession, but a love-chase. In this story, Leofric sets his wife a riddle to test her. She must come to him neither being clothed nor unclothed, without a foot touching the ground. Cleverly, Godiva rides rather than walks and covers her naked body with a golden net of her hair. In some renditions of this love chase Godiva is accompanied by a hare – connecting her to the Celtic goddess of Spring, Eostre. She also closely resembles another spring goddess who took a May-Day procession to summon the new season. Her name? The goddess Goda.

Like many pagan myths, such stories were absorbed into Christianity. Just like superheroes Wonder Woman (Diana Prince), Superman (Clark Kent) and Batman (Bruce Wayne) Godiva's true identity acquired an earthly counterpart. As her story gained vogue in the Middle Ages Goda's tale became intertwined with the real and genuinely philanthropic Countess Godgyfu and the old pagan love-chase became a Christian procession celebrating her piety.

Godiva's story also became linked to St Agnes, the third century virgin martyr. In The Golden Legend compiled by Jacobus de Voragine in the 13th century, the beautiful Agnes was forced to walk naked through the town as a punishment for refusing to give up her faith. Agnes's hair miraculously grew long enough to cover her, and such a bright angelic light surrounded her that no man could see her. The story of St Agnes and Godiva are clearly of the same supernatural family.

In the DC comics, Godiva (pictured above) is portrayed as "the premiere heroine from England". With the pseudonym Dora/Dorcas Leigh, she is "a stunningly beautiful woman who has meta-human hair capable of changing its shape to become wings so she can fly or become transparent to conceal herself" (source Comic Vine).

Caped Crusader

Anon she shook her head,
And shower'd the rippled ringlets to her knee;
Unclad herself in haste;

~ Tennyson: Godiva (1842)

Can nothing stop this woman?

Nothing did.

Forget Batman's hood, Superman's cape or Wonder Woman's leotard. Forget having to find the Batcave or a phone box. With only a living cape of supernaturally long locks to cover her, Godiva must take the prize for most awesome adventurer's attire.

"Every group of activists sooner or later discovers the usefulness of the birthday suit as a uniform of rebellion, and a visual rallying cry," comments Tucker (2004) in her analysis of the phenomenon of women posing nude in calendars for good causes. While riding nude is something many 21st century women might baulk at, even for charity – calendar girls aside, it's been argued Lady Godiva deserves credit as feminist icon (Maitland and Mulford, 1998). Binding together strands of spiritual leadership and political activism in one body, jumping the old sexual double-standard of saint/sinner in a single leap, Lady Godiva's ride takes her into a higher dimension.

We need another Superheroine

And built herself an everlasting name.

~ Tennyson: Godiva (1842)

The legend of Lady Godiva has stood the test of time to be transformed. Her story has come down to us in a mix of fact, folk-lore and legend. Larger than life, she meets the essential elements of hero-status as a do-gooder, super-connected, and a crusader. Her courage continues to inspire, her tale to be told, even after a thousand years.

The last film of Godiva was made in 1955. Come on, Hollywood. It's time for her to ride again!

 

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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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