GODIVA or GODGIFU (fl. 1040–1080), benefactress, was sister to Thorold of Bucknall, sheriff of Lincolnshire. Her name is presented in seventeen different forms; Godgife is in the Stow charter, Godiva in the Spalding charter (both printed by Kemble, but probably spurious); the Domesday spelling is Godeva. Freeman gives Godgifu. Some time before 1040 she married Leofric, earl of Chester [q. v.] In the ‘Liber Eliensis’ (end of twelfth century) there is mention of a Godiva, widow of an earl, ‘regnante Canuto’ (1017–1035). She, in prospect of death, wrote to Ælfric the bishop (of Elmham and Dunwich, 1028–32), and Leofric the abbot (of Ely, 1022–29), giving to Ely monastery the estate of Berchinges (Barking, Suffolk), which was hers ‘parentum hæreditate.’ By will she added to the gift the lands of Æstre or Plassiz (High Easter, Good Easter, and Pleshey, Suffolk), Fanbrege (North and South Fambridge, Essex) and Terlinges (Terling, Essex). If this was our Godiva, it would follow that she recovered from her illness of 1028–9, and that her union with Earl Leofric was a second marriage. In the Spalding charter, as in the Domesday survey, she bears the title ‘comitissa;’ it does not appear that the title of ‘lady’ belonged to her degree in the usage of her time; in the Stow charter she is simply ‘ðæs eorles ƿif.’ She is described as a person of great beauty and a devoted lover of the Virgin Mary. About 1040 she interested herself in the erection of the monastery at Stow, Lincolnshire, and made considerable benefactions to it, both jointly with her husband and on her own part.
At Coventry, Warwickshire, which was a ‘villa’ belonging to her husband, there had been a convent, of which St. Osburg was abbess; it was burned when Eadric [see Edric or Eadric Streona] ravaged the district in 1016. Godiva induced her husband to found here, in 1043, a Benedictine monastery for an abbot and twenty-four monks. The church was dedicated to St. Mary, St. Peter, St. Osburg, and All Saints on 4 Oct. by Eadsige [q. v.], archbishop of Canterbury. Besides joining her husband in rich gifts of land, including a moiety of Coventry, Godiva from time to time made the church of this monastery resplendent with gold and gems to a degree unequalled in England at that date. William of Malmesbury says that the very walls seemed too narrow for the receptacles of treasures. It abounded also in relics, the most precious being the arm of St. Augustine of Hippo, enclosed in a silver case, bearing an inscription to the effect that Ethelnoth [q. v.], archbishop of Canterbury, had bought it at Pavia for a hundred talents of silver and a talent of gold. Unless the inception of the Coventry monastery was much earlier than the dedication of the church, this relic cannot have been given to Coventry by Ethelnoth (d. 1038); it may have been given by Eadsige. In 1051 Godiva's mark is appended to the charter of her brother Thorold, founding the Benedictine monastery at Spalding, Lincolnshire, with the words: ‘+ Ego Godiva Comitissa diu istud desideravi.’ She is commemorated also as a benefactress to the monasteries of Leominster, Herefordshire, Wenlock, Shropshire, St. Werburg, Chester, Worcester, and Evesham, Worcestershire. Leofric, at her instigation, granted to monasteries sundry lands which had been alienated from church uses. A petition from Godiva to Pope Victor (1055–7) is given by Kemble, who marks it doubtful, and assigns it to 1060–6.
