The legendary (?) story of Lady Godiva (whose name means ‘gift of God’), the beautiful wife of Leofric III (968 – 1057), Earl of Mercia and lord of Coventry, is an interesting one. The people of Mercia were terribly burdened by the earl’s oppressive taxation. Lady Godiva appealed again and again to her husband, who obstinately refused to lower the tax. Finally, weary of her pleas, he said he would grant her request if she would ride naked through the streets of the town. Lady Godiva took him at his word, and after issuing a proclamation for everyone to stay inside and shut their windows, she rode through town, clothed only in her long hair. One person disobeyed the proclamation, a tailor, who was thereafter known as Peeping Tom and who is said to have been struck blind. Her husband kept his word and abolished the onerous taxes.
The claim that Godiva’s long hair effectively hid her from sight is generally believed, like the story of Peeping Tom, to have been added later to the original story. It is also thought that Lady Godiva’s “nakedness” refers to her riding through the streets without wearing any jewelry, which was a mark of her upper-class rank. The story has several elements that are familiar in a memorable Biblical story: the powerful and resistant lord , the exacted promise, the stringent condition, the test of chastity- Esther and Ahasuerus.
British portraitist John Collier immortalized the story in a painting in 1896. In the picture, Lady Godiva slumps, head bowed, on a regally attired white horse. She clasps her long hair to her breasts. One can almost feel her shame and yet, knowing the story, one can feel also her compassion for the villagers, so great that it would have driven her to such an act.
Before my research on this topic (thanks to the ever questionably reliable Wikipedia!) , I had pictured Lady Godiva shamelessly and proudly riding through town, displaying herself in a manner that would give her name a decidedly wicked connotation for all eternity. Yet when one knows the story it is tender, self sacrificing, humble act of love for the people in her care that motivates her ride. Even the ride was not her choice but a response to a demand that was, in all likelihood, believed by her husband to be something she would never do.
Can ‘mercy’ itself have a better human example than such sacrifical love and care? How appropos that she was the Lady of Mercia and a ‘Gift of God’.
A number of years ago, just as the practice of wearing angel jewelry was becoming popular, a friend gave me a little silver angel with a gold toned halo whose name was ‘Mercy’ and said that it reminded her of me. At the time I silently questioned why she would give me one with such a name. It has continued to puzzle me how it is that I represented mercy to her. I can only conclude that Christ in me was somehow merciful to her at a moment when she needed it greatly, using me without my awareness of it because mercy is most certainly NOT my spiritual gift, though it is my husband’s. God has been especially working in my life the last two years to show me just how UN-merciful I am, much to my dismay and shame.
Even more years ago an admirer gave me a small box of Godiva chocolates and told me (rather lasciviously) that he’d like to see me ride naked through town on a horse. To my horror, I was both embarrassed by the suggestion and flattered by his attention. Since my image of the Lady at that time was the shameless hussy image, I was also offended by his comparison (though it was at that time largely a comparison that I deserved!) Today, were someone to give me Godiva chocolates and suggest such a thing, I would have to ask myself, “Who is it that needs my compassion and mercy so much as this? And am I able to rise to the occasion at such a time as this?”
For John Collier’s rendering of the merciful lady, click here: