Lady Godiva, Where Are You?
Rulers Have Long Wrung Riches from Their Subjects
JULY 01, 2002 by TED ROBERTS
Taxation was the theme as my good friend Herb and I hoisted a few at the neighborhood pub the other night. It was his civic duty, he noted, to suck up the suds. Did not our federal government benefit from a healthy tax on alcohol—at the brewery? And did not the state squeeze another 8 percent out of the transaction in the form of sales tax? Furthermore, the state and the federal government, in joyful harmony, taxed the wages of the ladies with aching calves and sore feet who brought our ambrosia to us.
A cascade of largess, for the state, all because of our thirst.
“I had a great year, taxwise,” said Herb. “Took a salary cut. Then I managed to find a couple of stocks that went so far south they only traded on the Antarctic Stock Exchange. And to top off the good news, a huge oak fell on the house—a great casualty loss. Mashed the roof and then squashed our very rare and expensive calico cat. It’s gonna cost me a fortune to replace the cat. If only Hilda had dumped me and hit me up for alimony—it’s deductible, ya know. Hey, I’m off the hook this year.”
He ranted on. Then as he slowed down, since he couldn’t drink and talk at the same time, I pointed out that we peasants had been suffering this plunder of our earnings since the first historian with a tax liability and a chisel carved out his lament on a big rock.
The pharaohs, of course, were huge taxers and spenders. You don’t build pyramids stuffed with luxury goods for the next life by letting your constituents buy untaxed corn. Even Solomon the Wise squeezed his subjects like the vintners squeezed grapes. A thousand wives meant a thousand wedding rings, and a thousand peekaboo nighties, and a thousand honeymoon cottages. His administration rarely ran a surplus. “And he did evil in the sight of the Lord,” says that big black book found in hotels and courtrooms. They mean his tax policy, I’m sure.
A couple thousand years later, as feudalism held sway in Western civilization, rulers continued to wring riches out of their subjects.
All of this set us to pining for the reincarnation of Lady Godiva, right here in Alabama. Remember her? Remember the fable about her parading around the square like she was Cameron Diaz and Coventry, England, was Hollywood, California, and it was Oscar night? Well, it’s no fable—it’s absolutely true. The history books tell us that she bared her bod in an era when gowns went from crown to toenails. Nudity, along with bathing, was not fashionable in courtly circles. A woman who bathed twice a month by paddling around the moat was considered bawdy.
Madam Godiva had a mission. She yearned to elevate the artistic tastes of the masses. But hubby Leofric, the Earl of Mercia and Lord of Coventry, had no cultural aspirations, and he positively adored taxation. A 1040, circa eleventh century, instead of the Magna Carta, sat on his bedside table.
Leofric the Looter he was called by his friends. His victims called him worse.
Lady G noticed that the locals spent a lot of time pushing grindstones to generate taxes for her husband. Art Appreciation courses at Coventry U were unattended. But classes in millstone propulsion, oxen plowing, and timber chopping were oversubscribed. All wage-paying, taxable professions.
One night Lady Godiva, dressed in her eleventh-century equivalent of a Saran-wrap gown, called upon her avaricious hubby. She told him that the cultural level of Coventry was declining like a barrel of beer on Saturday night. He must chop that onerous tax rate!
He laughed. “Hah.”
The Lady Protesteth
The good wife cried a moatful of tears. It did no good. She pulled her gown tightly about her pudgy Rubenesque body. That did no good either. Then she lay on her back and kicked and screamed.
Leofric yawned and continued counting his tax receipts. Next, Lady G offered to swim once around the moat as bare as a newborn babe if Leofric would abstain from his favorite vice—taxation. “Nope,” said the Liege Lord. “Only if you do three laps. Backstroke, too!!”
She countered with an offer to bolt through the marketplace at midnight as naked as a jaybird, on Nanosecond Nell, the fastest filly in Mercia. “A done deal,” shouted the Plunderer.
History doesn’t tell us whether Leofric advertised the Midnight Madness burlesque show. More important, it doesn’t tell us if Leofric the Looter honored his bargain. But even if he did, his moratorium didn’t survive a millennium and the 5,000 miles that separate Coventry, England, and Alabama, USA. I just know that his descendants emigrated to the New World sometime in the eighteenth century. And I know that right now, in the first half of the 21st century, they report to work every morning at IRS headquarters in Tax Central, District of Columbia, USA. I mourn this historical fact with a black arm band every year on April 15.
Ted Roberts is a freelance writer in Huntsville, Alabama, who often writes on public-policy issues.