Lady Godiva statue by John ThomasJohn Thomas (1813–1862) was a British sculptor and architect, who worked on Buckingham Palace and the Palace of Westminster.Thomas's work 'Charity' was shown at the Great Exhibition of 1851.
Godiva, Countess of Mercia (died 1067), in Old English Godgifu, was an English noblewoman who, according to a legend dating at least to the 13th century, rode naked – covered only in her long hair – through the streets of Coventry to gain a remission of the oppressive taxation that her husband imposed on his tenants. The name "Peeping Tom" for a voyeur originates from later versions of this legend in which a man named Thomas watched her ride and was struck blind or dead.
Godiva was the wife of Leofric, Earl of Mercia. They had one known son, Aelfgar. The modern era Kingsbury family have claimed descent from Lady Godiva.
Godiva's name occurs in charters and the Domesday survey, though the spelling varies. The Old English name Godgifu or Godgyfu meant "gift of God"; Godiva was the Latinised form. Since the name was a popular one, there are contemporaries of the same name.
If she is the same Godiva who appears in the history of Ely Abbey, the Liber Eliensis, written at the end of the 12th century, then she was a widow when Leofric married her. Both Leofric and Godiva were generous benefactors to religious houses. In 1043 Leofric founded and endowed a Benedictine monastery at Coventry on the site of a nunnery destroyed by the Danes in 1016.
Her signature, Ego Godiva Comitissa diu istud desideravi [I, The Countess Godiva, have desired this for a long time], appears on a charter purportedly given by Thorold of Bucknall to the Benedictine monastery of Spalding. However, this charter is considered spurious by many historians. Even so, it is possible that Thorold, who appears in the Domesday Book as sheriff of Lincolnshire, was her brother.
According to the typical version of the story, Lady Godiva took pity on the people of Coventry, who were suffering grievously under her husband's oppressive taxation. Lady Godiva appealed again and again to her husband, who obstinately refused to remit the tolls. 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. Lady Godiva 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 her long hair. Just one person in the town, a tailor, thereafter known as Peeping Tom, disobeyed her proclamation in one of the most famous instances of voyeurism.
Lady Godiva by John Collier, c. 1897
Some historians have discerned elements of pagan fertility rituals in the Godiva story, whereby a young "May Queen" was led to the sacred Cofa's tree, perhaps to celebrate the renewal of spring. The oldest form of the legend has Godiva passing through Coventry market from one end to the other while the people were assembled, attended only by two knights. This version is given in Flores Historiarum by Roger of Wendover (died 1236), a somewhat gullible collector of anecdotes, who quoted from unnamed earlier writers.
Other attempts to find a more plausible rationale for the legend include one based on the custom at the time for penitents to make a public procession in their shift, a sleeveless white garment similar to a slip today and one which was certainly considered "underwear". Thus Godiva might have actually travelled through town as a penitent, in her shift. Godiva's story could have passed into folk history to be recorded in a romanticised version. Another theory has it that Lady Godiva's "nakedness" might refer to her riding through the streets stripped of her jewellery, the trademark of her upper-class rank. However, these attempts to reconcile known facts with legend are both weak; in the era of the earliest accounts, the word "naked" is only known to mean "without any clothing whatsoever".
Love and light,