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Godiva Awakes! August 2012 - photo by Debbie, White Witch


White Witch was thrilled to join the throng when a very special visitor came to Waltham Abbey on 4th August 2012. Powered by the 100 strong Godiva Awakes Cycling Team (both experienced and novice cyclists, led by British Cycling Champion Mike Ives), a giant, 20ft (6 metre) high Godiva made her extraordinary journey from Coventry to London in her 'Cyclopedia' to celebrate the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games and deliver the Book of Intent. Chatting with her operators about Godiva's Pagan heritage, (prior to the procession through the Abbey), we were delighted when they offered to stop outside White Witch. What a thrilling moment when she turned her head towards us and opened her arms in an all embracing greeting. It was a wonderful experience and very moving! We hope she will wake again soon and grace us with her presence. 


Godiva on the move -  August 2012 - photo by Debbie, White Witch

The ethos underpinning the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games was that everyone should have the chance to be part of it. The Book of Intent is a symbol of the young people’s commitment to affect change in the world and play an active part in shaping the future by contributing their thoughts, messages and ideas. The Book was presented to Godiva on the night she awoke and tasked with delivering it to London and the world. Imagineer Productions' 'Godiva Awakes' is a phenomenal piece of public art made by mechanics, artists, theatre makers, puppeteers and engineers from Coventry, the regions, nationally and internationally to the highest standards of contemporary craftsmanship. Accompanied by dancers, actors, aerialists, musicians, pyrotechnicians, carnivalists and 220 young people, this 21st Century Godiva, running on sustainable energy through cycle power, struck spectators with awe and wonder wherever she processed.

Godiva outside White Witch August 2012 - photo by Debbie, White Witch

According to the popular legend, Lady Godiva took pity on the people of Coventry, who were suffering grievously under her husband Leofric's oppressive taxation. Lady Godiva appealed again and again to her husband, who obstinately refused to remit the tolls. At last, weary of her entreaties and somewhat exasperated, he sarcastically stated he would grant her request if she would strip naked and ride through the streets of the town. Lady Godiva took him at his word and, after issuing a proclamation that all persons should stay indoors and shut their windows, she rode through the town clothed only in her long hair. Just one person in the town, a tailor ever afterwards known as 'Peeping Tom', disobeyed her proclamation in one of the most famous instances of voyeurism. In the story, Tom bores a hole in his shutters so that he might see Godiva pass and is struck blind 'for his sin'.  In the end, Godiva's husband keeps his word and abolishes the onerous taxes and the high-born Lady Godiva becomes the champion of the oppressed masses.

Over time, Peeping Tom would become the scapegoat and bear symbolic guilt for people’s desire to look at the naked female form. Alfred Lord Tennyson’s 'Godiva' was a poem that created a standard - and highly romanticised version - of the legend for the Victorian era. In the poem, Tom was blinded: “…but his eyes, before they had their will,/Were shrivell’d into darkness in his head,/And dropt before him. So the Powers, who wait/On noble deeds, cancell’d a sense misused;/And she, that knew not, pass’d….” Interestingly, Peeping Tom did not appear in the story until the seventeenth century (Coventry City Account - 11th June 1773, when a 'new wig and fresh paint' were applied for his effigy), but became a sub-plot of 'lustful curiosity' which compelled him to gaze at her naked form. According to various versions of the legend, he was then either struck blind, deaf or dead. A perfect example of the punishment of the Christian God and a warning of the 'sins of the flesh'! Medieval social mores taken into consideration, the Godiva myth is filled with contradictions. Godiva is obedient to her husband, yet challenges his position on taxes. She remains chaste, yet rides naked through the streets. She is a member of the elite ruling class who nonetheless sympathises with the plight of serfs. Myths symbolically resolve such conflicting social and sexual dynamics, pass down tradition, history and shared values (often orally). It is in this context that historians have discerned elements of Pagan fertility rituals in the Godiva story, whereby a young 'May Queen' was led to the sacred Cofa's tree to celebrate the renewal of Spring (see Godiva The Pagan). There are many drawings of Godiva's processions throughout the ages, and the advent of photography allows us a wonderful glimpse into the past. Not surprisingly, the annual ride was suppressed by the Puritans. After the fall of the Puritan Commonwealth in 1678, Godiva appeared again, naked as before. She remained naked up until 1826 when a new wave of 'Puritans' dictated that she must be clothed. The photographs below show the 1907 Druid Float with a small Stonehenge on a horse-drawn float (Left), the 1911 Druid Float with a banner that reads 'Order of Ancient Druids' (Right) and Miss Lady Godiva from 1936 (Centre). 


