By Chris Wind
The Tenth of July, 1042
Though it is not long since our last visit, I find once again great need to speak with you! (Would that you lived nearer to Coventry!) You remember the discussion we had upon my arrival, prompted by my journey through Mercia?
Fast upon my return, I spoke to Leofric about the absolute necessity—moral and economic—of lowering the taxes. I described to him all I had seen, as I described it to you: the bordars and cottars living in poverty on their little piece of land, in their thatched wooden huts without any comforts; their meagre clothing, that we are a country of wool producers and traders, boasting the finest weavers’ guild, and yet the people of the land are so poorly clothed; and their food, only vegetables, many can not even have meat for a Sunday feast (feast! they do not know the word), not even a piece of wheatbread.
And Leofric said well why do they not come and ask if they want their taxes lowered? If the tax is too high, they would say something—and they have not. But I said, the bondmen can not leave the farms; and the freemen too can hardly leave their work, and their families alone against the wild beasts of the forest. And even if they could, they have no way of getting here. And they can not send a letter, you know they can not read or write, so how are they to ‘come and ask’?
But he was deaf to my pleas. He likes being rich—he likes his meat and wheatbread, and his very fine mead, his furs, and his embroidered robes set with jewels. Leofric, I said, have you no charity? You speak of founding a Benedictene monastery, are you not a Christian? Are you not bound by mercy, compassion, generosity—justice, for God’s sake, Leofric! You are the Lord of Coventry, the Earl of Mercia—you are responsible for these people! They are our kinsmen!
I swear sister, I would leave, but for the children. I can not think of them left to his ways, but if I were to take them with me—you know I would barely survive myself alone—with the children too, what could I do? I can not read or write well, women receive so little schooling, even in the monasteries. I am dependent on him, it is true: I am no different from the peasants I speak for.
Though some are. Do you remember Ethelfled? Seven years she gave Mercia good and conscientious governance, she built cities, she planned battles, and captured from the Danes, Derby, Leicester, and York. But it is true, she was regent and queen, not an earl’s wife. And an earl’s wife is not listened to. At least not in this court. I have heard that some consult their wives about public policy, but not Leofric—he simply will not or can not heed to reason.
Nor to emotion. I told him of the woman with seven children, you remember, three still little and another one on the way, and her husband lame from an attack by wolves, and her two brothers killed in the last battle, there have been so many lately—so she must work in the fields herself if her children are to be fed, she is almost dead with exhaustion, her neighbours try to help but they are overburdened themselves. I cried, I pleaded, Gawaina, I begged! But no. Leofric ordered me out of his room. I felt so—so weak!
So then I went to those who had strength. I know his advisors, I know which nobles he listens to. I spoke with them plainly and directly—but they paid no attention. (Except one—and you would be surprised which—he said he would speak to Leofric on condition—I refused of course!) Next I went to their wives. But those with influence did not want to risk losing it for mere peasants, and those without did not want to anger their husbands.
Gawaina, I had to do something! So I dressed like a proper little wench and snuck into the mead-hall one night. I thought if I could explain when they were drunk, maybe they would— But I am not as young and fair as I once was, and I was quickly discovered. Leofric was enraged! There he was, shining in his power, and glory, with two or three child-playthings (where do these women come from?), and suddenly his fat old wife is hoisted onto the table in front of him. I felt such shame! But I explained my presence, and asked him again to please lower the taxes. Well, all those merry red-faced drunkards thought it quite delightful—coarse rude brutes! When the laughter died, Leofric said with great solemnity, “I will.” Oh, Gawaina! I was so gladdened! But then he added “Ifyou ride naked through the marketplace at noon.” Well again the hall broke into laughter and there was much toasting to that. To save what dignity I had left, I looked at my husband straight when the laughter stopped and said “I will.” In silence then, I clambered off the table (not a one would help—and they think themselves such gentlemen!) and I walked out.
When I got to my chamber, I full realized what I had said! Ride through the town naked! How could I? I am a God-fearing Christian, I can not show myself in public! Only a pagan whore could do that! But if the taxes would be lowered—I prayed to God—maybe I could…
But no, I could not. I know why he made that—that challenge: he does not like his fat old wife. Gawaina, I can not go naked through the town. He is right. With all the children I have had, since marriage at fifteen—though ‘tis to provide him with heirs!—I am indeed a frightful sight. It is good, these fashions, no one need know how ugly I have become. But he knows. And he wants to make a fool of me. And if I ride, he will. (Especially if he does not live to his word. It could be he was too drunk to even know what he said. And I will be twice the fool to take him seriously.)
As I was in my chamber, mother heard me weeping and praying, and she asked what was troubling me. Well, I told her, and she said the most wondrous thing. She said ‘Godgifu, your body is beautiful if you can use it in that way, to ease the burden of all of Mercia. To give the people a good life—to use your body for such a noble purpose is to make that body beautiful, my child.’ She then said, with a smile, that Leofric would never have the strength. The men, she said, they speak of courage and glory, but there is not a one among them who would not feel naked without his armour, can you think of him in public without his clothes? And God will bless your body, Godgifu, it is the temple of the Holy Spirit.
And I saw she is right. She is very wise, our mother. (She offered to ride along with me, naked too!) I know he is trying to trick me, to force me to use my body as women have always had to, never to use their minds. But it is good to use my body in this way. In this way I use my body to serve my mind.
When I first decided to ride, I hoped no one would look. But now I have changed my mind. Sister, I hope everyone looks and sees this beautiful noble body! I may even put up my hair! A body is not ugly that has borne children, a body is not ugly that displays for justice—no matter how it looks!
So, deare sister, ask God’s forgiveness for me, wish me luck, and pray the brute lives to his word. Tomorrow, I ride!
* * * * *
It is fact that Godiva (or ‘Godgifu’) was the wife of Leofric, who was the earl of Mercia and lord of Coventry (around 1040-1085). And she did indeed ride naked through the town. And it was to secure his promise that he would lower the taxes, per her request, if she did so. Other passing items of fact include the relative poverty of the peasants, the lack of education for women at the time, Ethelfled and her achievements (911-918), and the practice of consulting wives about public policy; and Leopold did establish a Benedictine monastery, in 1043. The rest, including Gawaina, is fiction.
“The Ride” appears in Satellites Out of Orbit by Chris Wind.
Chris Wind’s prose and poetry has appeared in several magazines and journals, including The Antigonish Review, Ariel, Atlantis, Bogg, cv2, event, grain, The New Quarterly, Prism International, The University of Toronto Review, The Wascana Review, Waves, as well as several anthologies, including Contemporary Monologues for Young Women. Several of her short theatrical works have been performed (in Canada and the States), and her stories have been read on CBC Radio. To date, she has been awarded sixteen Ontario Arts Council grants.