Secret Origins: Godiva: Bad Hair Day, Chapter 1: Lady Godiva’s Comb

by Brian K. Asbury

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Where do I begin? At the beginning, I suppose. November, 1980. I was in my second year at Cambridge, of course, and struggling to make ends meet as a poor English Lit student. I’d written some stuff for the college newspaper, and even a couple of sketches for the Footlights Revue, so I was beginning to realise I had a flair for writing. If only I could make some money from it!

Then it hit me: in his last letter, Daddy had said he was about to start a new dig at Coventry Cathedral. Perhaps I could do a feature on it for one of the glossy magazines. I’d already thought up an angle — stuff about the new cathedral rising from the ashes of the old one, destroyed in the war, and yet there still being some life in those old ashes. Well, maybe the odd treasure or two still buried under the rubble, anyway.

I started ringing around, and to my surprise, Into Focus magazine accepted my proposal and commissioned me to write the piece. So I needed to get my skates on. I persuaded a friend to lend me her old Vespa, borrowed a camera from another friend, and set off for Coventry armed with a notepad and umpteen spare pencils.

I had a hell of a journey. The Vespa had a strange mind of its own and kept just cutting out for no reason and refusing to move again until it cooled down. It forced me to go by the back roads, because I shudder to think what would have happened if it had died on me on the motorway. And then, of course, I’d never driven around Coventry before, and the ring road system was a nightmare. It didn’t help that it was a Saturday, and Coventry City were at home to Manchester United. The entire road system was clogged with soccer fans on their way to the match and waving red and white scarves at me and leering suggestively.

I was a nervous wreck by the time I found my way to the cathedral, but I sat on the car park in the shadow of the new building, pulled myself together, and got into the right mental frame. It might be only my father I was going to interview, but this was my first proper writing assignment, and no way did I intend to botch it up.

I’ll never forget the look on Daddy’s face when he saw me. “Cas? Is that really you?” Of course, we hadn’t clapped eyes on each other since I’d started university, and to say I looked a bit different was a major understatement. I was going through my post-punk Gothic phase — black lipstick and eyeliner on a very pale face, black leather jacket, black Siouxsie and the Banshees T-shirt, black ripped denims so tight I needed a shoehorn to squeeze into them — you get the picture? Even my hair was cut short, spiky, and dyed jet black.

“My God,” he said. “I can’t believe how much you’ve changed.”

“College does that to a girl,” I said, hugging him. And thank goodness you can’t see my pierced navel, I thought.

“Yes, but your hair, Cas — your lovely, long blonde hair?”

I shrugged. “It doesn’t go with the image, dad. I’m in a band — Vampire Chic. Blonde wouldn’t look right.”

Anyway, after he’d got over the shock, he told me about his project and introduced me to his team. It seemed some shoring-up work was needed on the walls of the old cathedral that were left standing after it was bombed out by the Nazis during the war. Before that was done, it was decided to do some overdue archaeological work on the ruins — and it gave Daddy a chance also to look for remains of a third cathedral, which had predated the one destroyed by Hitler. A wealthy American foundation was financing the work, and he was expecting a visit from a couple of museum people from the States within the next few days with regard to further sponsorship.

The last member of his team he introduced me to was a really dishy boy named Tommy. “This is my daughter Dorcas — Cas to her friends.”

“Wow,” said Tommy in a pronounced Geordie accent. “Y’r tall, lass, ain’t you?”

Daddy grinned. “We were always hoping she’d be a star athlete, Tommy. Maybe even represent Great Britain in the Olympics. She won no end of trophies at school, mostly for running. I mean, look how long her legs are.” He playfully cuffed Tommy’s ear. “I don’t mean look that closely, you dirty little… But no, she’s given up running, haven’t you, love?”

“I still keep in trim,” I said. “But the running became a no-no when I started to fill out.” I grabbed my boobs — I thought Tommy’s eyes would pop out of their sockets. I confess I wasn’t wearing a bra. “I’m too top-heavy for competitive running these days,” I said, laughing.

“Dorcas, really!” Daddy scolded. I knew I’d gone a bit over the top at that point — he only ever calls me Dorcas when he’s mad at me.

I put my arms down demurely at my sides. “So — have you discovered anything interesting that I can tell my readers about?” I said, trying to sound as nonchalant as possible.

“As a matter of fact, we have,” said Daddy. “We unearthed a couple of real treasures only yesterday.” He turned to Tommy. “Tommy — why don’t we show Cas Godiva’s Comb?”

“Godiva’s Comb?” I said. “Sounds interesting. What is it?”

“Have ye not hord o’ Lady Godiva, pet?” asked Tommy.

“Vaguely,” I replied. “Some mediaeval woman who had a habit of riding around in the nude, wasn’t she?”

Naturally, that was their signal to give me the full works on who Lady Godiva was and what she was famous for. I’ll just give you the brief potted version.

