In the Early 13th Century, Roger Wendover wrote in his Latin history Flores Historiarum of a very generous 11th Century noble couple. Leofric, Earl of Mercia, in modern day Great Britain, was one of a few powerful Anglo-Saxon noblemen leading up to the Norman conquest. And his very pious wife the countess Godiva liked to give away his money. Largely at her urging, the earl founded and supported a Benedictine Monastery at Coventry in addition to giving great support to five or six other monasteries throughout the countryside as well as to Old St. Paul’s Cathedral in London.
That’s all pretty well-documented in contemporary sources, but what is missing from those earlier accounts of the countess is mention of her stark naked horseback ride through the streets of Coventry that she’s come to be known for (well, that and fancy chocolate). According to Wendover, writing almost 200 years later, when the earl grew tired of Godiva’s pleas to lessen the tax burden on the peasants under his authority, he remarked that he would do so as soon as she rode naked through the town.
The countess took him at his word, commanded the townspeople not to peek (and they didn’t, until the 17th century when the original “Peeping Tom” crept into the legend), and set off on her horse in nothing but her birthday suit and some seriously long hair.
As you may have guessed, this story is likely not 100% historically accurate. In fact, most historians would be quick to point out (and please forgive the professional jargon here) that it’s complete and utter hogwash.
In addition to the story not surfacing until long after the countess’s death while remaining conspicuously absent from contemporary accounts of her, historians support their accusations of fraud with evidence as weak as the fact that Leofric never actually levied taxes on the people of Coventry outside of a horse toll and that according to the law of the day, it would have been Godiva herself who had the authority to either tax the people or not.
It seems then that Godiva’s story was resurrected and buffed to a nice heroic sheen by a well-meaning, if highly inaccurate, chronicler of history long after her death. And with the exception of all the Toms in the world, whose name for the last four hundred years or so has sounded kind of pervy, no one seems to mind too much. It’s a great story about standing up for the little guy even when it means stepping way outside of your comfort zone, because really, I don’t think there’s much that sounds less comfortable than riding on the back of a horse in your altogether. And it’s a story that has made “Lady Godiva” the most famous streaker in history.
It’s because of this that I bring her up. About a week ago, I was invited to go streaking this December. It happened because a friend of a friend posted on Facebook that she was going to start a group committed to a December “streak” of running (or walking because I don’t run unless I’m chasing a penguin) at least one mile every day in the month.
That doesn’t sound like a lot, and it doesn’t have to be because it’s the streak that’s important. And considering this is the month when the temperatures begin to plummet where I live and I’d rather sit on the couch wrapping presents and eating Christmas cookies than do about anything else, I think this is just the motivation I need to get moving.
I’ve set my goal (and my extra early alarm) and so far so good. But it’s cold here in December and you can rest assured that just like the noble lady Godiva before me, I am not going to streak naked through town. I may, however, eat some fancy chocolate in her honor.