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Lady Godiva and Her Naked Ride

I’ve wanted to use the word ribald in one of these art posts for a while now so here’s a moderately ribald painting about the English legend of Lady Godiva. It was painted in 1898 by John Collier. I’ll admit this is more about the story being told by the art than the art itself.

The Countess known as Lady Godiva lived in 11th century England and her husband was the Earl of Coventry and its surrounding lands. He was apparently a ruthless tax man who levied some very high rates on his territories, especially for ownership and trade of horses. His Lady, on the other hand, was inclined towards compassion for those tenants and she pestered him about lowering those rates. He finally gave in but agreed to do so only on one rather ridiculous condition: she must ride through town in daylight wearing nothing but her long hair. To his surprise, I presume, she called his bluff. After issuing a proclamation that all should stay indoors with windows shuttered, she stripped naked and pranced through town on horseback. Now this event didn’t show up in print until about 200 years after Lady Godiva died so, in all likelihood, it’s just a folktale. But why let facts get in the way of a good story, right?

I’m always interested in how different artists interpret the same story. Collier has the horse’s head up high and stately but hers bowed, which is similar to several other portrayals. She was widely known as very pious and her bowed head probably reflects that. But he stands out from most by making her quite a bit thinner than other portrayals, and also having her straddle the horse rather than perch sidesaddle. I have questions about both. But since my inner thighs are starting to feel raw just thinking about riding a horse naked, I’ll move on.

This is a fun painting because it gives us an imagined view of the ride no one was supposed to see. ‘Supposed’ is the operative word there. Later legend says that everyone in town obeyed their Lady’s proclamation and refused to watch her naked ride. All, that is, except one. A local tailor took a peak from his window as she passed. It turns out that his lack of restraint made him somewhat of a legend himself. No one knows the name of the world’s most famous voyeur but almost everyone knows the moniker history gave him: we call him Peeping Tom.

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