Religion’s take on Lady Godiva’s naked horse ride legend

Religious Puritans claimed that Lady Godiva’s husband Leofric converted to Christianity because God blinded Peeping Tom for looking at Godiva naked when she rode her horse through Coventry.

old spire

Coventry’s old cathedral on the site where Leofric and Godiva built a nunnery

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 the people to stay indoors when she rode, appeared in the 14th century. It may have been to attract religious pilgrims and their tourist money to the city.

Peeping Tom

Peeping Tom – the one man who allegedly did look – was added in the 17th century by Puritans (the first literary references to a “Peeping Tom” figure was in 1634).

The Puritans wanted to sully the image of the church prior to the Reformation. He was said to be a tailor and the claim is that, because he looked through his window at Godiva, he was blinded by God.

Conversion

Leofric did convert to Christianity at about that time. Evidence shows he had previously sacked churches and monasteries.

His first known religious act came in 1043, when he 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.

Monks as historians

Hertfordshire monk Roger of Wendover was the first to tell the story, possibly picked up from Coventry monks from the abbey that Leofric and Godiva built who visited St Albans. His Flores Historiarum of 1235 only said Godiva rode for the general relief of the poor.

The story was popularised by Matthew Paris, in his Chronica Majora of 1250. He had a personal hatred of taxation so changed the story to specifically mention a toll. The story was later revised further by Archbishop Matthew Parker at St Albans to advance his reformist agenda.

The St Albans Benedictine monastery is now called the Cathedral and Abbey Church of Saint Alban. Saint Alban was Britain’s first saint.

pews

Inside the Cathedral at St Albans

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