It is the 10th of September 2020. Welcome to the Christian History Almanac brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org. I’m Dan van Voorhis.
The year was 1067.
Of course, it was the year 1066 that changed everything for the English. Thus, our event today marks both the beginning of a new era and the end of an older one. Today, let’s go back in time to England as it was before 1066.
Post-Roman Briton can be tricky. For one, there was no centralized state or clearly defined borders. Essentially, from south of the Scottish Highlands, the island was divided into seven kingdoms. They were Kent, Sussex, Wessex, Essex, East Anglia, West Anglia, and North Umbria. By the late 500s, the island had been evangelized by the Irish (in the north) and the Franks (in the south). While the Frankish connection would pay dividends by providing a common Christian culture with the Continent, the Irish connection would lead to the building of monasteries across England. This would lead to cathedrals, cathedral schools, and the birth of English universities.
These nominally Christian kingdoms would come together in 865 when the “Great Heathen Army” of Norwegians and Danes began to pillage more aggressively. These Vikings had been harassing the coasts for years, but now they were coming for land. A few important things happen here: the king of Wessex, Alfred, negotiated a peace with the Danes that gave them land on the eastern side of the island if they would convert to Christianity. Because of his role in keeping the peace, Alfred is the first to be considered the king of all the Anglo-Saxons. The story of Danish/English relations is tragic and gory and interesting, but we will leave that for another time.
In 1066, when the Normans from modern-day France invaded from across the channel, they would consolidate the seven kingdoms into one nation under the Normans. Their leader was William the Conqueror, and under his rule, the Danish and Scandinavian connections in England would wane until they became almost non-existent. It introduced the feudal system, southern European architecture, and a strong military presence. Also, the Normans had been recently Christianized as that was the condition for them to settle in Northern France, from whence their attack came.
It was common for the common folk to hold a worldview based on the teachings of the church, local traditions, and a hodgepodge of pagan religions. Often, the stories passed down to us have elements of theology, superstition, and sometimes, just plain gossip or titillating stories. One of the most famous from pre-Norman England was that of the woman who was simultaneously known for her piety as well as riding her horse with only her long hair keeping her modest. It was on this the 10th of September in 1067 that the Christian Countess Lady Godgifu, or Lady Godiva, died.
Godiva was married to the Earl Leofric, one of the most important noblemen in pre-Norman West Anglia. He had helped to alleviate inter-kingdom tension, and he sponsored the building of the monastery at Coventry and other church buildings. Godiva herself was known for her piety and beauty. The couple, however, disagreed when it came to the taxes required from the local peasantry.
When Godiva asked the Earl to lessen the people’s tax burden, he refused her. He said that the request was so ridiculous, he would only consider it if she rode naked through the town on a horse. Determined to help her people, she did so. Leofric relented. End of story.
Except, this story was only told 200 years after her death. The Puritans told the story six hundred years later but included one character who was a little too eager to see the Countess. This man, a young man named Tom, would be punished with blindness. This is the genesis of the “Peeping Tom.” But why such a strange story in the first place? There are plenty of theories as to what the story means. Still, an interpretation I favor is that this absolute debasement of a royal for her people resonated as a statement of great humility, not as one of sexuality. In an action that would be a mirror of the incarnation and sacrifice of God, so too would Godiva be imitating Christ. But then again, whenever did a theological interpretation compete with someone better known for nudity and swiss chocolate. Oh well.
The last Countess of West Anglia, the most Christian Lady Godiva, is said to have died on this date, the 10th of September, one year after the Norman invasion in 1067.
The reading for today is from one of the earliest Christian hymns, from the Epistle to the Philippians. This is St. Paul on the humiliation of Christ:
...Who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.
This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 10th of September 2020 brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org. The show is produced by a man like “a racing car, passing by like Lady Godiva,” Christopher Gillespie. The show is written and read by Dan van Voorhis. You can catch us here every day. and remember that the rumors of grace, forgiveness, and the redemption of all things are true…. Everything is going to be ok.