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According to legend, Leofric, the Anglo-Saxon Earl of Mercia, imposed heavy taxes on those who lived on his lands. Lady Godiva, his wife, tried to persuade him to remove the taxes, which caused suffering. He refused to remit them, finally telling her that he would if she would ride nude on horseback through the streets of the town of Coventry. Of course, he first proclaimed that all citizens should stay inside and close the shutters over their windows. According to the legend, her long hair modestly covered her nudity.
Godiva, with that spelling, is the Roman version of the Old English name Godgifu or Godgyfu, meaning "gift of God."
The term "peeping Tom" supposedly begins with part of this story, too. The story is that one citizen, a tailor named Tom, dared to view the noblewoman Lady Godiva's nude ride. He made a small hole in his shutters. So "peeping Tom" was applied after that to any man who snuck a peek at a naked woman, usually through a small hole in a fence or wall.
How true is this story? Is it a total myth? Exaggeration of something that really happened? Like much that happened that long ago, the answer is not completely known, since there were not detailed historical records kept.
What we do know: Lady Godiva was a real historical figure. Her name appears with Leofric's, her husband's, on documents of the time. Her signature appears with documents making grants to monasteries. She was, apparently, a generous woman. She is also mentioned in an 11th-century book as the only major female landowner after the Norman conquest. So she seems to have had some power, even in widowhood.
But the famous nude ride? The story of her ride does not appear in any written record we now have, until almost 200 years after it would have happened. The oldest telling is by Roger of Wendover in the Flores Historiarum. Roger alleges that the ride happened in 1057.
A 12th-century chronicle credited to the monk Florence of Worcester mentions Leofric and Godiva. But that document has nothing about such a memorable event. (Not to mention that most scholars today ascribe the chronicle to a fellow monk named John, though Florence may have been an influence or contributor.)
In the 16th century, Protestant printer Richard Grafton of Coventry told another version of the story, considerably cleaned up, and focused on a horse tax. A ballad of the late 17th century follows this version.
Some scholars, finding little evidence of the truth of the story as it has generally been told, have offered other explanations: she rode not naked but in her underwear. Such public processions to show penitence were known at the time. Another explanation offered is that perhaps she rode through town as a peasant might, without her jewelry that marked her as a wealthy woman. But the word used in the earliest chronicles is one used for being without any clothing at all, not just without outer clothing, or without jewelry.
Most serious scholars agree: the story of the ride is not history, but myth or legend. There's no reliable historical evidence from anywhere near the time, and that histories nearer the time have no mention of the ride adds credence to this conclusion.
Lending strength to that conclusion is that Coventry was only founded in 1043, so by 1057, it's unlikely it would have been large enough for the ride to be as dramatic as it is pictured in the legends.
The story of "peeping Tom" doesn't even appear in Roger of Wendover's version 200 years after the ride supposedly happened. It first appears in the 18th century, a gap of 700 years, though there are claims of it appearing in 17th-century sources which have not been found. Chances are the term was already in use, and the legend was made up as a good backstory. "Tom" was, as in the phrase "every Tom, Dick, and Harry," probably just a stand-in for any man, in making a general category of men who violated a woman's privacy by observing her through a hole in a wall. Furthermore, Tom isn't even a typical Anglo-Saxon name, so this part of the story likely comes from far later than the time of Godiva.
So here's the conclusion: Lady Godiva's ride likely belongs in the "Just Ain't So Story" category, rather than being historical truth. If you disagree: where's the near-contemporary evidence?
About Lady Godiva
- Dates: born possibly about 1010, died between 1066 and 1086
- Occupation: noblewoman
- Known for: legendary naked ride through Coventry
- Also known as: Godgyfu, Godgifu (means "gift of God")
- Husband: Leofric, Earl of Mercia
- Godiva was probably the mother of Leofric's son, Aelfgar of Mercia, married to Aelgifu.
- Children of Aelfgar and Aelfgifu included Edith of Mercia (Ealdgyth) who married Gruffydd ap Llewellyn and Harold II (Harold Godwinson) of England.
More About Lady Godiva
We know very little about Lady Godiva's real history. She is mentioned in some contemporary or near-contemporary sources as the wife of the earl of Mercia, Leofric.
A twelfth-century chronicle says that Lady Godiva was a widow when she married Leofric. Her name appears with her husband's in connection with donations to a number of monasteries, so she was likely known for her generosity by contemporaries.
Lady Godiva is mentioned in the Domesday book as being alive after the Norman conquest (1066) as the only major woman to hold land after the conquest, but by the time of the book's writing (1086) she had died.