Leofric dared Godiva to ride naked because the Greek and Roman paintings she loved included nudes. Ranulf Higden’s Polychronicon (1257) – and an inquiry under Edward I (1272 to 1307) – found that Leofric stopped collecting taxes except for those on horses.
Godiva asked Coventry’s residents not to look. One man, a tailor later called Peeping Tom, looked. He was blinded by God, leading Leofric to convert to Christianity.
The players in this story:
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.
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.
Leofric, Lady Godiva’s husband, was Earl of Mercia and Lord of Coventry and was one of the most powerful men in the country at the time.
He was ruthless at collecting taxes to fund major civic building works, as well as raising funds for King Canute. Prior to his conversion to Christianity he often attacked the Church.
Conversion to Christianity
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.
Ranulf Higden’s Polychronicon – circa 1257 – backed up by an inquiry made in the reign of Edward I – 1272-1307 – confirmed that Leofric stopped collecting all taxes except for those on horses.
Powerful king maker
Leofric’s power was part of the reason why Canute’s son and heirs failed to keep their father’s grip on northern Europe after Canute’s death.
Leofric died in 1057 and was buried in one of the porches of the abbey church. The remains of this site, Coventry’s first cathedral, can now be seen in Priory Row.
Peeping Tom was a tailor who was the only person to look at Lady Godiva as she rode naked through the streets of Coventry on market day. He was “blinded by the wrath of heaven”.
The story of Peeping Tom was not added to the Lady Godiva legend until the 17th century. It is thought to be propaganda by Puritans wishing to show a lack of morals to damage the reputation of the Church prior to the Reformation.
The first literary references to a “Peeping Tom” figure was in 1634. By 1659 the story was well established that Peeping Tom had looked out of the window at the naked Godiva and been either blinded or, in some versions, killed by God.
There is a statue now called Peeping Tom in Coventry that dates back as far as 1500. But it was not called Peeping Tom then. It was first called “the fellow who peeped” in 1690 and “the Peeper” in 1723.
It was used in recreations of the Godiva story but had to have had its arms broken off to enable it to be moved in and out of windows. There are expenses recorded for wigs and painting the statue in 1765.
The wooden effigy of Peeping Tom can be seen in Coventry’s Cathedral Lanes Shopping Centre. The eyes appear blank, but that may be because the paint has worn off over the years.
King Canute (Cnut) was King of England 1016-1035. He later became King of Denmark and Norway, giving him control of a huge northern empire.
Canute used strong English and Danish earls, such as Leofric in Mercia, to help run the country while he was abroad.
He ran a mercenary army, paid for through the Heregeld tax collected from landowners per hide of land (the abbey of Coventry held three hides). The largest single collection of the Heregeld tax came in 1018 and totalled £82,500, of which £10,500 came from London.
A Christian for reasons of politics as well as faith, Canute went on a pilgrimage to Rome in 1027. His Christianity made him reject his courtiers’ flattery by showing that he could not stop the waves. Later hostile writers said it showed madness.
Canute was buried at Winchester. His empire failed to survive due to fights between his sons and the factions led by the strong earls of Northumbria, Mercia and Wessex.