The Story Behind the Legend
By Wendy Hughes
Finding I had time to spare on a visit to Coventry, I decided to find out a little about Coventry’s most infamous legend of Lady Godiva. The story is well documented and according to legend it all began when two monks from St Alban’s Abbey in Hertfordshire recorded the story in Latin. It would seem that as this Abbey stood on important junction, and it is possible that the monks heard the story from travellers on their way from the Midlands to London.
Lady Godivia’s name also appears in charters and in the Domesday survey, although the spelling does vary, and the old English name Godgifu or Godgyfu means ‘gift of God’. Godiva is the Latin form of the name.
Did she exist and what was the story behind the legend? There is evidence that Godiva, the Countess of Mercia did exist and she did ride naked, covered only by her long hair, through the streets of Coventry on Market Day. She was the wife of Leofric, Earl of Mercia, who was one of the powerful lords who ruled England under the Danish King Canute. She was a widow when she married the Leofric and was already a rich landowner in her own right. Together they had one known son Aelgar
Lady Godiva was a religious lady, but Leofric was a tyrant who enjoyed terrorising the church and certainly did not have the same fondness for the Midlands as his wife. He demanded a tax from the people of Coventry, called the Heregeld, which paid for King’s Canute’s army of bodyguards. Lady Godiva was very unhappy about this tax being levied on the people and begged her husband to stop the tax, but he refused saying, ‘You will have to ride naked through Coventry before I will change my ways. His wife was a very modest religious lady, and he was convinced that she would not do such a thing, but he under-estimated his wife, and Lady Godivia took him at his word. On the next Market Day she rode naked on her horse through the streets of Coventry. Apparently she had beautiful golden hair that was so long that it covered her whole body, revealing only her face and legs.
Leofric was so shocked, and believing that no one had seen his wife’s naked body, he immediately ‘released’ the town of the hated tax. At the same time he stopped persecuting the Church and underwent a religious conversation. He and his wife founded a Benedictine monastery in Coventry, where it is claimed they are both buried, but unfortunately all traces of the monastery has disappeared.
However, like any good legend, by the 17th century the story appears to have been slightly embroidered, and this new version said that before she rode through the town he sent messengers out telling the people of Coventry to remain indoors and keep the shutters on their windows firmly closed on the day. As she was very popular and respected her and knew that they would benefit from her deed, they did exactly as they were told, except for one person, a tailor named Tom who gained the name ‘Peeing Tom.’ The story goes on that day Tom hid and was peeping at Lady Godiva and was blinded by the ‘wrath of Heaven’ for not obeying the order. Today you can see a strange looking wooden statute, supposedly of ‘Peeping Tom.’ in Coventry’s Cathedral Lanes Shopping Centre. A close look at the eyes will reveal they are blank, but this may be because the paint has worn away through the centuries.
The Annual Coventry Fair was kept alive with the story of Godivia until the Reformation, when the festival was banned, but it was revived again 1678.
From then on Godiva rode through the streets of Coventry on a white horse, accompanied by a man, an imitation ‘Peeping Tom,’ whose sole job was to make rude and suggestive gestures. Today the Lady Godivia Procession takes place every June.
There are a number of reminders of the legend within the town, which is well worth a visit. Above the Lady Godiva News kiosk you will see there are two doorways with black eagles on them, signifying Coventry rising from the ashes after being bombed in World War II, and a triangular window above. On the hour, Coventry’s most famous heroine Lady Godiva comes rolling out of one door on her horse, naked of course, with only her long hair to cover her modesty, and as soon as she appears, look carefully for ‘Peeping Tom who pops out of the window above to get a good look. She rides from one doorway to the next as bells alert onlookers, but be quick as she disappears in a flash.