Lady Godiva was creative and compassionate. You gotta give her that. She may not, however, have been real. Or, she may have been real but her ride wasn’t. In any case, the legend lingers.
It’s said that Godiva, an Anglo Saxon noblewoman in 11th century England, was distressed that her husband Leofric had become greedy and heartless. His excessive taxes were a hardship on the long-suffering common folk. What’s more, Leofric did not really need the money. He was one of the wealthiest and most powerful men in the land.
Lady Godiva begged her husband to lighten up. He thought her concern amusing and joked that, if she would ride naked through the middle of Coventry, he would indeed lower the taxes. He never thought she’d do it.
Faster than you can say “no peeking,” Godiva got on a white horse in her birthday suit, with no cover but her long hair, and rode down the main street. Out of respect and appreciation for her efforts on their behalf, the townspeople preserved her modesty by going into their homes and closing the shutters.
Only one man gave in to curiosity. “Peeping Tom” was struck blind for taking advantage of Godiva’s courage, compassion and vulnerability.
Leofric honored the agreement, impressed by his wife’s devotion to the people. And Lady Godiva continues to be good to Coventry. Tourists gather beneath the Lady Godiva clock to see her take her ride and watch Peeping Tom struck blind, every hour on the hour.
TO GO DEEPER
Lady Godiva: A Literary History of the Legend by Daniel Donoghue (Wiley-Blackwell, 2002) This scholarly book examines the evolution of the medieval myth.
“Ride a Cock Horse to Banbury Cross” — the Godiva connection to the nursery rhyme. Worthwhile for the historic details, with attempts at humor, some of which are actually amusing, albeit from a male POV. (11:08 mins.)
“Discover Godiva Gallery” at Herbert Art Gallery and Museum in Coventry, England (2:22 mins.)
Feature: Detail from illustration of Lady Godiva by Granger
Painting of Lady Godiva and red-draped horse by John Collier