Her fame as a religious foundress has been eclipsed by the story of her Coventry ride, around which legend has freely grown. Objection has been taken to the whole story on the ground that in Godiva's time there was no ‘city’ of Coventry. The simplest and apparently the oldest form of the narrative is given by Roger of Wendover, whose ‘Flores’ come down to within two years of his death (6 May 1237), but who is dependent up to 1154 (or perhaps 1188) on the work of an unknown earlier writer. Roger represents Godiva as begging the release of the ‘villa’ of Coventry from a heavy bondage of toll. Leofric replied, ‘Mount your horse naked, and pass through the market of the villa, from one end to the other, when the people are assembled, and on your return you shall obtain what you ask.’ Accordingly Godiva, attended by two soldiers, rode through the market-place, her long hair down, so that no one saw her, ‘apparentibus cruribus tamen candidissimis.’ Leofric, struck with admiration, granted the release by charter. The chronicle ascribed to John Brompton [q. v.] of the late fourteenth century gives a briefer account, omits the escort and the market, and asserts without qualification that no one saw her. Matthew of Westminster, whose annals extend to 1307, combines the language of these two accounts, but still omits the escort, and makes a miracle of Godiva's invisibility. He first speaks of a charter granted by Leofric to the ‘city.’ Ralph Higden (d. 1363), followed by Henry of Knighton, gives to the story a single sentence, of which the natural meaning is that Leofric, in consequence of the ride, freed his city of Coventry from all toll except that on horses. It is possible that an erroneous interpretation has suggested the ballad in the ‘Percy Folio’ (about 1650), according to which Coventry was already free except from horse toll. This ballad first mentions Godiva's order that all persons should keep within doors and shut their windows, and affirms that ‘no person did her see.’ That one person disobeyed the order seems to be first stated by Rapin (1732). Jago, in ‘Edge Hill’ (1767, bk. ii.), speaks of ‘one prying slave,’ and hints at his punishment by loss of sight; Pennant (1782) calls him ‘a certain taylor.’ The name ‘peeping Tom,’ which, as Freeman observes, could only have belonged to ‘one of king Eadward's Frenchmen,’ occurs in the city accounts on 11 June 1773, when a new wig and fresh paint were supplied for his effigy. Poole quotes from the ‘Gentleman's Magazine,’ ‘at nearly the close of the last century,’ a letter from Canon Seward, which makes the peeper ‘a groom of the countess,’ named Action (? Actæon).
The rationalistic interpretation by Waterton and others, referring to Godiva's ‘stripping herself’ to benefit the church, is out of place, for the church gained nothing by the ride. As the story is older than the sacred plays of Coventry, it is unnecessary to discuss Conway's suggestion that ‘Godeva’ has got mixed up with ‘good Eve.’ In its first form the tale may contain a kernel of truth. The monastery would attract a market; it is credible that Godiva, under religious impulse, accepted a condition, meant to be impossible, in order to relieve ‘poor traders resorting to the villa’ (Brompton). Drayton's fine lines (Poly-Olbion, 1613, xiii.) give the spirit of the episode. The argument from the silence of the Saxon chronicler (who does not mention her at all), Ordericus Vitalis, William of Malmesbury, Henry of Huntingdon, the Melrose chronicler, and other writers of the twelfth century like Simeon of Durham, Florence of Worcester, and Roger of Hoveden, who are practically identical, may be met by considering that the incident was purely local, and the same fastidiousness which softened some of its circumstances by the aid of miracle may have contributed to its omission. Hales sees a reference to the story, earlier than any direct narrative, in the fact that Queen Maud ‘received the sobriquet of Godiva’ from her English sympathies; by a further confusion Walter Bower (d. 1449) [q. v.] tells the story of Matilda, queen of Henry II.
Painters commit the anachronism of seating Godiva on her horse in the modern way, introduced by Anne of Bohemia [q. v.] Peacham says (1641) that ‘her picture so riding is set up in glasse in a window in St. Michael's church in the same city.’ Dugdale (1656) says the pictures of both Leofric and Godiva were placed about the time of Richard II in a south window of Trinity Church, Leofric holding a charter with the legend
I Luriche for the love of thee
Doe make Coventre Tol-free.
Burgess gives, from Dr. Stukeley's notebook, a drawing of these window-portraits (of which no trace remains) with a slightly different legend; Luriche is Leuricus, for Levricus. The ‘Godiva procession’ at Coventry, first annual, then triennial (last procession 1907), is no survival of a mediæval pageant. The manuscript city annals show that it was instituted on 31 May 1678, during the mayoralty of Michael Earle, as ‘a new Show on the Summer or Great Fair;’ on that occasion ‘James Swinnerton's son represented Lady Godina.’ This form of the name, obviously originating from a misreading, is mentioned by Dugdale, and is found in Evans and in a Canterbury broadsheet. The original procession was official, the mediæval adjuncts (except Bishop Blaise, patron of the woolcombers) were introduced when the reformed corporation ceased to take part in it. The oaken figure of a man in armour, now known as ‘peeping Tom,’ was probably an image of St. George; it was removed from Grey Friars Lane, and placed in its present position at the north-west corner of Hertford Street, on the formation of that street in 1812. Of recent years a rival figure has adorned the south-west corner.
Leofric died on 31 Aug. 1057. How long Godiva survived him is not known. It seems probable that she died a few years before the Domesday survey (1085–6). Part only of her lands are included in the Domesday Book. A rosary of gems, worth one hundred marks of silver, she left to be placed round the neck of the image of the Virgin in the abbey church at Coventry. In one of its two porches she was buried, her husband lying in the other. She was the mother of Ælfgar [q. v.]