Lady Godiva was the first woman in the Domesday book, produced in 1086. She was described as holding estates in Warwickshire, including Coventry, inherited from her husband Leofric, Earl of Mercia and Lord of Coventry. He died in 1057.
Documents show she funded churches and abbeys in places such as Evesham, Worcester and Chester. Lady Godiva died in 1067 and was buried in what became Coventry’s first cathedral.
In 1043 lady Godiva and her husband founded a Benedictine house for an abbott and 24 monks on the site of St Osburg’s Nunnery in Coventry, which had been destroyed by Danes in 1016.
This later became the Cathedral of St Mary. Lady Godiva is said to have had her jewellery melted down to make crosses for the abbey. The remains of this monastery, Coventry’s first cathedral, can now be seen in Priory Row.
No official sources refer to Godiva as anything other than an upright and devout woman.
The first account of Lady Godiva’s naked horse ride appeared in Hertfordshire monk Roger of Wendover’s Flores Historiarum – Flowers of History – in 1235. He is now thought of as a collector of stories and legends, known for exaggeration and spin, rather than a historian.
He may have picked up the legend from those travelling from the Midlands to London. Monks from Coventry certainly stayed at St Albans.
Wendover’s protégé Matthew Paris rewrote the story in his Chronica Majora of 1250, specifying that it was an anti-tax protest – because he personally disliked taxes. The original mentioned only the general hardship of the people of Coventry.
Godiva was described as having long hair that she loosened so that it covered her body except for her legs. This is thought to refer to the Bible (Corinthians) verse: “If a woman nourish her hair, it is a glory to her; for her hair is given to her for a covering”.
The added detail that Godiva was a pious lady, asking her subjects not to watch before she rode, appeared in the 14th century. It may have been designed to attract religious pilgrims and their “tourist money” to the city or to cover up the city’s pagan past.
Peeping Tom was added to the legend in the 17th century, possibly by Puritans wishing to sully the image of the church prior to the Reformation.