“What a legend!” is a phrase that we hear from time to time to describe sports stars and celebrities who have achieved well or entertained. Legends though are stories. Stories told over time, handed down from generation to generation. Stories that are told from memory, based on a truth and embellished over time. Legends are stories about people. People who have done great things and stand as an example to all of us; inspiring us to bigger, better and braver behaviour.
The origins of many legends can be found in the British Isles: King Arthur, Robin Hood, Bedd Gelert and Lady Godiva are the most well known. Lady Godiva is the character I want to focus on in this blog.
In the 1300s Godiva was the wife of Earl Leofric and so the ‘first lady’ of the Mercia – one of the most powerful Anglo-Saxon regions in England. At the centre of this Earldom was the walled town of Coventry. Legend tells that Earl Leofric was a tyrannical lord who taxed the people of Coventry heavily. Despite the pleas of his wife, he continued to extract ever greater sums of money from his subjects leaving them hungry and cold. In a last-ditch attempt to relieve the Coventrian’s suffering, Lady Godiva challenged her husband saying, that if he didn’t reduce the taxation she would ride through the town naked. As is the way in great stories he didn’t heed her warning. The tax-burden continued: Leofric’s purse grew fatter and the people of Coventry grew thinner.
Leofric had not banked on the determination of his wife to see fairness and social justice reign in Coventry. She reasserted her threat and prepared to ride through the streets of Coventry naked. Fearing for the modesty of his wife, Leofric commanded all citizens of Coventry to stay in their homes whilst his wife rode through the town. Legend says they all did as commanded, except Tom – Peeping Tom, who stole a peak at the naked lady and was instantly blinded.
In recognition of the courage and humility of his wife, Leofric reduced the burden on his subjects and Godiva became a legendary figure of fairness and social justice for her role in reconciling the people of Coventry and their Lord.
Here in Coventry the story of Godiva is all around us in the many images depicting her ride of humility. This weekend as part of the Cultural Olympiad for London 2012 we have witnessed a ‘reawakening’ of Godiva and all that she stands for. She has been recreated as a 6m tall puppet and will be travelling to London in a carriage powered by 25 cyclists. As a Primary English Consultant I am thrilled to see Godiva’s story being told, shared and embellished for the 21st Century. What I love even more is that she is taking a gift to London from the young people of the Midlands – a book. A huge book, a ‘Book of Intent’ in which the young people have written their intentions to secure equality, fairness and social justice. Now that is legendary.
Rachel Clarke, Coventry Primary English Consultant