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The Godiva Procession

Talk by Andrew Prescott to the Medieval English Theatre Conference, 19 March


You may remember that when I spoke to the METH conference two years ago about
the neglected British street processions of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, I
mentioned an archive of films of Edwardian street life on which my colleague Dr
Vanessa Toulmin was working with the British Film Institute. The Mitchell and
Kenyon archive has recently achieved much wider publicity with a BBC television
series and an accompanying book. For those of you who didn’t see the TV series, let
me show you the opening of one of the programes.

One of the things our Edwardian ancestors did for fun was to organise street
processions, and the many films of parades in the Mitchell and Kenyon archive
illustrate the vibrancy and variety of processional life in Britain up to and beyond the
First World War. This is illustrated by this further brief clip.

The Mitchell and Kenyon films are among our richest sources for understanding the
character of modern processional activity in Britain. These beguiling films reveal a
great deal about the character and organisations of these parades which cannot be
recovered from written descriptions. But how far do these films of modern British
processions give us new insights into the issues involved in dramatic performance in
the streets in the middle ages? They certainly remind us of some logistical issues
which perhaps have not been given sufficient weight in discussion of medieval

An obvious example is the weather. The Mitchell and Kenyon film of the 1904 Whit
procession by Manchester Catholics shows how rain affected the end of the parade.
For the organisers of the parade, this misfortune provided an opportunity to
demonstrate the self-discipline of Manchester’s Catholics, and the participants in the
procession carried on without protection against the weather. Good weather for such
religious processions was taken as a sign of divine approval; Manchester’s Anglicans
reacted with glee when rain disrupted the catholic procession. How would a medieval
audience have reacted if the York plays were held in sunshine but the Coventry plays
were washed out? Did such a situation ever occur? Another logistical issue which is
very evident in the Mitchell and Kenyon films is the importance of marshalling. Some
parades used military instructors to ensure that the parade passed smoothly. How far
was such marshalling necessary in medieval street performances?

Beyond such practical questions, the Mitchell and Kenyon films raise more general
issues which I want to suggest are relevant to medieval drama. For example, the films
raise questions about the relationship between the audience and the participants in the
procession. The demarcation between audience and performance is by no means
fixed, and seems to vary according to the status of the event. In a film of a miners’
holiday procession the distinction between audience and procession is very fluid –
indeed it is difficult to make out who are the marchers and who are the onlookers. In
more middle ranking events, such as temperance processions, the procession is
marked out by the banners and objects carried by participants but again the streets

have not been cleared in advance, policing is minimal and some onlookers join the
parade. For the highest status processions, streets and shops are closed and there is a
wide boundary between parade and on-lookers. Were similar hierarchies evident in
medieval street performances and are we right in assuming a rigid distinction between
audience and actors?

In exploring these wider parallels between medieval theatre and Edwardian street
processions, a key theme is the relationship between the performance and the place
where it took place, and I would like to illustrate this theme by looking briefly at one
case study – the Godiva Procession in Coventry. Mitchell and Kenyon shot four reels
of Godiva procession held on the occasion of Edward VII’s coronation in 1902, which
are the earliest known film of a Godiva procession. These were shown at the Coventry
Corn Exchange as the ‘official and exclusive reproductions’ of the parade together
with films of the coronation itself.

The film begins with Lady Godiva on her horse, shortly before she set off on the
parade. Set in Coventry barracks – she dressed in barrack wardens house. Traditional
dress of chiffon and flesh coloured tights. Played by London actress, Vera Guedes.
Great concern that she would get to Coventry in time from her performance in
London. ‘She will not forget the warm welcome and it made ample amends for the
indisposition, including a bad headache, from which she was suffering when she
joined the cavalcade.’ Delay in starting procession caused crowd to get restive. Not
caused by Godiva but by men representing historical figures associated with
Coventry. Audience said to be familiar with local figures but some clearly puzzled.
Surprising feature of parade. Friendly societies and trades. Collection of bicycles.
Subdued character of crowd. Press reports: ‘The crowd did not appear to have much
difficulty in recognising the characters, and though they were not particularly
enthusiastic they seemed delighted with this revival’.

