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    Lady Godiva was a freedom rider,
    she didn't care if the whole world looked
        -Theme from Maude

With the notable exception of the above lyric, Lady Godiva has in recent times become one of the unsung heroes of Western democracy.  People may still recall the sensational form that her protest took, her naked ride through Coventry, but few recall that she was protesting high rates of taxation (imposed by her own husband : Leofric, the Earl of Mercia).

Leofric was one of the most powerful nobles of 11th Century Britain, and he and Godiva were major patrons of the arts and religious institutions, Godiva apparently believing that such works would benefit the peasantry.  But when she realized that what would actually be most beneficial to the poor would be a reduction in their high tax burden she interceded with the Earl and asked him to lighten their load.  The Earl, one assumes jokingly, suggested that since Godiva was such a believer in the arts and since the Greeks and Romans considered the human form itself to be great art, he would remove the local taxes on everything but horses if she would ride through town in all her naked glory on horseback, which she promptly did.  Later embellishments to what appears to have been an actual incident include the addition of a voyeur who gazed upon her, despite admonishments that the townsfolk should avert their eyes : we recall him as the original "Peeping Tom".

This very fine historical novel by Steven James would be cause for celebration if all he did was restore our memory of the Lady.  But there's more.  Several years ago I lamented the fact that Hope Muntz's classic, The Golden Warrior, with its thrilling tale of the conflict between Harold Godwinson and William the Bastard (eventually, unfortunately, the Conqueror) had fallen out of print.  Many consider The Golden Warrior to be the greatest historical novel ever written, and it certainly ranks with the best.  I'd still urge folks to try to track down a copy, but, in the meantime, Steven James has cleverly tied the legend of Lady Godiva into the story of Harold and produced a thoroughly engaging historical fiction of his own.

James uses a few fictional characters and a healthy dollop of imagination to bind these storylines together, perhaps more tightly than they need to be (the Epilogue is particularly unnecessary).  But as the drama builds towards the Battle of Hastings (in 1066) the reader gets so swept up in the course of events that all license taken with the story is forgiven.  One warning though, I loaned my copy of Golden Warrior to a friend and he refused to finish the book because he couldn't stand to read of Harold's eventual defeat.  I excoriated him at the time, but found myself reacting similarly towards the end of Godiva and the Golden Dragon.  Harold's attempt to defend his kingdom--from a hostile and corrupt papacy; from the treacheries of his own brothers; from a Northern invasion by King Haraald of Norway; and from conquest by William and the Normans--is too heroic and too nearly succeeds for the tender hearted reader to easily accept his ultimate failure.  It is all just ineffably sad, though it goes a long way to explaining the rise of centralized nation-states, with a single political authority capable of reigning in rebellious rival claimants to power.

This then is one of the more enjoyable historical novels I've read in recent years.  For all of us who await with great impatience the next offering from Sharon Kay Penman, here's a book to tide us over.  And for anyone who's forgotten, or never knew, why Lady Godiva was a "freedom rider", this book restores a real heroine to her rightful place in the pantheon.

(Reviewed:)

Grade: (A-)

  

Websites:

See also:

Historical Fiction
Book-related and General Links:
    -Steven J. Cardimona : Assistant Professor of Geophysics (University of Missouri-Rolla. School of Mines and Metallurgy,  Department of Geology and Geophysics)
    -BOOK SITE : GODIVA and the GOLDEN DRAGON : A novel by Steven James

LADY GODIVA :
    -ARTWORK : Lady Godiva by John Collier
    -BBC ONLINE : Anglo-Saxons--Lady Godiva
    -Lady Godiva: The naked truth (BBC, 24 August, 2001)
    -LADY GODIVA (Godgifu, in the spelling of her time.)
    -Lady Godiva - Warwickshire the  Domesday Book in 1086 (Genealogy Web)
    -Lady Godiva : The Real Lady
    -Lady Godiva's Coventry :   20th-century Coventry is a case of "something old, something new." (Jim Hargan, History Net)
    -Godiva Festival (coventry.org)

NORMAN CONQUEST :
    -1066 : Norman Conquest School Site
    -Harold Godwinson (Spartacus.net)
    -The Golden Warrior: King Harold and the Normans (fan site devoted to the book)
    -The Battle of Hastings 1066
    -The Battle of Hastings: 1066 and much more--A very brief Synopsis
    -The Battle of Hastings (Camelot International)
    -Anglo-Saxon England
    -The Early History of Europe in Fictional Renderings
    -ART ESSAY : Interpretation of "Harold, King of the English" (Kishlansky 1994) (Mathias Ricken)

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