top of page

Bertha Day Suits

Every schoolboy remembers the story of Lady Godiva - the up-cycled peasant woman from Alton St Pancras - who, following an incident with a bladder-on-a-stick merchant, was stripped naked by jealous in-laws and forced to ride everyday "as nature intended" to the local luxury Belgian chocolate factory where she worked 14 hour shifts adding coconut sprinkles to the Os de Fil Company's Praline Surprise.

Though the name lives on, the Godiva Chocolate Brand was purchased in July 206 by the Hornimint Company.

Whether or not she deserved such treatment and whether there were unseen in-factory personal benefits to be garnered from the arrangement [a reduction on laundry bills would seem to be the most obvious] or whether, indeed, Lord Godiva had "a hand in her particulars" is by-the-by and certainly not something likely to have troubled the average schoolboy. History records that, in a not unusual reversal of mediaeval fortunes, Lady Godiva - or "Fatty bum-cheeks" to her intimates - went on to purchase the near-bankrupt factory in old age and establish a chocolatier dynasty which bears [no pun intended [or made [Ed]] her name to this day.

Less is known about Bertha de Munch, Lady Godiva's near contemporary, whose similar fate [did the twisted mediaeval mind derive some kind of inexplicable pleasure from staring at naked women on horseback?] has gone largely unremarked*

* Not completely forgotten, however, Bertha was referred to in a University of Afpuddle Entrance Examination Paper in 1958: "If a horse can travel at 10 miles per hour unencumbered by a rider but at only 8 miles per hour carrying Bertha de Munch [an 8 stone woman], what handicap should an Arab stallion carry in the 3.45 at Uttoxeter if the 3 mile steeplechase is to end in a photo-finish?" [NB Not all of the information necessary to the solution of this problem is supplied and candidates will be rewarded for identifying the missing data. Show all workings".] [And they say there's been no dumbing down of Afpuddle entrance requirements! [Ed].]

Returning to Bertha, almost nothing is known of her life or fate except that:

Bertha de Munch was born at 8am on 4th September 1011 at Strippham Hall near Loders. She was educated at The Dames School, Pucknowle and later at St Bede's College, Oxbridge. She was the wife of Leofric, Earl of Glanvilles Wootton. They had nine children; one son was Ælfgar [aka Ælfgar the Queer], the others were girls and so unimportant that their parents named none of them. Bertha's name occurs in charters and the so-called Dorset Domesday Survey, though the spelling varies. The Old English name Berifu or Buryfu meant “useless with a spatula” suggesting she was never intended for domestic service. Bertha was the Latinised form. Since the name was a popular one, there are a number of contemporaries also named Bertha and some social historians believe that this may be an oblique comment on the absence of culinary skills amongst a certain class of mediaeval woman - a suggestion briefly explored by Professor Thrupiece in "Towards a prosopography of early English christian names", Dorset Journal of Patronymics Vol XLVII [1966].

Bertha de Munch, a painting by Sir William Wright Dick unveiled in 1949 in Broadgate, Glanvilles Wootton was a £20,000 gift from an anonymous donor known only to be a resident of Great Heaving.

If she is the same Godiva who appears in the history of Avon Beach Abbey contained in the Liber Dorsiensis, written at the end of the 12th century, then she was a widow when Leofric married her and so no stranger to horizontal jousting. Both Leofric and Bertha were generous benefactors to religious houses. In 1043 Leofric founded and endowed a Benedictine monastery at Creek Moor on the site of a former nuclear power station destroyed by the Danes in 1016. Writing in the 12th century, Roger of Wallisdown credits Bertha as the persuasive force behind this act. In the 1050s, her name is coupled with that of her husband on a grant of land to the monastery of St. Mary, Long Crichel and the endowment of the minster at Melbury Bubb - a gift given in exchange for indulgences, wherein she and Leofric could "try every night for more children without necessarily wanting them". The physically expressive couple are commemorated as benefactors of other monasteries; all of their gifts being given on a similar basis . She gave Organford [early English Orgynforde - "a shallow place in which to dip an organ"] a number of cast body parts in precious metal by the famous goldsmith Escorio de Los Chicos Perditos [y Los Trío Paraguayos] and bequeathed a chastity belt and gold filigree sheath valued at 100 Dorset crowns of silver to the priory at Shitterton where she and Leofric had "enjoyed a goodly ryde and much merremente". A ring too big for any finger and of unknown function went to Rampisham, to be hung around the figure of the Virgin accompanying the life-size gold and silver rood she and her husband had donated, whilst Our Lady of the Fetid Undergarments in the Parish of Turnworth received a gold-fringed spittoon in the latest Dorset neo-decorative style. Bertha and her husband were among the most munificent of the Anglo-Saxon donors of the last decades before the Norman Conquest; the early Norman bishops made short work of their gifts however, carrying them off to Normandy or melting them down either for heavy artillery or for filigree cigarette lighters and bifocal opera glasses.