Godiva Processions: 1907 (Left) / 1911 (Right) / 1936 (Centre)


Historically, Lady Godiva was the wife of Leofric, Earl of Mercia. They had one son, Aelfgar, Earl of Mercia. Lady Godiva's name appears in various charters and the Domesday survey; although the spelling varies. The Old English name Godgifu or Godgyfu meant 'gift of God'; Godiva was the Latinised version. The name was a popular one, and there are contemporaries of the same name. However, if she were the same Godiva who appears in the history of Ely Abbey, the Liber Eliensis, written at the end of the 12th century, then she was a widow when Leofric married her. Both Leofric and Godgifu were generous benefactors to religious houses. She and her husband were among the most munificent of the several large Anglo-Saxon donors of the last decades before the Conquest; the early Norman bishops made short work of their gifts, carrying them off to Normandy or melting them down for bullion! After Leofric's death in 1057, his widow lived on until some time between the Norman Conquest of 1066 and 1086. She is mentioned in the Domesday survey as one of the few Anglo-Saxons and the only woman to remain a major landholder shortly after the conquest. By the time of this great survey in 1086, Godgifu had died, but her former lands are listed, although now held by others. Godgifu apparently died between 1066 and 1086. The place where Godgifu was buried has been a matter of debate. According to the Chronicon Abbatiae de Evesham, or Evesham Chronicle, she was buried at the Church of the Blessed Trinity at Evesham, which is no longer standing. According to the account in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, "There is no reason to doubt that she was buried with her husband at Coventry, despite the assertion of the Evesham chronicle that she lay in Holy Trinity, Evesham." A fascinating piece of history, but as it happens, most medieval scholars agree the ride never took place. Contemporary historians did not consider Godgifu (the historical Godiva) particularly noteworthy; what little was written about her at the time mentioned her merely as the wife of a famous man. Professor of English and American literature and language, Daniel Donoghue, examines the origins and cultural significance of the myth in Lady Godiva: A Literary History of the Legend (Blackwell), and offers insights into how that myth has evolved over the centuries. “The story,” he notes, “was based on the life of Godgifu, a real woman who lived in Coventry in the latter part of the eleventh century and was married to one of the most powerful men in England.” Donoghue points out that “two centuries after her death, chroniclers in the Benedictine abbey of St. Albans inserted a fully developed narrative into their Latin histories” and the legend of Lady Godiva was born. “Nobody knows quite why the legend was invented and attached to her name,” he says, “but it does seem to function as a kind of myth of origin for the town of Coventry. At the end, Count Leofric seals the agreement about taxes with his own seal.” Lastly, the only recorded tolls were on horses. The story is particularly doubtful since Countess Godgifu would herself have been responsible for setting taxation in Coventry; Salic law, which excluded females from the inheritance of a throne or fief, did not apply in Anglo-Saxon society. 

The Peeping Tom story is absent in the few sources contemporary with Godgifu. It has been pointed out by historians that 'Tom' (Thomas) is not an Anglo-Saxon name, and therefore hardly likely to be a name of a towns person governed by Leofric. Coventry was still a small settlement, with only 69 families (and the monastery) recorded in the Domesday Book some decades later. According to an 1826 article submitted by a person well-versed in local history, W. Reader, there was already a well-established tradition before his time that there was 'a certain tailor who had taken a peek at Lady Godiva', and that at the annual Trinity Great Fair (now called the Godiva Festival) featuring the Godiva processions, "a grotesque figure called Peeping Tom", a wooden statue carved from oak, would be set on display. Reader dated this effigy, based on the style of armour he is shown wearing, to the reign of Charles II (d. 1685). The same writer felt the peeper legend had to postdate William Dugdale (d. 1686) since this antiquary made no mention in his huge tomes that discussed Coventry 'in extenso'. It is possible, however, that the taboo element of the story may be a genuine part of the original myth, recalling similar penalties for those who intruded on the forbidden rites of other fertility goddesses, with the 'modern' name Thomas being adopted and the story embellished to incorporate Christian moral judgement. 