The transmission of the Godiva legend has recently been the subject of an enthralling
study by Daniel Donoghue. Its origins are traced by Donoghue back to the 12th
century, but the story first appears in an extended form at the beginning of the 13th
century in Roger of Wendover. In this first version, Godiva’s modesty is protected by
her hair, but in the sixteenth century Grafton popularised a tradition, which may also
perhaps be rooted in a medieval source, that Godiva arranged for the townsfolk to stay
indoors while she made her ride. Shortly afterwards, the story of Peeping Tom was
grafted onto the legend. In 1678, the same year in which the city waits were
permanently established, the Corpus Christi Fair was opened by a parade of unusual
splendour, comprising representatives of the Mayor, Sheriffs and guilds: ‘there were
divers Streamers with the Companies arms and James Swinnertons Son represented
Lady Godiva’. A medal was struck to commemorate the event. This is the first
recorded re-enactment of the Godiva ride; it is not clear whether similar processions
had taken place previously. Donoghue suggests that, since the procession took place
at the Corpus Christi Fair, it may have been intended as a blasphemous parody of the
Corpus Christi plays. This cannot be substantiated and there are other possible
interpretations. The Victoria County History points out parallels between the Godiva
legend and the Hocktide plays. It should also be noted that Godiva processions were
held elsewhere, such as Hinckley and Southam, suggesting a broader regional context
for the Coventry procession. No matter how the 1678 Coventry procession is
interpreted, the Godiva processions rapidly became as renowned as the Corpus Christi

plays had once been, and a major tourist attraction. However, in becoming the most
potent and well-known symbol of the city, the Godiva procession also became a focus
for conflict, as different groups in the city sought to use it to promulgate particular
social viewpoints. The procession became a social battleground.

At the end of the eighteenth century, the procession was still relatively modest in
scale, comprising representatives of the city corporation and the actress representing
Godiva. This painting of the 1829 procession is by a local artist David Gee, who
afterwards disastrously restored the medieval Doom fresco in Holy Trinity church. In
the early 19th century, working class participation in processions was actively
encouraged by the middle classes as a sober and rational recreation. Friendly societies
such as the Druids and Oddfellows began to regularly participate in the Godiva
procession in exotic costumes representing the legendary history of their orders. The
Coventry Herald commented approvingly on the colourful contribution of the friendly
societies to the 1842 parade, but was scathing in its description of Godiva: ‘a most
humiliating evidence of what woman othewise lovely may be reduced and degraded
to’. In 1848, the Coventry Standard expressed its disapproval of the portrayal of
Godiva by simply reprinting Tennyson’s poem on Godiva with the words ‘clothed on
with chastity’ in italics.

This silk postcard by the local embroiderer Thomas Stevens was a memento of the
1877 Godiva parade. Stevens was himself a member of the Ancient Order of Foresters
and manufactured these sashes for the order. The Foresters were another friendly
society which took part in the procession, their depictions of Robin Hood and his
merry men adding to the medieval atmosphere. Stevens depicts the parade as a sedate
and dignified affair, but this view was not shared by all inhabitants of Coventry. The
1877 parade provoked a petition to the town council objecting that the event
encouraged the ‘licence and saturnalia in which riff-raff invariably indulge’. To
discourage boisterous behaviour, the 1883 procession was held separately from the
fair and, to demonstrate Coventry’s modernity and importance as a comercial centre,
additional floats were provided by local manufacturers. Fours years later, the
organising committee of the procession held to mark Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee
proposed ‘a modification of or an improvement upon the time-honoured Godiva
procession’. An attempt was made to turn the parade into an historical pageant. The
order of procession was devised by Coventry antiquary, William George Fretton, the
editor of Thomas Sharp’s collections on the city, who considerably extended the cast
of historical figures. Since historical costumes were ‘a sealed book to the multitude’
Mr Bennett of the Coventry Theatre was asked to provide the costumes. In its
determination to ensure that the procession was ‘an historical one in the best sense of
the word, representative of the history of the city, its past and present trades, and
manufactures, and old city companies’, the organising committee decided it was
finally time that Godiva should be clothed, and she appeared ‘fully clothed as a Saxon
countess of the eleventh century’, and was played by a respectable married woman
from Skegness.

Nevertheless, influential sections of the city’s population still felt that Godiva was not
the best way to celebrate Coventry’s civic achievements. In 1887, the Godiva
procession was preceded in the morning by a huge parade of Sunday School children.
This proved popular and was repeated for the Coronation celebrations in 1902 and
1911. The children’s procession however failed to supplant Godiva, despite efforts of

the local press to suggest that while the childtrens’ procession was ‘strikingly
picturesque’ with a ‘wonderful display of colour’, the Godiva procession was a tired
spectacle which only really interested outsiders and visitors. The experiment of a
fully-clothed Godiva had not proved popular, and in 1892, Alice Sinclair, a champion
swimmer, snake charmer and horse tamer from Sangster’s circus, wore the flesh-
coloured tights and chiffon. A correspondent to the Coventry Herald describes
Sinclair’s appearance as Godiva as ‘the incarnation of vulgarity’ and declared that ‘In
these days of advancement in thought and feeling such a display as that of Tuesday
cannot last. But why not eliminate the vulgar element, and let our show appeal to all
that is pure and noble and bright?’ By 1907, the school of historical pageantry
developed by Louis Parker was at the height of its influence, and there was a feeling
that the Godiva procession should seek to emulate if not surpass the pageants recently
produced by Parker at Warwick and Sherbourne. The Pall Mall Gazette noted that
Coventry’s industries were prospering, but that the procession was an opportunity to
show that Coventry had also developed culturally. It recalled that previous Godiva
processions had been ‘grotesque and painful’. It noted that ‘Historical pageants have
come into wider and pleasanter vogue; and Coventry must be judged by the new

