Where Did Lady Godiva Ride Naked?
Since 1678 Lady Godiva’s legendary ride naked through the streets of Coventry, England, has been reenacted every seven or eight years. But today the lady wears a body stocking. The famous ride, if it took place, happened around the year 1057, according to the chronicler Roger of Wendover (d. 1236). Godiva, her long hair falling loosely round her body, rode through the market place accompanied by two soldiers.
Legend has it that Lady Godiva pleaded with Leofric, Earl of Mercia, to lessen the towns-people’s tax burden. Exasperated, the earl declared he would do as she asked, if she rode naked through the town. Lady Godiva did so and the earl cut the towns-people’s taxes. Over the years the legend became embellished. The soldiers disappeared and, in the 17th Century, the legend of Peeping Tom crept into the story. Tom is said to have been struck blind because he could not resist peeping at Lady Godiva through a window as she rode by.
The true facts record that Coventry’s early fame rested on the foundation of a Benedictine monastery by Leofric and his wife Godgifu (the real name of Godiva) in 1043. The phrase “to send to Coventry” (to refuse to speak with someone) might well have been the fate of Peeping Tom. But although the origin of the phrase is uncertain it seems more likely to have originated during the Civil War. Captured supporters of King Charles were sent by Cromwell’s forces to Coventry for imprisonment.
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 romanticized version. Another theory has it that Lady Godiva’s “nakedness” might refer to her riding through the streets stripped of her jewelry, 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”.
A modified version of the story was given by printer Richard Grafton, later elected MP for Coventry. According to his Chronicle of England (1569), “Leofricus” had already exempted the people of Coventry from “any maner of Tolle, Except onely of Horsse (sic.)”, so that Godiva (“Godina” in text) had agreed to the naked ride just to win relief for this horse tax. And as a pre-condition, she required the officials of Coventry to forbid the populace “upon a great pain” from watching her, and to shut themselves in and shutter all windows on the day of her ride. Grafton was an ardent Protestant and sanitized the earlier story.
The ballad “Leoffricus” in the Percy Folio (ca. 1650) conforms to Grafton’s version, saying that Lady Godiva performed her ride to remove the customs paid on horses, and that the town’s officers ordered the townsfolk to “shutt their dore, & clap their windowes downe,” and remain indoors on the day of her ride.