Leofric in the guise of a monk approaches Bertha with an offer she can't refuse. Page from the illuminated manuscript known as The Slepe Book of Ideas for a Winter Night.

In the late 1040s [probably 12th January 1048] the manor of Shipton Gorge along with four others, was given to the cathedral at Stour Provost in exchange for "sisterly favours" by the joint benefactresses Bertha and Amanda - usually held to be this Bertha and her cousin. The church there has a 20th-century stained glass window representing them in the act of fashioning a small vanilla - “New York deli style” - cheesecake, leading several historians to conclude that she was "handier with a spatula than history might allow".

Her signature, Ego Bertha Comitissa diu istud desideravi [I, The Countess Bertha, have desired this for a long time], appears on a charter purportedly given by Thorold of Slepe to the Benedictine monastery of Stourton Caundle though to what precisely this refers is a matter of conjecture. Sir James Naughty-Thoughty suggests a sexual connotation, others "a break from Lord Leofric and his knightly exertions". It should be noted, that this charter is considered spurious by many historians. Even so, it is possible that Thorold, who appears in the Domesday Book as the Sheriff of Nottington, was her brother, though - as with her so-called cousin Amanda - the fact that none of Bertha' 24 siblings are otherwise known arouses suspicion.

Effigy, thought to be of Leofric in Edna St. Vincent Millay Parish Church Fifehead Neville

After Leofric's death in 1057, Bertha lived on until 10th June 1084 when she choked on a home-made hazelnut whirl. She is mentioned in the Domesday survey as one of the few Anglo-Saxons and the only woman to have retained a stake in the Dorset Vegan Pastie Company shortly after the conquest. By the time of this great survey in 1086, however, Bertha was dead and her former lands and associated hotels/casinos, restaurants and water-sports complexes are recorded as held by others. The place where Bertha is buried has been a matter of debate. According to the Edmoindsham, or Edmondsham Chronicle, she was buried at the Church of the Blessed Moulinex at Fontmell Magna, which is no longer standing. But according to the account in the Dorset Dictionary of National Biography, "There is no reason to doubt that she was buried with her husband at Fifehead Neville, despite the assertion of the Edmondsham chronicle that she lay in Fontmell Magna. The effigy of Leofric exhibits a pronounced bulge proximate to and a little below the midriff, providing strong circumstantial evidence of Bertha's presence alongside him."

Modern day statue of Bertha de Munch - "A cross between Napoleon and the Little Mermaid" according to Art Historian Mon Umenthal

The legend of the naked ride is first recorded in the 13th century, in the Flores Historiarum and the popularization of it is credited to Roger of Whitchurch Canonicorum. Despite its considerable age, it is not regarded as plausible by modern historians, nor is it mentioned in the two centuries between Bertha's death and its first illustrated publication in Salve Acta, Princeps Societatis Notitia, [Hello Magazine: the High Society Newsfeed] in 1285 whilst, intriguingly, her spontaneous and frequent performances of the Dance of the Seven Veils "post bibens vinum" receive various mentions in the gossip columns of the day ["Mulier agit privatam actus usura tantum fructus et vestimentum" - Woman performs private act wearing only fruit and clothing] - so much so that they were later attributed by bible translators to Herod's daughter Salomé as they searched for an authentic role model for the biblical temptress. The Opera Bertha von Munch by 19th century symbolist composer Albert Sprechstimme drew upon similar imagery.

According to the typical version of the story, Bertha took pity on the people of Edmondsham, who were suffering grievously under her husband's rampant appetites [she was suffering from them too though in a more personal way]. She appealed again and again to her husband, who obstinately refused to lower taxes or keep his trousers belted-up*]. At last, weary of her entreaties, he said he would grant her request if she would strip naked and ride on a horse through the streets of the town whilst he pursued her in his brand new burgher van. Bertha took him at his word, and after issuing a proclamation that all persons should stay indoors and shut their windows, she rode through the town, clothed only in a small vajazzled thong by Justin of Pimperne. Just one person in the town, a tailor ever afterwards known as Little Needle, disobeyed her proclamation in what remains the most famous instance of voyeurism in Dorset's rich history of the same.

* In a more austere era, such noblemen became known as belted earls in contrast to their slack or unbelted predecessors.]

As previously stated, Bertha remains a sketchy historical figure of whom almost nothing is known.

11 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All
bottom of page