Lady Godiva Never Rode Naked Through the Streets of Coventry

About the true story behind the myth of Lady Godiva riding naked through the streets of Coventry.

GREAT HAPPENINGS THAT NEVER HAPPENED

Lady Godiva Never Rode Naked through the Streets of Coventry.

There really was a Lady Godiva. She lived in the 11th century, around the time of the Norman Conquest, and, just as legend avers, she really did plead with her black-hearted husband to ease up on his subjects and reduce their taxes. But that's the extent of her intercession. The business about her naked ride atop a white horse through the Coventry marketplace on behalf of her people is bunk.

The name Godiva is a latinization of the Anglo-Saxon Godgifu, meaning "God's gift"--a name not inappropriate to this gentle, pious woman. Independently wealthy, Godiva owned not only the town of Coventry but also landholdings in Warwickshire, Gloucestershire, and Nottinghamshire. She built and refurbished many churches and chapels, contributed generously to others, and with her husband, Leofric, the Earl of Mercia, built the Coventry Priory, a vast monastery that took in half the town's acreage.

In contrast, Leofric was a ruthless despot who had no qualms about having his political foes summarily executed. With his son, the Earl of Anglia, he controlled most of central England and was empowered by King Edward the Confessor to levy a stiff tax on his subjects' income and to back it up with the threat of death should they fail to pay. It was this very tax, known as the heregeld, that Godiva implored her husband to reduce.

And that is about all we know of Leofric and his lady. There are no contemporary accounts of her ride, nor is there any mention of it in either the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, compiled prior to 1066, or the Domesday Book, assembled by the Normans after they conquered England. The first reference, in fact, doesn't appear until about 1236, or nearly 200 years after she died, in the chronicle of Roger of Wendover. According to Roger, Lady Godiva agreed to ride through the crowded streets of Coventry, her nakedness concealed only by her long tresses, if Leofric in return would release the town from its servitude. She kept up her end of the bargain and he his.

Ranulf Higden, writing in his Polychronicon of 1364, and Henry Knighton, writing 32 years later, added that Lady Godiva rode early in the morning and that Leofric lifted all taxes except those on horses. In 1687 the townspeople of Coventry took it upon themselves to celebrate Lady Godiva's legendary ride with an annual procession through town, headed by an honorary Lady Godiva. This tradition continued until 1887.

Peeping Tom is and altogether fictitious character. He first appears in writing in a 1670 article by the Earl of Oxford, although he is mentioned in oral versions of the story as early as 1659. Tom was supposedly a tailor who was prompted by the horse's whinny to peek at the passing lady despite her request that the townspeople remain indoors and keep their windows shuttered. In the various versions of the legend, he is struck either blind or dead for his voyeurism. Even today, there are three statues in Coventry commemorating Tom. One statue appears on the first floor of the Leofric Hotel, and a second statue is above a shop front on Hertford Street. But the most interesting statue is on a clock over the main square in Coventry. As Lady Godiva crosses the clock, the head of Peeping Tom pops up behind her. In the same square is a bronze statue of the lady herself, sculpted by Sir William Reid Dick and unveiled in 1949.

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