Lady Godiva

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Godiva (or Godgifu) (c. 990? - September 10, 1067) was an Anglo-Saxon noblewoman who, according to legend, rode naked through the streets of Coventry, England in order to gain a remission of the oppressive toll imposed by her husband on his tenants. The name "peeping Tom" for a voyeur comes from later versions of this legend in which a man named Tom watched her ride and was struck blind.

The legend

According to the popular story, the beautiful Lady Godiva took pity on the people of Coventry, who were suffering grievously under her husband's oppressive taxation. Lady Godiva appealed again and again to her husband, who obstinately refused to remit the tolls. At last, weary of her entreaties, he said he would grant her request if she would ride naked through the streets of the town. Lady Godiva took him at his word and, after issuing a proclamation that all persons should keep within doors or shut their windows, she rode through, clothed only in her long hair. Only one person in the town, a tailor ever afterwards known as "Peeping Tom", disobeyed her proclamation in the first famous instance of voyeurism. In the end, Godiva's husband keeps his word and abolishes the onerous taxes.

The oldest form of the legend has Godiva passing through Coventry market from one end to the other while the people were assembled, attended only by two knights. The later story, with its episode of "Peeping Tom", appeared first among 17th century chroniclers.

At the time, it was customary for penitents to make a public procession in only their chemise (or shift) — a sleeveless white garment similar to a slip today and one which was certainly considered "underwear". Thus, scholars speculate, Godiva may have actually traveled through town as a penitent, in her shift. Godiva's story may have passed into folk history to be recorded in a romanticized version.

Another theory has it that Lady Godiva's "nakedness" may refer to her riding through the streets stripped of her jewelry, the trademark of her upper class rank.

However, there is no trace of any version of the story in sources contemporary with Godiva and that with the founding of Coventry in circa 1043, there was little opportunity for the City to have developed to the extent which would have supported such as noble gesture. In addition, the only recorded tolls were on horses. Thus, it remains doubtful as to whether there is any historical basis for the famous ride.


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