The definitive history 'A History of the County of Warwick, Volume 8, The City of Coventry and Borough of Warwick' says: "... the origin of the Godiva story and procession lies in pagan myth and ritual rather than in an act by the historic Countess Godiva. The naked woman with long hair, riding in a springtime procession, is the one constant factor in all variations of the legend and represents a goddess of fertility. Peeping Tom may have played a more positive part in the ritual, as the priest-king, the consort of the goddess who was sacrificed to ensure the fertility of the crops and herds. Coventry, the home of an isolated community in the wooded and well-watered Forest of Arden, was ideally situated for the survival of a pagan cult centuries after the country had been nominally Christianised. It is now generally accepted that the name 'Coventry' is derived from Cofa's Tree, and it may have had an earlier significance as a sacred tree, which, growing close to a well or pool - perhaps Swanswell or Hobb's Hole - frequently became the site of a cult. The cult seems to have been the common one of a life and death fertility goddess, perhaps called Cofa. A male consort was probably associated with her in myth and ritual, and horses and possibly swine sacrificed to her. The transference of veneration from a pagan goddess to the pious Countess Godiva, probably took place during the 12th century. It is likely that the legend was a deliberate attempt by the monks to Christianise the cult. At first they may have tried to forbid the Christian population from attending the procession, a prohibition which was reflected in the Peeping Tom tradition. But the most successful policy was that usually adopted by the Church in dealing with pagan customs which were too strong to be eradicated, namely to transfer the veneration to a Christian figure.' The Godiva myth is most likely a representation of the life and death fertility goddess, called Cofa, Freyja or Frija (the Lady) or Goda (the good). A male consort was associated with her in ritual, with horses and possibly swine sacrificed to her. This northern cult; (basically Anglo-Saxon but strengthened by a fresh infusion of late paganism at the Danish invasion), probably survived the foundation of St. Osburg’s nunnery in the 10th century and of the Benedictine abbey in 1043, in the form of a spring procession with accompanying orgiastic and sacrificial rites. The abbey is likely responsible for transforming the goddess into Godiva, early descriptions of which describe the latter as being devoted to the 'mother of God', the Virgin Mary - a suitable, Christian equivalent. Elements in the Godiva legend and other traditions relating to Coventry provide clues as to the nature of the original cult.  The taboo voyeristic element of the story may be a genuine part of the original myth, recalling similar penalties for those who intruded on the forbidden rites of other fertility goddesses – Artemis in Greece, the Bona Dea in Rome, Nerthus or Hertha in Germany and rainmaking ceremonies in India. Interesting, Freemasonry (the semi-mystical society whose rituals  and imagery can be traced back to, and even beyond this era) makes much in its symbolism of not allowing 'cowans' (non-Freemasons) observe any of its mysteries or ritualsl. The cowan could be considered a 'Peeping Tom' in the vernacular. If we assume the original was attempting to view an esoteric ritual, which invoked a goddess such as Nerthus, the similarity is striking. Goda, Coda, Cuda, or Cofa was the Goddess of the Old Religion worshipped in Central Britain in Saxon times. The Godiva procession, held annually in Coventry on May-Eve, tells the eternal story of the Goddess and Her Priest King in a pagan fertility festival. Doreen Valiente (Witchcraft for Tomorrow) describes Lady Godiva as "the naked Goddess of the Old Religion in the person of her priestess".

