Dig may lay bare the real Lady Godiva

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The Independent Online
THE HUNT begins this year for the real Lady Godiva - the woman famed for riding naked through Coventry.

Little is known about Godiva, beyond her legendary ride baring all, reputedly made in an attempt to lift the tax burden on the city's residents. Now new light on her life and times is expected to be shed by an archaeological dig which begins at the end of this month.

A pounds 20m project to rebuild part of Coventry's post-war concrete centre will enable archaeologists to excavate the ruins of a Benedictine church said to have been founded by Godiva more than 900 years ago.

The search for the church is expected to unravel much of the mystery surrounding one of the most celebrated but least known characters of pre-Norman Conquest Britain.

"Finding the church would enable us to date it properly and learn so much about life at the time," said Margaret Rylatt, collections manager at Coventry Museum, who will be involved in the dig. "It's such a blank area in our history. It would give some more credence to the story about Lady Godiva."

Godiva is thought to have been born in 1007. Her family origins remain obscure but she married Leofric, Earl of Mercia and one of the most powerful men of pre-Norman Britain, in the early 1020s. Nothing has survived that gives any clue as to what she or Leofric looked like: an early stained- glass window, long since lost, was said to have depicted Godiva with long golden hair.

Even her naked ride has been subject to re-evaluation. Historians suggest that it simply means she did not wear her full traditional regalia and have also questioned whether such a powerful man as Leofric would have allowed his wife to bare her body in public.

But one mystery that the dig will not resolve is Godiva's final resting place. Godiva died in 1067, a year after the Norman Conquest. While several archaeologists believe she was buried in Evesham, Coventry likes to think she was laid to rest in the priory she founded in the city. "We don't know where Godiva is buried. She is supposed to be buried in one of the churches she built, but she was responsible for quite a few of those," said Mrs Rylatt.

Despite rumours that Godiva may be buried in Coventry, most archaeologists dismiss any likelihood of finding her remains. "We'd love to think she was buried here but there is no chance of finding her bones or her grave," said Mrs Rylatt. "If she was buried here then her grave would have been smashed during the dissolution of the monasteries. There are just too many `ifs'. We will never know, but there has to be some mystery in life."

The New Year excavations take place in the heart of the city centre on the site of Coventry's first cathedral, a Benedictine priory church called St Mary's which dates from the 14th century. Lady Godiva is believed to have founded an earlier church on the same site in 1043 for the Benedictines. This church was built on the site of a nunnery destroyed by the Danes in 1010.

Godiva's church was thought to have been richly endowed with relics and was pulled down when the huge cathedral church was built. The church and its successor became a major pilgrimage site during the Middle Ages.

The excavations are part of Coventry's Millennium Project, known as the Phoenix Initiative, for which half the funds have been donated by the Millennium Commission.

"It seemed appropriate as the millennium ends that we find out more about what was happening at the start of it," said Chris Beck, the project director. "It's important to find out more about Godiva. Many people think she was just a mythical figure but she was a very real person. We don't anticipate finding anything of her. However, archaeology has the delightful habit of surprising you."

But there is hope the dig will tell historians much about life in the 11th century. "We have lots of documentary evidence about Godiva's church and our history seems to start with Godiva," said Mrs Rylatt. "It's going to be one of the most exciting excavations in Coventry ever. We're going right to Coventry's most historic part. There are few cities in Britain which get this sort of opportunity. It will be extremely important."