Lady Godgifu (Godiva) flourished ca. 1040–80. She was a pretty woman, and married to Leofric, Earl of Mercia. She got famous for riding naked through Coventry in Warwickshire, the story goes, and the story grows -
The story in turn gave rise to other works of art: Paintings and sculptures first, and with the advent of photography many long-haired women would pose on horseback or otherwise, and public horseback rides for naked women and more woman freedom has also appeared - so far.
It started with a good story, just as ancient Greek tales in time gave rise to paintings, sculptures and fuelled the Renaissance as well.
Lady Godgifu cared greatly for the people of Coventry who were ruled over by her tyrannical husband Leofric. He imposed heavy taxes on the people and he and Godgifu often argued about it. She begged him to be more merciful.
One day Leofric got so exasperated that made the promise that if she rode naked through the streets of Coventry on Market Day, he would cancel the tax altogether. The lady took the challenge and in 1040 rode through the streets, clothed only in her long, blond hair.
Leofric kept his promise, and the people of Coventry did not have to pay taxes, except for horses. He also changed his ways. Instead of persecuting the church he mended his relationship with Godgifu and founded a Benedictine monastery with her.
One of the late versions of the tale says that she asked everybody to stay indoors during her ride, with their windows and doors shut. Only one man peeped. That was Tom the tailor. He gave name to all sorts of Peeping Toms -
From the background
The earliest extant source for the story is the Chronica (under the year 1057) of Roger of Wendover (d. 1236). He recounts that her husband, in exasperation over her ceaseless imploring declared he would reduce Coventry's heavy taxes if she rode naked through the crowded marketplace. She did. Ranulf Higden (d. 1364), in his Polychronicon, says that as a result Leofric freed the town from all tolls save those on horses. An inquiry made in the reign of Edward I shows that at that time no tolls were paid in Coventry except on horses. A later chronicle asserts that Godiva required the townsmen to remain indoors at the time fixed for her ride.
Peeping Tom, a citizen who looked out his window, seems to have become a part of the legend in the 1600s. In most accounts he was struck blind or dead.
A Godiva procession, from 1678 part of Coventry Fair, is held every seven or eight years.
[More Godiva art and historical findings: Wikipedia, sv. "Lady Godiva"]
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