HJ-ED-DHJHerald Journal Columns
July 9, 2007, Herald Journal

Tax reform, Lady Godiva style

By IVAN RACONTEUR

This week marks the anniversary of one of the more memorable events in world history.

This was the week that Lady Godiva took her famous canter down the main street of Coventry, England, back on July 10, 1040.

Now, there are some people who recognize the name of our heroine, but don’t remember anything about her except for her peculiar taste in equestrian apparel.

Come to think of it, there are probably a lot of people who don’t remember her at all, apart from the fact that her name has been adopted by a particularly fine brand of chocolate.

Confectionery is a wonderful tribute, and not a bad way to be remembered, but this is hardly the only reason to remember Lady Godiva.

The thing to remember about the good lady is not the way she rode through town, but the reason she did so.

In order to understand the why, we need to know a bit about who she was.

Lady Godiva was an Anglo-Saxon noblewoman who lived from 990 to 1040. She was much younger than her husband, Leofric, Earl of Mercia (968-1057).

Lady Godiva was a generous and sympathetic soul. She was a patron of the arts, and was known for helping out the local religious organizations whenever they passed the hat.

Her husband was generous, too, but sometimes he needed a bit of help to remember this.

The two of them hung around being noble and doing good deeds like founding a Benedictine monastery in Coventry in 1043, to provide educational opportunities for the clergy.

Like a lot of politicians and other people in positions of power, as the town grew, old Leofric began to get greedy.

He imposed extremely high taxes on the local peasants, following the age-old custom of wealthy landowners choking coins out of the poorest members of the community.

Now, the lovely lady sympathized with the people, and she repeatedly asked her husband to cancel the taxes.

Unfortunately, he had developed a taste for spending other people’s money, and he refused to repeal the taxes.

Even back in Godiva’s day, women could be pretty persuasive once they set their mind to something. Eventually, the old man grew weary of her nagging, and he made a deal with her.

He told her that if she would ride naked through Coventry market at midday (they didn’t have supermarkets in those days, so the streets served as a kind of permanent farmers’ market), he would repeal the taxes and be content with spending his own dough for a change.

Godiva was committed to her cause, so she took him up on the deal.

The good lady was not without modesty, though. She sent out a proclamation (people sent out a lot of proclamations in the days before satellite TV and the Internet when they wanted to make an announcement). In her proclamation, she told all of the residents in the town to stay indoors and shut their windows, because she was fixing to ride naked through town on her horse.

Now, if an attractive young lady were to send out a proclamation like that today, the streets would be lined with paparazzi and college guys with cellphone cameras, but back in Godiva’s day, people had good manners, and they stayed indoors.

So, at the appointed time, she called up a couple of her girlfriends and then got up on her white horse and rode through town with nothing to obscure her but her long, flowing hair.

Her husband was a good sport, and knowing that she would clip him one with the skillet if he refused, he agreed to repeal the taxes.

The real lesson in the story of Lady Godiva is not about chocolate or bareback riding, it is about standing up for one’s principles and getting taxes repealed to give the common man a break.

We could use more people like Lady Godiva today. We give our politicians far too much free rein to sit around thinking up new taxes and ways that they can spend our money.

What we need is a whole army of political spouses to step up and rein in their husbands or wives and tell them it is time to stop putting the squeeze on the taxpayers.

It worked for Lady Godiva, so why not for the wives or husbands of modern-day elected officials?

White horses are not as common in Washington or St. Paul as they used to be, but I am sure that the spouses in question could find ways to convince their mates that it is time to quit treating taxpayers like their personal ATMs. And, they can probably find a way to do it without having to ride naked down Pennsylvania Avenue or Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.

Some people say that, while Lady Godiva was a real person, the story of her nude excursion is a legend and it never happened.

I say whether it is true or not, it is still a pretty good lesson.

Nearly 1,000 years later, we are still paying far too much in taxes, and we need leaders who are willing to do whatever it takes to put a stop to this.