On a Pious Widow

Leofric was the Earl of Mercia in the period immediately before the conquest of England by William and the Normans. He is listed as having died in 1057, some eight years before the Battle of Hastings. He and his wife, Godgifu, were parents to 9 children. Besides the kids, both of them were incredibly pious and generous people. They supported many charitable causes as good Christians were told to do; they supported alms houses and established monasteries (places that were ostensibly set up to perform good works in the community).

Leofric held great power along with great wealth. The King of England once asked him to burn portions of a town because the people there refused to pay steep taxes he had imposed. Leofric balked at the cruelty since the town he was ordered to harm was his own hometown. Someone who could stand up to a king must be someone of strong character.

When he passed away, his wife continued to be generous with land; she donated property for several churches and monasteries to be built after her husband died. She is listed in the Domesday Book as one of the only women landowners. This is doubly unusual because the Normans took so much of the Anglo-Saxon land after the conquest, but they left Leofric’s widow alone for the most part.

Besides her generosity, the widow showed her piety in several other ways. She made pilgrimages and would donate large sums to the holy sites she visited. And, she was not above showing that, before her God, she was no better than the most common person in the land. Towards that end, she would often take off her jewelry and fine clothes, especially in the period of the religious calendar surrounding Ash Wednesday and the Easter commemoration. The tradition was supposed to be that, if you were wealthy, you would put on a simple, often sheer, dress, and ride to church to confess as a sign that material things did not matter compared to the things of the soul.

The fact that such a wealthy woman would debase herself in such a way and in the name of piety made quite the impression on the popular imagination of her day because most rich people usually made ostentatious displays when they went to church. It was much later that imaginative writers would change the tale slightly–they would remove even the sheer, simple garment worn by the widow–and translate her name from Anglo-Saxon to Latin.

Lady Godiva.

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