The poet notes that while he was waiting at the train station in Coventry, gazing on the town’s three towers, he reshaped the town’s famous legend of Lady Godiva as follows:
Today’s men complain about the burdensome taxation of the people in the past, but Godiva, 1,000 years ago, “did more, and overwent, and overcame.” She was the wife of the Earl of Coventry, who had overtaxed his people. Mothers brought their children to him, begging him not to tax them because they would starve.
Godiva went to her husband when he was alone in his hall. He was with his dogs and had very long hair and a long beard. She told him about his townspeople’s concerns and told him that they would starve if they had to pay the tax. He was amazed at her and asked why she was concerned with the common people, why she would even trouble her “little finger” about them. She replied that she “would die” for them. He laughed and looked at her diamond earrings. He finally said scornfully that if she rode naked through town he would repeal the tax.
She was troubled about accepting the challenge, but after an hour her pity won out. She had a herald call out to the townspeople that she would set them free, but that if they loved her, from that moment until noon they would agree to stay out of the street and keep their doors and windows barred and covered, never looking out.
She retreated to her room and undid her belt. She then shook out her long hair, which fell to her knees, and took off the rest of her clothing. She crept around surreptitiously until she reached the Gateway, where she found her horse clad in purple and gold.
She rode out of the hall, “clad in chastity.” The wind was quiet and Nature breathless. The eyes of statues unnerved her, and her horse’s footfalls made her blush; chinks in the wall were holes to look through, and gables stared. Finally, she saw the elder-thicket and the Gothic archway that signaled she had rode fully through the town.
Turning around at the archway, she rode back. One man, a “low churl,” decided to peep at her, but his eyes shriveled in his head and dropped to the ground before he saw anything. The Powers had gotten rid of the man’s sense that he had so misused. She rode on as hundreds of clocks clanged the noon hour across the town, and she reached her bower just in time. Dressing once more, she stepped out to meet the Earl. The tax was canceled, and her name was forever renowned.
Although not one of the most famous poems in Tennyson’s oeuvre, and of a much lighter tone than readers of Tennyson’s darker poetry might be used to, “Godiva” is known for laying the groundwork for the modern understanding of the medieval myth of Lady Godiva. The myth was that she rode naked on horseback through the streets in order to save the people of Coventry from a burdensome tax. Later, the myth included a man who peeped at her, who became known as “Peeping Tom.”
Written in blank verse and consisting of five stanzas of differing lengths, the poem is often grouped with what have been deemed Tennyson’s English idylls. The first stanza is in the first person, spoken by Tennyson himself. He explains that he was conversing with “grooms and porters,” members of the lower class, at the train station in Coventry and was musing on the legend of the town. He decided to give an account of that legend, which is the poem that follows. This four-line stanza separates the two parts of the poem and clarifies that Tennyson is dealing with an established legend rather than creating one of his own. This retelling is something Tennyson does often, as with “Ulysses” and “Tithonus.” The stanzas are all in iambic pentameter; after all, Godiva is a Lady, and this is a noble poetic form.
Harvard’s Daniel Donoghue provides helpful history and background for the poem. Lady Godiva (Godifu, Godgifu, or Godgyfu) was the wife of Leofric, the Earl of Mercia. Her name is found in the Domesday Book, William the Conqueror’s 11th-century record of English property. The name also appears in the history of Ely Abbey, the Liber Eliensis, as she and her husband were benefactors of monasteries and were known for their numerous gifts to the monasteries before the Norman Conquest. The Domesday Book mentions that Godiva lived on after her husband’s death in 1057; after the Norman Conquest of 1066 she was still listed as a major landholder. She is said to have died sometime between 1066 and 1086.
As for the legend, it first appears in the 13th century in the Flores Historiarum and its adaptation by Roger of Wendover. Some historians connect the legend to the custom of penitents wearing a shift and undertaking a public procession. Godiva may have done this, and her story may have passed into folk history. Yet, most historians do not find any veracity in the tale, and it is not found anywhere else between the “real” Godiva’s death and the first appearance of the legend. The version of the tale found in Flores differs from Tennyson’s. In the tale, Godiva passes through Coventry accompanied by two knights with the people assembled in the streets—at midday, as the Earl required. In Tennyson’s, she has ordered everyone to stay out of the streets, and while the Earl has not required a specific time of day, she arrives back at home as the noon bells ring, just in time to fulfill the ancient requirement.
Thus, the inclusion of “Peeping Tom” is enabled. This character was part of the popular lore in Coventry, but accounts date from no Earlier than the 18th century. An 1826 article by a W. Reader explained that Coventry had a tradition called the Trinity Great Fair that featured a grotesque effigy of Tom on display. He believed that this tradition must have been later than at least 1685, because a detailed history of the town by William Dugdale did not mention it. Other 18th-century writers confirmed Peeping Tom’s place in the town’s tradition. The Earliest account using that name was from 1773. Historians point to the absence of Tom in historical sources about Godiva and also to the fact that “Tom” is not an Anglo-Saxon name.
Tom, “the fatal byword of all years to come,” exemplifies voyeurism and the tension between chastity and prurience. Donoghue, who also wrote Lady Godiva: A Literary History of the Legend, explained in an interview with Harvard Magazine that the pairing of Godiva and Tom “anticipates Sigmund Freud’s clinical definitions of scopophilia and exhibitionism in terms of one another so well that he almost seems to have Peeping Tom in mind for the former and Lady Godiva for the latter. Only in recent years has Peeping Tom become extricated from the Godiva legend to the extent that it is possible to mention one without calling to mind the other.”
The character of Godiva is worth examining. She accepts the Earl’s idea—suggested as though an impossibility—in order to satisfy the Earl and the people, but it takes an hour of moral consideration for her to decide. She must consider whether the Earl will accept her naked ride as satisfaction of the tax. Does he love and respect her enough to understand how much she values the people, and is this naked ride the best way to prove this to him? How could she maintain her modesty and dignity? Whatever the risk, “pity” wins the “war” of emotions, and she comes up with a plan that ultimately succeeds. For her good deed, she herself is to be credited, she “built herself an everlasting name.”
Tennyson’s Godiva continues to be ashamed of her nakedness; unsure about whether anyone is watching, she slithers from pillar to pillar and then imagines people (as well as things like statues) watching her as she rides. Thus she displays a mix of boldness and modesty (Tennyson writes the she is clothed in “chastity”), unlike tellings of the tale in which everyone is watching in the streets.
One might expect to find sexualized imagery in the poem. One might make something of the phallic pillars, the “hard condition” she faces, the chaste symbolism of keeping all entrances shut versus the danger of the “chinks and holes,” the feeling of the “pulses” of the horse under her, the “hammer” and “shocks” of the clock towers all over town, and the final safety of her own bower. Yet, the punishment of Peeping Tom for sexualizing the noble ride stands as a judgment against anyone who might detract from the more important messages of the poem by focusing on such lower elements.