Lady Godiva was the wife of an Anglo-Saxon nobleman and was a notable Anglo-Saxon noblewoman herself. She was noted for being a patron of several churches and monasteries of her day. Historical records show that the noblewoman herself lived somewhere in the 11th century. In later centuries, a legendary story came to be associated with the Lady Godiva. This story detailed her nude ride through the city of Coventry. Since the conception of this story, a large number of sculptures, paintings, and other pieces of art have depicted the scene.
The Story of Nude Ride
The earliest mentions of the legend of the nude ride date back to the 13th century, nearly two centuries after the historical Lady Godiva had died. According to this legend, Lady Godiva’s husband Leofric had levied heavy taxes on the people of Coventry. She pleaded with her husband to relieve the people of these taxes. When she repeatedly insisted, her husband presented her with an impossible condition. He told her he would lift the taxes if she stripped naked and rode through the streets of the city.
Lady Godiva agreed and covered only by her long hair, she took a ride through the city. Before the ride, she asked the city officials to ensure that all people were in their homes and had their windows shuttered so that no one could see her naked. This allowed her to ride nude unseen through the city, except by one man.
The Peeping Tom
The man who famously looked on as Lady Godiva performed her nude ride has come to be known as the Peeping Tom. The story of the Peeping Tom was not originally a part of the Lady Godiva story of the 13th century. It was added to the legend several centuries later. According to this later addition, one man could not resist the urge to look at Lady Godiva as she rode through the town. This man was a tailor named Tom.
The tailor took one peep at the nude noblewoman. However, he later received punishment for this. Some sources claim that he was struck blind by the heavens as a punishment for his offense. Others state that the townspeople discovered his act and had him blinded on their own.
Historical Record of Lady Godiva
Unlike many other legendary figures of the period, Lady Godiva was an actual person. Numerous mentions of her exist in the historical records from the period. Most of the sources state that Godiva lived at a period just before the Norman Conquest of England in 1066. In fact, she was still alive at the time of this Conquest. These records confirm numerous gifts and bequeath made by Godiva to the churches and monasteries in her lands.
Further confirmation of her existence comes from the Domesday survey, which was carried out on the orders of William the Conqueror after the Norman Conquest. In this survey, Godiva is confirmed as the only woman with notable landholdings. However, she is recorded as deceased at the time of the survey which was conducted in 1086. So she likely died between 1066 and 1086.
Historical Record of the Story
Although the historical person of Lady Godiva is confirmed through authentic historical sources, the legend associated with her is not. In fact, the legend of her nude ride was first mentioned in the Flores Historiarum, work from the 13th century. This is the earliest mention of the ride and there are no other historical sources that confirm the story. However, once the story had been recorded in the 13th-century work, it was taken up and became a popular theme in medieval literature.