In the pre-Christian Anglo-Saxon period, the North of the region was ruled by a tribe called the Mercians (Myrcna), and the South by a tribe called the Wicce; from which the modern word Wicca originates. An official title of Earl Leofric of Coventry was 'Ealdorman of the Hwicce'. The Goddess of the Wicce was known as Cuda or Coda. This syllable occurs in many place names in the area to the South-West of Coventry. A shrine to the Goddess Cuda was discovered at Baginton, on the Southern outskirts of Coventry. There is some uncertainty about the name of the Goddess that was worshipped by the Mercians in the North of the region, although it may have been Goda, or Coda. It is possible that the same Goddess was worshipped throughout the entire region. One of the villages that bears the Coda name is Codswold. It has been suggested that the entire region, The Cotswolds, bears the name of the same Goddess. Coventry is another place-name commencing 'Co-'. The accepted derivation of the name Coventry is that it refers to Cofa's tree, and that Cofa was the Goddess. Cofa's tree was a sacred tree. This would have formed the Maypole, around which ritual fertility dances were performed on May-Eve. A 'Coven of witches around a tree' has also been muted as rebus for Coven-try, however, 'coven' was a late medieval Scots word (circa 1500) meaning a gathering of any kind, and the first recorded use of it being applied to witches comes much later, (1662) in the witch-trial of Isobel Gowdie. As the first written reference to Coventry (Couaentree) was 1053, the connection to witches is dubious, to say the least! The area from which Coventry grew contained one valuable source - water. The River Sherbourne was much larger in Saxon times, and a large lake called Babbu Lacu filled much of the low lying land along the northern edge of the hamlet. Therefore, a supply of fish and drinking water was always plentiful, and the land was also more easily defended in times of trouble. The only remnant of the lake is now the Swanswell. Three possible sites in Coventry have been suggested as locations for Cofa's tree, St Osburgs, Swanswell and Hobbes Well. Ancient people believed that springs and holes in the ground were gateways to the underworld and both Swanswell and Hobbes Well were natural springs. The most interesting of the possible sites is Hobbe's Well. The colloquialisms 'Old Nick', 'Old Scratcher' and 'Old Hob' are names for the devil (which was a Christianised and bastardised version of the Horned God of the Old Religion). As recently as 1862, the Mayor of Coventry, was initiated, each year, at a ceremony at this well. Robert Graves, poet/antiquarian/author and translator, claimed that the Godiva ride at Coventry itself drew some of its symbolism from a witchcraft rite called the 'Love-Chase'. "Edward Corbould in Lady Godiva writes, 'In European folk-lore there are scores of variants on the 'Two magicians' theme, in which the male magician, after a hot chase, outmagics the female... The love chase is, unexpectedly, the basis of the Coventry legend of Lady Godiva. The clue is provided by a misere-seat in Coventry Cathedral which shows a long-haired woman, riding sideways on a goat, preceded by a hare. Gaster, in his stories from the Jewish Targum, tells of a woman, who, when given a love-test by her royal lover, namely to come to him 'neither clothed nor unclothed, neither on foot nor on horseback, neither feasting nor fasting', arrives on a goat, clothed only in her hair and carrying the apple of immortality. The May-Eve goat was mated to the Goddess, sacrificed and resurrected. At Coventry, she evidently went to the ceremony riding on his back to denote her dominion of him. The hare was ritually hunted on May-Eve, and the misere-seat figure is releasing the hare for her daughters to hunt. The love-chase again: the soul of the sacred king ringed about by orgiastic women, tries to escape in the likeness of a hare." The misere-seat in Coventry Cathedral, referred to by Robert Graves, refers to a seat in the 'old' Coventry Cathedral, destroyed by fire during the second world war.

Some of the motifs in the story of Godiva and the Love Chase also occur in the Norwegian myth of Kraka (aka Aslaug), daughter of Brunhilde, one of the Valkyries. In the story, Kraka (the crow) was challenged by her potential consort, Ragnar Lodbrog, to come to him, but in order to test her wits, he commanded her 'neither to arrive dressed nor undressed, neither hungry nor full and neither alone nor in company'. Kraka arrived dressed in a fishing net, biting an onion with only a dog as a companion. Impressed, Ragnar married her and she gave him the sons, Ivar the Boneless, Björn Ironside, Hvitserk and Ragnvald. In some of the tales, she arrives 'dressed only in her long hair' - an obvious correlation to the Godiva legend. 

However and whenever Godiva is remembered, the links to her Pagan past shine through.  May this new Godiva long bless us with her presence and continue to bring the image of The Goddess to life!


Godiva Stops at White Witch August 2012 - Photo by Debbie, White Witch

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