And While We’re At It, Did Peeping Tom Exist?

The legend of Lady Godiva riding naked through the streets of medieval Coventry to protest excessive taxes is a very well known story. There are poems, paintings and even statues of the famous scene. Here’s how the story goes (with a few extra tid-bits thrown in by yours truly). In the 11th century, Lady Godiva asked her husband, Leofric, the Earl of Mercia (which included the town of Coventry), to reduce the tax burden on the people of Coventry in particular and Mercia in general. They were probably talking over dinner, and Leofric did a spit-take of his mead and mockingly responded that he would only lower taxes if Lady Godiva herself rode naked on horseback through Coventry. So dedicated was lovely Lady Godiva to the people of Coventry that she agreed to do it, and rode naked on horseback through Coventry the next day, asking people to advert their eyes as she went along.

The myth goes that a local townsman couldn’t help himself and took a glimpse of the Lady and became forever chastised as “peeping Tom,” a phrase that has entered the legend and language.

Alas, as sexy as this story is, there’s no good evidence for it. Lord Leofric and Lady Godiva certainly existed in the 11th century, and there was probably at least one “Tom” in Coventry, but there’s no evidence for the legendary ride. And it’s highly likely there would have been, given what a spectacle it would have been. In fact, the story doesn’t show up until 200 years later, in the 13th century. And Alfred Lord Tennyson’s 1842 poem “Godiva” became very popular and ensured that the myth passed into legend.

Lady Godiva by John Collier, c. 1897, Herbert Art Gallery and Museum. Image Credit: Public Domain, via wikipedia commons.