Godiva, it seems, had been an Anglo-Saxon gentlewoman, patron of the arts, and horsewoman who had lived in Coventry in the eleventh century. She was the wife of Leofric, Earl of Mercia, and Godiva became increasingly concerned for the well-being of the peasants under his control. They led miserable lives, spending almost all of their waking hours in working to pay the taxes which Leofric imposed. Godiva felt that they were suffering spiritually in having no time for the arts or other intellectual pursuits.

She begged Leofric to reduce the burden of taxes on the people, to allow them some time to enjoy their lives. However, Leofric was becoming almost megalomaniacal and imposing taxes on everything he could think of, even including a levy on manure! He considered his wife’s demands mad. The arguments raged for weeks. Eventually, since Godiva would not give up, Leofric offered to allow some reduction in taxation capitulated — but attached a condition to the offer which he believed she would never agree to.

Since Godiva had a passion for classical art and wanted to encourage the peasants also to appreciate art, he suggested that she emulate the ancient Greeks, who viewed the nude human body as one of the highest expressions of the perfection of Nature. If Lady Godiva truly believed in the crusade she was promoting, then she should lead it herself and offer to the citizens of Coventry an example of the glorious beauty to be understood by careful consideration of a perfect nude human body.

In other words, he proclaimed, if Godiva would ride her horse through the crowded marketplace of Coventry in the full light of midday, completely naked, then he would reduce the burden of taxes on the populace.

To his amazement she agreed, and at noon on the appointed day, she rode her horse naked at noon through the marketplace, accompanied by two (fully clothed) lady attendants. Taken aback, Leofric not only pledged to reduce taxes, but removed all of them save for those tolls on horses which were already in place before he assumed his office.

That’s about the whole story, although it has been embellished over the centuries. The most famous (and apparently quite fictitious) addition is that the citizens of Coventry were ordered not to look at her as she rode through the streets, and that only one man — Peeping Tom — disobeyed and was struck blind for his troubles. The story that her nakedness was almost completely concealed by her long blonde hair is also claimed to be untrue.

“She did have long blonde hair, though,” said Daddy. “Supposedly, it was worn in two long braids on the day of her ride, and she wore no jewellery or ornamentation of any kind. But normally a Saxon noblewoman would have secured her hair with ornamental combs.”

“And you’ve found one of them. Wow!”

“We’ve found a comb, pet,” said Tommy. “We divven’t know if it’s hers, of course. Not too likely, really, ah suppose.”

“But it’s not impossible,” Daddy said. “It’s certainly from the right period.”

“Would y’like to see it, like?” Tommy asked.

“I certainly would. Can I take some photos?”

“Of course,” said Daddy. “Follow me.”

The team had set up a large shed in the grounds to use as a workshop, and the finds from the dig were inside, arrayed on a table so that the archaeologists could clean and catalogue them. I was led around to where a young woman was carefully dusting off a strange-looking piece of jewellery made of bone and inset with gold and precious stones.

“Wow! Is this it?” I said.

“It certainly is,” replied Daddy. “We’re making some remarkable finds here, but this one is our pride and joy.” He grinned. “I can’t wait to show it off to the Halls when they arrive tomorrow.”

“May I touch it?” He nodded. I took it from the woman; it felt strangely light, considering it was made from such heavy materials. Somehow, too, it felt very familiar. I got a weird sense of déjà vu, as though I’d handled it — or something like it — before.

“I’ve got to get a photo of this,” I said, fumbling in my bag for the borrowed camera. One of the assistants said something to Daddy while I was assembling it.

“Er… Cas, love… we’d rather you didn’t take flash photography in here. Some of these artefacts are very delicate and even light-sensitive. They should be photographed only under controlled conditions.”

“OK…” I said. “How about if we take it outside, then?”

“That would be all right, provided you’re careful with it. Tommy, go with her and help out, will you? I have to sort something out here, but I’ll join you presently.”

Tommy and I went back out and walked to one of the old walls, which I thought would make a better background. I have to admit I was talking twenty to the dozen; despite his weird accent, I fancied Tommy like mad, and being with him was making me pretty excitable. Perhaps that’s why I came up with such a stupid idea as what happened next.

I’d taken a few snaps of Tommy holding the comb, when I said, “You say that Lady Godiva — or some other Saxon noblewoman — would have worn the comb in her hair. How? Could you demonstrate?”

“Whay ay, lass,” he said. “We’ll haveta find somebody with longer hair, like. Neither of us could wear it.”

“Ffff! Nonsense. Give it here.” He handed me the comb. I handed him the camera.

“Y’haven’t enough hair, pet,” he insisted.

“OK, I’ll just hold it in place, then,” I told him. I pushed the comb into my black-dyed spiky crop. “Just take the photo.”

And that was when it happened. I don’t actually remember it, of course — how could I? But I’m told that, out of a clear blue and nearly cloudless sky, a bolt of lightning struck down and blasted me to the ground as surely as if it had been aiming at me!

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