Coventry: The City of Lady Godiva
Part I: Lady Godiva's Village

A Historic Travel Article by Jim Hargan

First published by British Heritage magazine, January 2001

Medieval and Georgian buildings line Hay Lane, behind the cathedral; mailbox with Queen Victoria's monogram in frgd. Location: ENG, Coventry Borough, Old City, Central District. [ref. to #243.159] View down Spon Street to St. John's Church. Location: ENG, Coventry Borough, Old City, Central District. [ref. to #243.124] 

The Urban Jumble

View down Cathedral Lane from Holy Trinity parish church (churchyard rt frg), to spire of old cathedral; Coventry Cross visible, ctr. Location: ENG, Coventry Borough, Old City, Central District. [ref. to #243.137]It's easy enough to loose yourself in Coventry. This Midlands industrial city, just south of Birmingham, enjoys a happy jumble of modern and medieval. Brick and cobble lanes, narrowed by the overhang of half-timbered buildings, twist past ancient churches and lush gardens, only to open suddenly onto the monumental plainness of modernist architecture. Walk anywhere in Coventry's lively central district for the same juxtaposition: a row of medieval shops opens suddenly from a modern mall, an ancient guildhall faces a metal-clad university building, a ruined 14th Century abbey abuts a huge modern cathedral. Here the Twentieth and the Twelfth Centuries mix like oil and water, close neighbors who never seem to meet.

It's also easy to loose yourself in a more literal sense. Coventry is the result of the finest principles of urban planning of the 1950's, applied with a thoroughness made possible only by a strong central authority and lots of German bomb damage. A circular expressway rings its central district with curves so gentle and steady that it is almost impossible to tell what direction you are heading in. Get off at any exit, and you find yourself wandering down a local street that meanders past parking lots to a dead-end at the service entrances of the downtown shops. To a first time visitor it seems like a cockamamie way to design a city, but it is all very rational. Parking surrounds a central core of businesses and offices, while the circular expressway offers ready access to the peripheral parking. A local can drive easily to the nearest parking lot, then stroll leisurely past a wide variety of downtown shops. Of course, such rationality is little comfort to a lost tourist. The best method for a first visit is to park at random, then walk to the Tourist Information Center (follow the signs), where you can get a map that will show how much closer you could have parked if you had known where you were.

The Fair Lady Godiva

Statue of Lady Godiva (by Reid Dick, 1949), on High Street, in front of the Cathedral Lanes Shopping Centre. Location: ENG, Coventry Borough, Old City, Central District. [ref. to #243.130]Coventry is associated with Lady Godiva, and for good reason -- Lady Godiva was one of its founders and earliest rulers. Earl Leofric of Mercia and his wife, the Countess Godgifu (Godiva), founded a Benedictine priory on a hill overlooking the River Sowe, and the town of Coventry grew up around it. In all likelihood the priory ran a market, and this market formed the nucleus of the growing town. Such a market would bring fees and taxes to the priory and the earl, while flooding the district with goods and money -- a likely place for a settlement. Godiva may well have ruled the settlement between Leofric's death in 1057 and her own in 1066.

Certainly, taxation would be an important early issue, and Countess Godiva may well have been an advocate for the priory and its market. However, it seems unlikely that Godiva would have ridden naked through the streets of Coventry to reduce taxes. For one thing, she would have had to ride naked through the farm lane of Coventry, as the settlement had only fifty working men as late as 1086. But in all likelihood, the legend of Godiva's ride is a folk memory of a Queen of the May pageant -- perhaps a particularly bawdy one. Godiva processions, complete with naked maiden, were held from earliest times well into the 20th Century, and prudish attempts to clothe the maiden were met with riots. At any rate, the legend of Godiva's ride is first mentioned nearly two centuries after the fact, by Roger of Wendover, whose work "contains many fantastic and distorted stories," according to the Columbia Encyclopedia. The legend of Peeping Tom is even later. It derives from a wooden statue of St. George that was salvaged from the dissolved abbey in 1539 and stuck in a window over the market place as a joke. ("Who is that?" "Why that's Tom. He's peeping at Godiva.") Peeping Tom may be a legend but the statue still exists, on display downtown at the Cathedral Lanes Shopping Centre, still peeping at the city's famous statue of Lady Godiva.

Next: The Village Becomes A City

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