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Nudity and Protest

From Lady Godiva to the present day, Beth Anderson looks at the effect nudity in protest has played throughout history
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Nudity and Protest: From Lady Godiva to the Present Day

Beth Anderson
17th Feb 2017
By Beth Anderson

Lady Godiva’s name appears in the Domesday Book in 1087. The story that she is so well known for is, thereby, considered to be at least partially grounded in fact. We know she married her husband Leofric, Earl of Mercia, sometime before 1040. They were both extensive land owners and together generated vast wealth. After the death of her husband in 1057 and the Norman conquest of 1066, she became the only Anglo-Saxon woman to still own land. As such, Lady Godiva was powerful and wealthy, yet it is documented that she was also a generous and virtuous woman.

In the statue of Lady Godiva at Maidstone Museum, she is depicted as a classical beauty with fine features and long hair. She sits awkwardly on her horse, her shoulders and back rounded. She seems to be unplaiting her hair. Most noticeable of all, she is naked.

Godiva’s naked ride is undoubtedly more legend than fact. There are substantial arguments aligning the story with myth and folklore, but it is still a worthy tale. Godiva fulfils the role of the virtuous, beautiful noblewoman; her husband, the deplorable villain. Leofric is framed as the cruel and malicious Earl that robbed the poor and undermined Godiva by introducing the Helegeld tax (a localised tax on the people of Coventry).

Leofric’s defining moment in the legend is the method he employs to dispel Godiva’s pleas to revoke the tax. Leofric orders Godiva to ride naked through the streets of Coventry. Only then will he revoke the tax. Godiva submits to Leofric’s humiliation and rides naked through the market place. The tax is withdrawn.

Over time, the story has changed and grown. Historians generally conclude that fact was secondary to a captivating and righteous story with public appeal. Nothing factual supports the accusation that Leofric was anything other than an honourable man, but for the purpose of the story, and the depiction of Leofric as a cruel husband, enhances the selfless demeanour of the heroine.

What is it that has kept this story alive for almost one thousand years? Had Leofric’s terms been different, or if Lady Godiva had refused his orders, would the story have survived? Godiva exposed herself for a cause, yet her nudity is the single aspect of the story to prevail consistently to this day.

Nudity through the ages

It is interesting to note that in the time of the ancient civilisations (approximately 500 BC), Greece was depicting its mortals and Gods in their most natural state, completely naked. The exposure of the naked body was a sign of heroism.

Maidstone Museum’s sculpture is one of multiple interpretations of Lady Godiva. Her curves, stylisation and nudity bring to mind a classical Greek Goddess. But unlike the naked heroes and heroines that stand confident and empowered in Greek sculpture, Lady Godiva appears self-conscience and uncomfortable. But her nudity is, nonetheless, heroic. Lady Godiva’s apparent discomfort reminds us that she suffered embarrassment for her cause. As Godiva pushed the limits of her own morals and beliefs in her act of protest, does she also challenge the prejudice of what a woman’s naked body represents?

A later addition to the tale of Lady Godiva was how her nakedness was received by the people she protested for. It was written into the tale that Godiva forbade her people from witnessing her naked. In gratitude for her selfless act, they followed her proclamation. A further revision to the tale sees the arrival of the character, Peeping Tom. As the name denotes, he looked when the rest didn’t.

In the tale of Lady Godiva, we have a clear case of the male perpetrator vs the female heroine. Lady Godiva emerges as the heroine whose act of protest challenges and changes the politics and socio-economics of her day. If a woman were to stage a naked political protest today, would it cause as much of a stir as it did a thousand years ago?

Modern protests

In the immediate weeks following Britain’s vote to leave the European Union, a woman hit the headlines for an act of protest against Brexit. She attended a meeting with the words Brexit leaves Britain naked written across her bare stomach and breasts. How much does who and why matter here and did her status help her to grab the headlines?

In all probability, the tale of Lady Godiva would not have sustained its longevity had she been an ordinary woman, protesting the sanctions placed upon her. Status and position is important. The Brexit protester was Victoria Bateman, a Fellow of Economics at the University of Cambridge. She was attending a board meeting to discuss the curriculum. Curiously, not one person in the room acknowledged that she was naked. Whatever their reasons, both individually and collectively, the reaction of the people in the room became as newsworthy as Bateman herself.

Before the referendum, Bateman had researched the economic impact of Brexit on the UK’s economic development; specifically on low-income working families. Bateman concluded that by 2020 the majority of low income families would be significantly worse off. Therefore, like Lady Godiva, Bateman’s protest was fuelled by her concerns for a population already in economic hardship that would collectively bear the brunt of another economic shortfall.

Bateman’s protest challenges our associations with the naked female body and puts these directly under the media spotlight. Why does a peacefully protesting naked woman pose such a challenge to her audience? Nudity in the public realm is not a social norm. The naked human body in a public place is deemed threatening and a sign of indecent and immoral behaviour. Was her naked protest also a comment on feminism and sexual politics?

In a comment to the Guardian, Bateman said: “Some people might say I am not any better than a page three girl but the message behind it is I am not just a body… I wanted the people to see that behind the naked body is a real, intelligent, thinking being and actually behind every naked body is an intelligent thinking being.”

Bateman explored the relationship of the female body and sex more overtly than Godiva. In 2014, Bateman posed for a nude portrait by the artist Anthony Connelly. Her reason was to “challenge the blinkered association between the body and sex.” The correlation between Godiva and Bateman remains significant. Godiva’s vulnerability is apparent. Perhaps she is unplaiting her hair to give herself more modesty. Let us not forget that Godiva was a powerful and wealthy woman. The risk to her position and her reputation was great. As an academic, economist and Cambridge Fellow, Bateman also stood to lose her credibility by staging a naked protest. It is clear that Bateman is not saying Brexit leaves Britain heroic. Her message is that naked means vulnerable, exposed, uncertain.

People have protested nude for all kinds of reasons. It is has been a means of protesting for gender equality or for the right to public nudity itself. Examples of this in western culture really have been few and far between. Stepping out naked carries a lot of risk. It underlines the commitment and belief that Godiva and Bateman had for their cause.

The artist behind the sculpture of Lady Godiva is John Thomas (1813-1862). A skilful stonemason, Thomas was appointed Supervising Carver at Westminster Palace. Notably, Thomas is also the craftsman behind the statue of Queen Victoria on Maidstone’s High Street. He attained nationwide success, and his work was exhibited at the Royal Academy from 1842-1861, The British Institute in 1851, and at The Great Exhibition in Crystal Palace in 1851.