However, the 1907 procession provoked the greatest controversy of all, when Pansy
Montague was selected to play Godiva, Montague was a Sydney showgirl who under
the stage name of ‘La Milo’ performed displays of ‘living statuary’ in the music halls,
under the billing ‘Wearing Nothing But a Smilo’. ‘La Milo’ had recently been
prosecuted and banned from performing in London. News that she would portray
Godiva prompted angry protests from the local clergy and the mayor threatened to
resign from the organising committee. Louis Parker denounced the procession as a
‘degrading and indecent spectacle’. Postcards of ‘La Milo’ as Godiva became best
selling items and she repeated her performance in the London music halls.

Trying to reassure its readers, the Coventry Herald reported that the 1911 procession
would be under the direction of a local writer on heraldry Albert Rodway and added
that the woman selected to play Godiva, Viola Hamilton, was an actress who had
appeared at the Alhamabra and in church pageants at Fulham (in fact she was a typist
in a theatrical agency). Again, the Herald noted the popularity of Parker’s school of
historical pageantry and added that ‘Coventry possesses a legend which, if turned to
best account might vie with other pageants.’ However, again Godiva subverted these
good intentions. Another actress named Hamilton brought a legal action against the
Illustrated London News for printing pictures of Godiva and stating that the part was
played by Miss Hamilton, while Viola Hamilton herself afterwards appeared
genuinely nude in postcards published by the Hana Studio.

These controversies continued to shape and transform the Godiva procession after the
First World War. In the procession held to mark the end of the First World War, it
was felt to be more appropriate, given the sombre nature of the event, that Godiva
should once again appear in the costume of the second world war. While the actresses
portraying Godiva appeared in subsequent processions in flesh-coloured tights,
attempts were made to relate Godiva to the wider sacrifices made by women by
including for example representations of the suffragettes. The bombing of Coventry in
the Second World War gave this theme of sacrifice an added poignancy, and this was
particularly evident in the Godiva Procession at the time of the Festival of Britain in

1951, of which we will see a film in a minute. In recent years, the Godiva Procession
has again been revived, but it is now performed more directly as a historical
reenactment, by the Devil’s Horseman, a group of jousting re-enactors. This raises a
whole host of questions about the modern image of Coventry and its relationship to its
medieval traditions, which we have not time to go into here.

I would like to conclude by showing you a short film of the 1951 procession but first I
will try and draw together some threads. We have seen how the development of the
Godiva procession since 1678 reflected a range of civic tensions and pressures. The
result as we will see was that by 1951 the event was a mish-mash of low-level
historical pageantry, civic display and trade exhibition. However, as such the
procession bears the imprint of three hundred years of social conflict and tension, and
is a rich source for understanding these tensions. In examining such events as the
Godiva procession, modern scholars have been profoundly influenced by Eric
Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger’s collection, The Invention of Tradition, which sees
such traditions as mostly creations of the early nineteenth century. Large parts of the
Godiva procession are indeed late inventions, but there is an underlying continuity
here which, if it does not reach back to the middle ages, can be traced in part back as
far as the seventeenth century. Moreover, Hobsbawm and Ranger see nationalism as
the fundamental force behind the creation of such traditions. In the case of the Godiva
procession, it was rather civic traditions and differing views as to how a civic image
should be expressed which shaped the development of the procession. The motive
power behind Godiva was local, not national. It is perhaps here that the comparison
with Godiva raises questions about medieval drama. If the Godiva procession was a
focus for the expression of different views of Coventry’s role and position in national
life, the development of medieval drama cycles in towns such as Coventry, York or
Chester would also have borne the imprint of the social aspirations, tensions and
conflicts of the townsfolk who took part in them. Local dramas become a focus for
expressions of and conflict about local power structures and local life; this was as true
in the middle ages as in the Victorian period.

The newsreel film you are about to see records Coventry’s main contribution to the
Festival of Britain in 1951. It is striking that Coventry chose in 1951 to hold a Godiva
procession, while York staged a groundbreaking revival of its medieval drama. This
says something about the two places. Equally striking is the fact that the newsreels
chose to film the event in Coventry and not, as far as I can find, in York.