… Naked, you are blue as the night in Cuba;
You have vines and stars in your hair;
Naked, you are spacious and yellow
As summer in a golden church….
From ‘Sonnet XXVII: Naked You Are As Simple as one of your Hands’ by Pablo Neruda (1904-1973)
I’ve been reading up on the Anglo Saxons and the Vikings for a new project, which has taken my thoughts to Lady Godiva, the putative anniversary of whose daring exploit is today. Everyone knows the story of Lady Godiva riding naked through the streets of Coventry to save the people of the city from her husband’s excessive demands for taxation. Peeping Tom is supposed to have been struck blind after boring a hole through a shutter in order to see her. It’s a story that has been told, retold, embroidered, painted and celebrated in song and story. But is it true?
Lady Godiva entering Coventry by David Gee (1793-1872)
Let’s start with the facts. Godiva (or Godgifu as she was known in Anglo-Saxon) was an historical figure, as was her husband Earl Leofric and she is mentioned by a number of thirteenth century chroniclers such as Florence of Worcester, Ranulf Higden and Roger of Wendover. Evidence of her life exists in deeds and documents of the period.
In 1043 Leofric and Godgifu endowed a Benedictine house for an abbot and 24 monks on the site of St Osburg’s Nunnery, which had been destroyed by Vikings in 1016. The monastery was dedicated to God, the Virgin Mary, St Peter, St Osburg and All Saints. Subsequently Godgifu gave the monastery many gifts in honour of the Virgin Mary and she is reputed to have had all her personal gold and silver melted down and made into crosses, images of saints and other decorations to grace both the Coventry House and a number of other churches and monasteries. We even know the name – Mannig – of the goldsmith who made some of the offerings.
So she was pious – but there is nothing unusual in that. The knotty problem is that no chronicler mentions the famous ride until the 13th century, some three hundred years after it was supposed to have happened. But, but, but…. there is an intriguing possibility.
Before the Reformation is was customary and very common, for religious individuals to undertake some physical humiliation or debilitating effort as a penitential gesture. You still see it nowadays – people walking the Camino di Santiago, or in India attending holy events barefoot or covered in ashes, or in Japan climbing to holy places carrying a heavy burden. Supposing Godiva undertook such an act – maybe in her undershift, riding through the streets as an act of extreme piety or as a plea to God to stay her husband’s grasping hand? If that were the case, not mentioning it at the time – even assuming there was someone who could have written down the event, would not be unusual.
I’ll go for that. I like her – she sounds humane and womanly and daring.
Godiva outlived her husband Earl Leofric by some years and in fact we know she survived beyond the Norman Conquest because her name appears as a former landowner in the Domesday Book which was published in 1086 – and that makes her doubly unusual – an Anglo Saxon female landowner. She must have been extraordinary. Good for Godiva.
So in her honour I’ve made Coventry Godcakes. These were supposed to be brought to the baptismal feast by a baby’s godparents on the day of a Christening. They are very similar to the delicious little pastries called Banbury cakes which I made a couple of years ago, but the triangular shape of a Godcake is a nod to the Holy Trinity.
Coventry God Cakes
150g mixed dried fruit
1 tablespoon honey
1/2 tsp cinnamon
small knob of butter – about a dessertspoon
grated rind of half an orange
apple or orange juice
a pack of frozen all butter puff pastry
1 egg to glaze
Cover the fruit with the juice and soak for about an hour. Melt the butter in the pan, drain the fruit and add to the pan with the honey. Wam through until any liquid has simmered off then add the spice and orange rind and leave to cool.
Roll out the pastry and cut into two long strips about 4″ wide and 15″ long.
Put spoonfuls of the mixture at intervals along one side of each strip, leaving about an inch between each little pile. Fold over the top half of the pastry and press down between each pile of fruit and at the bottom edge. Cut diagonally into triangles and glaze with beaten egg. Bake for about 20 minutes until golden brown then decorate as desired.
We had these with ice cream – it’s very hot here!
The Magic-mill that grinds the gran’nams young,
Close at the side of kind Godiva hung;
She, of her favourite place the pride and joy,
Of charms at once most lavish and most coy,
By wanton act the purest fame could raise,
And give the boldest deed the chastest praise.
From: ‘The Parish Register: Part 1 Baptisms’ by George Crabbe (1754-1832)